Federal officials are looking into a report that someone scratched “TRUMP” into the back of a manatee in Citrus County.
The images purportedly showing the scratched manatee spread online, drawing disgust and outrage. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it appeared the marks did not break the animal’s skin but were made by scraping off algae on its back.
The story first published in the Citrus County Chronicle on Monday before racing across national news outlets. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was investigating, said spokeswoman Christina Meister. When asked if she could confirm that investigators had documented the scraped manatee themselves as of late Monday, Meister wrote: “I do not have access to this information.”
The animal was spotted Sunday in the Homosassa River’s headwaters, according to the Chronicle report. Other news outlets, including Fox13, attributed images of the manatee to a boat captain in Citrus. The captain did not reply to phone calls, text messages, emails or social media direct messages from the Tampa Bay Times.
Manatees are considered a threatened species, protected by federal law. The Fish and Wildlife Service said it was working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on the case. Investigators asked anyone with information to call a hotline at 1-844-397-8477 or email FWS_TIPS@FWS.GOV.
Beloved giants of Florida’s rivers and shallow bays, manatees move into warm water by natural springs and power plant discharges in the winter. It’s unclear when, where or how someone would have touched the manatee.
Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, said he reviewed the photos and guessed someone could have made the marks with their fingers.
“What’s important is someone did that to the manatee; it’s not important what the word was,” he said. The manatee appeared to still have barnacles stuck on its back, Rose said, indicating it might have recently moved to freshwater from out in the gulf or a nearby bay. He agreed it seemed likely whomever touched the manatee did not scrape deeper than the algae.
“You can scratch that away with your fingernails,” he said. “That can happen without cutting into the manatee’s hide, which is pretty tough.”
Most concerning, Rose said, is that any manatee that would tolerate so much human contact could have been sick. The animal also could have been young and seeking a diver’s attention, he said, although that would be rare. When people come across ailing manatees, they should call a state wildlife hotline for help.
The algae — if that’s all that was scratched — would grow back, according to Rose, eventually obscuring the president’s name.
The report of the marked manatee comes at a time of political chaos. Days before, more than 800 miles from Homosassa, a mob of insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol in support of President Donald Trump.
He won the support of Citrus County’s residents last November with about 70 percent of the vote, outperforming his 2016 share by roughly 2 percent. A year before, the county drew international attention when commissioners opposed a subscription to the New York Times for library patrons. Echoing Trump, one local elected leader called it “fake news.”
Citrus, however, is known above all else for manatees. Tourists and Floridians alike paddle near Crystal River and snorkel in rented wetsuits to catch a view of the mammals. Even with all the adoration, people are one big reason why manatees are so at risk.
Last year, 637 were found dead in Florida, according to state data. That was 59 more manatees than the 5-year average. Boaters are among the biggest threats, maiming or killing dozens of manatees each year in collisions. The state estimates there are at least 7,520 manatees alive here today.
The Center for Biological Diversity said late Monday afternoon it is offering a $5,000 reward to people with information that helps authorities track down a suspect in the case.
“Manatees aren’t billboards, and people shouldn’t be messing with these sensitive and imperiled animals for any reason,” said Jaclyn Lopez, the group’s Florida director, in a statement. “However this political graffiti was put on this manatee, it’s a crime to interfere with these creatures.”
To report a sick or dead manatee, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asks people to call 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922).