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Signing up to preserve species

Frolicking manatees, panthers and whales are popping up on billboards around the Tampa Bay area. The billboards are a puzzling addition to a landscape dominated by the usual assortment of outdoor promotions for cigarettes, beer and fast-food restaurants.

Adding to the mystery: The billboards appear without any written message or company sponsor, for now at least.

Danka Industries came forward Wednesday to say it is buying up the space to send a message about endangered species. The St. Petersburg-based distributor of office products also wants to send the message that it is a caring company.

In the next week or so, the phrase, "Some things can't always be duplicated," will be added to the billboards. Finally, the Danka logo will adorn a corner of each placard.

Danka can afford to build on its reputation because its identity and products, including photocopiers and fax machines, have been so thoroughly promoted by traditional means.

"Everyone in our markets knows what we do," the company said in a prepared statement. "Therefore, a socially useful message, we believed, would do us every bit as much good as a commercial one."

The ad campaign has already stirred a flurry of telephone calls to the companies that own the billboard space.

That's an early indication that the signs are getting noticed, no small feat on thoroughfares like Ulmerton Road through mid-Pinellas, where a plethora of signs makes it difficult to single out any specific one.

Danka advertising manager Bill Schutt said he got the idea for the campaign when he saw a manatee mural at the Orlando airport. The billboards are reproduced from the works of environmentally conscious artists.

Posters reproduced from the murals will be available for sale at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa and possibly other locations, Schutt said.

Proceeds from poster sales will help subsidize Danka's donation to the zoo to build its living reef exhibit.