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Adopt a manatee, get tons of love

You can have a manatee to call your very own, sort of.

The Save the Manatee Club, based on Florida's East Coast, offers the Adopt-A-Manatee and Adopt-A-Refuge programs.

Joining the club automatically enrolls a member in the two adoption programs. Members are sent an adoption kit that includes a photo of the adopted manatee, its history and basic information about adoptees such as Howie, who likes to upset the research canoe.

The Adopt-A-Refuge program adds dollars to help the Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River and the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park by buying such things as educational equipment, canoes, cameras and boat houses.

The Adopt-A-Manatee program "is our chief public awareness program," says Judith Vallee, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. "It's the vehicle to get people interested in manatees."

The adoptive parents, as Vallee calls them, take the adoptions very seriously. "We continue to inform adoptive parents of the well-being of their animal," she says. "They even send Christmas cards to their manatee. And they grieve when their manatee gets killed."

Many "parents" visit the parks to see their adopted manatee. Because many manatees have multiple scars from boat collisions, the parents are able to identify them.

There are 24 manatees available for adoption at the Blue Spring State Park and six at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park.

The main objectives of the club are public awareness, education, research and lobbying.

"We have over two decades of information on these animals," Vallee says. "With one animal, we knew her exact birth date. And when she died, we knew when it was within a week or two of the day. We knew all her children."

Helping the public awareness campaign is singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett, chairman of the Save the Manatee Club. He is the club's spokesman and appears on national television and radio public service announcements.

Buffett and former Gov. Bob Graham started the Save the Manatee Club in 1984.

The adoption program draws members, Vallee says. There are 30,000 club members, 48 percent of whom live outside the state and 400 to 500 who live outside the country.

"We have raised the number of people going to Blue Spring State Park because of the manatee club members," Vallee says.

But it's not park attendance the club is trying to raise, it's awareness.

"Spread the word. Let everyone know what a manatee is. And let them know the No. 1 identifiable danger to the manatee is boating collision deaths," Vallee says.

You can join the club by writing to the Save the Manatee Club at 500 N Maitland Ave., Maitland 32751 or calling (800) 432-5646. Individual membership is $15 and group membership for students is $10.