The wildlife on campus includes fearless squirrels, flocks of ibis searching for Sebastian, Muscovy ducks that own the walkways – and even the occasional family of manatees.
Manatees are marine mammals that mostly feed on sea grass. Commonly referred to as sea cows, they are large and slow-moving and live in warm tropical environments.
With manatee sightings infrequent, and many students coming from states without marine mammal populations, trouble can arise when students spot them in canals on campus.
“We saw pictures on Facebook of people being in a kayak and going up to the manatees or touching the manatees in the canals on campus and around campus,” said Chrissy Houston, secretary of the Marine Mammal Stranding Team.
The pictures have since been taken down off Facebook.
Manatees are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA), and under state law by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978 (FMSA).
“When you see an animal, you want to go up and touch it because you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s just a big fat manatee, like it can’t do anything,’” Houston said. “But it could hurt you and you could hurt it.”
Pamela Sweeney, who teaches a graduate class called Marine Mammal Conservation and Management, said that manatees come to the canal to seek a warm water refuge when it is cold.
“The Coral Gables Waterway is one of a handful of warm water refuges where manatees go to seek sanctuary in these colder months or when there’s a cold snap,” she said.
The canal running past the School of Business Administration and out past the Panhellenic Building connects to the Coral Gables Waterway and then out to the greater body of water that is Biscayne Bay.
“Manatees are moving up and down the southeast coast of Florida all the time and they’ll enter these rivers or sometimes creeks,” Sweeney said.
How it’s harmful
When people touch or interact with manatees, it poses a danger because this changes the behavior of the manatees.
“… By feeding them … by touching them, altering their behavior, it keeps them in a place where they shouldn’t be for too long, or encourages them to go toward boats and docks and marinas where people are, so that becomes a really big problem,” Sweeney said.
Manatees going up to boats may get injured.
“A quarter of the [manatee] deaths every year are attributed to watercraft,” Sweeney said. “That’s a completely preventable cause of death.”
Another possible outcome is that the manatees feel scared of the humans and don’t choose to return to the warm-water canals.
“It’ll stay out in the ocean and get cold stress, and that could damage the flippers,” Houston said. “They can’t move as well, and it gets really hard to heal that.”
According to Sweeney, there is empirical evidence that shows that when contact is engaged with a manatee, 30 seconds into the interaction, the manatees are looking to flee.
“We have this misconception that manatees want to engage with us,” she said. “We have this notion of marine mammals sometimes in general that they’re sort of here for our amusement.”
The MMPA makes it illegal to hunt, kill, capture or harass any marine mammal, or attempt to do so. Harassment includes acts that may disrupt the animal’s behavior patterns.
The ESA also prohibits pursuit of an endangered species. Fines can range from $500 to $50,000 and imprisonment up to one year.
“It’s about your intention,” Sweeney said.
In the past year, two high-profile violations of the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act have occurred. In November 2012, a woman from St. Petersburg was arrested on a misdemeanor warrant after authorities were presented with a photo of her riding a manatee two months earlier, according to a report by NBC Miami.
This past February, a man from Ft. Pierce was arrested because he had posted photos of himself playing with a manatee calf on Facebook, according to another report by NBC Miami. There was also a photo of his daughter sitting on top of the manatee.
Tony Lake, associate dean of students, said that no incidents with manatees have been brought to the Dean of Students Office (DOSO) in his five years in his position, but that there would be a number of factors to look into should a case be brought to DOSO.
The Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook prohibits swimming in Lake Osceola or the adjacent waterways. The policy also prohibits being cruel or inhumane to animals. But, according to Lake, the main concern is with the university’s public laws policy.
Students are also required to comply with local, city, county, state and federal laws, which would encompass the MMPA, ESA and the FMSA. Thus, touching a manatee on campus would be a violation that the DOSO would have to address.
“It would be something that would start the discipline process,” Lake said. “… I have a feeling that there would probably be some educational type of sanctioning, as opposed to more of the punitive.”
Many students, especially those who are not from Florida, may not be educated about manatees enough to realize this is a problem both environmentally and legally.
“People probably don’t know because they’re not like a dolphin,” Houston said. “You don’t just see manatees all the time.”
However, senior Robert Wagenseil, who is from Sarasota, Fla., where there is a significant population of manatees, said he knew that touching manatees is illegal.
“We love our outdoor and water activities, especially boating, and many of these laws come as common sense to us,” he said. “… I don’t consider myself an environmentalist, but I think that everyone should know the laws that protect our wildlife.”
Sweeney said that if other people were better educated about manatees, they would change their behavior.
“Just like any endangered species, we should observe them from a distance because our presence has only caused harm in the past,” she said.