Science

Will the Manatee With the Trump Graffiti Be OK?

A serene manatee with green algae on its back floats in very clear water. A school of small fish swims just underneath it.
USFWS

We’ve had no shortage of disturbing images of entitlement from Trump supporters in the last week, and not just from the Capitol riot. On Monday, the Citrus County Chronicle reported that a person (or persons) harassed a West Indian manatee, scraping five large letters into its back that, of course, spelled out the outgoing president’s last name in all caps.

It’s unsettling:

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already has an investigation underway to find out who on Earth thought this was a good idea. But we wanted to know how the animal might be doing right now, and how it’s even possible to get so close to a thousand-pound sea creature in the first place (which, spoiler, you really should not). Slate spoke to Quinton White, the executive director of Jacksonville University’s Marine Science Research Institute, who has been involved in manatee research and conservation for over 30 years. This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Slate: What were your first thoughts when you heard about this manatee?

Quinton White: I thought, oh my god, that’s awful. I was appalled. Partly because of the definitive nature of this. I mean, this was very intentional.

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Manatees swim around in clean, clear, fresh water. And so by and large, they get a growth of algae on their backs. They, in fact, will rub up against piling, rub up against rocks, too, trying to scrub it off. But for somebody to intentionally go out and take something and physically scrape off the algae from the back of the manatee—it was not a quick thing to do.

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This took some effort. I mean, somebody had to spend some time, frankly, chasing the manatee around, harassing it to scrape five letters on his back. The good news, from what I can gather from reports and looking at the pictures, is that I don’t think there was any physical damage done.

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The “TRUMP” letters seemed really big. Did you have an idea of maybe how tall all of those letters were?

They looked to be something in the 12 to 14, maybe 16 inches in size. And what they did, how they scraped it, I don’t know. My first thought was a credit card. I suspect that multiple people were involved.

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Do you know if this animal will ultimately recover or be OK after harassment like this?

The algae growth will return, the name on the animal will disappear over time. But what the long term impact on the animal is, we don’t know.

In Florida, it’s against the law to feed or even touch a manatee. What’s the reasoning behind those rules?

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What you’re trying to do is maintain what I call the “wild nature” of the animal. You want the animal to behave normally in the environment.

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People like to attract manatees by putting a water hose off their dock and when the water dribbles out, the manatees will come up and drink the water. They’ll try to throw lettuce out there to feed the animals. They think they’re being helpful. What they’re doing is attracting animals to people. The same is true when you interact and touch an animal. I’ve done enough diving and snorkeling around manatees, they will come up to you, they have become habituated to people. And this is troublesome because this means that they could be putting themselves in harm’s way.

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I think part of the reason that the “TRUMP” etching is so disturbing is that manatees seem docile and gentle, like they would let humans interact with them, even if it ends up being against their best interests.

But you could be hurt by a manatee, too. While the person was doing this, the animal could have decided it really didn’t want it and exercised its flipper. They’re extremely powerful. People don’t necessarily realize that. They think, oh, they’re big and slow. But they’re very, very powerful animals.

Any theories on why this manatee might have stayed still long enough for this to happen?

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Homosassa Springs [where the manatee was found] has a lot of a variety of habitat, so it’s sort of hard to say whether the animal was in a shallow water situation and the person could trap the animal a little bit. Maybe this animal had had interactions with people before, and the animal may have just sort of allowed this to happen.

They’re wonderful animals. They’re gentle giants, but they’re extremely powerful. The lesson I hope some people may learn from this encounter is that whoever actually did this put themselves in harm’s way. They could easily have been injured by this animal had it decided it really had enough and flipped its fluke up.

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