As Florida native Ryan William Waterman just learned, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission takes its manatee safety seriously. After posting several photos on Facebook of himself and his two young daughters playing with a baby manatee, Reuters reports, the authorities arrested him.
According to the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, it is illegal to molest, harass, disturb or—as Waterman found out—hug a manatee. Federal laws also protect the species, which is listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s Red List.
The 21-year-old father found the manatee at Taylor Creek, near Fort Pierce in southeast Florida, io9 explains. The photos show him removing the baby manatee from the water, hugging it, allowing his daughters to pet it and even letting them get on top of the manatee as if they were riding an aquatic pony.
Waterman faces a misdemeanor charge that could entail a $500 fine and up to 6 months in jail. He was released from St. Lucie County Jail on a $2,500 bond. He had no idea it was illegal to touch a manatee, he told a local television station, and didn’t mean the little guy any harm.
Manatees, however, are quite sensitive, and manatee biologist Thomas Reinert told Reuters that Waterman’s actions could have induced severe stress in the young calf. In addition, he said, ”The calf also appeared to be experiencing manatee cold-stress syndrome, a condition that can lead to death in extreme cases. Taking the calf out of the water may have worsened its situation.”
Messing with wildlife also has the potential for disease transmission, whether from humans to manatees or manatees to humans. And if manatees became accustomed to getting hugged by random guys and little girls, they could become accustomed to human presence, perhaps learning to approach humans too closely and thus increase their odds of getting chopped up by a boat—currently the leading cause of manatee deaths in Florida.
Instead showing our love and compassion for wildlife by giving it a great big hug, we’d probably help more by giving manatees and other animals their space and just letting them be.
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