"Family Tree"

Interview with a manatee

Words and photos by Mark Renz

At a recent visit to Manatee Park in Fort Myers, I noticed a number of manatees with deep scars across their backs. As a boat owner, I know the risks I pose to those gentle giants should I decide to operate my boat faster than a few knots. The injured manatees suggested that some of us may be in too much of a hurry. This problem occurs year round, but especially in the winter when the manatees travel upriver to seek out the Florida Power and Light Plant where warm waters help keep them from freezing on cold nights. Frustrated that the situation never seems to improve, I decided to seek advice from a wise old manatee I encountered in the Orange River. Here is an excerpt from that conversation:

Iím a little embarrassed to speak with you, but grateful for your time.

Youíre welcome. And thereís no need to be embarrassed.

But consider how many of your kind we injure or kill annually with our boat hulls and propsÖIím surprised you would even agree to see me.

I think you humans mean well, or I would take your actions more personally. I think youíre just a bit misguided is all.

Wow. Misguided. Thatís one way to look at it.

Look, I know you want to have fun. We all do. We manatees can think of nothing more fun than popping to the surface, spiraling and slapping our tails, then engaging in a little playful game of tag. We understand your need for recreation. We know how hard you work and how little respect many of you get for a job well done.

Thank you, I think.

So whatís on your mind?

WellÖIíve really come to you for advice. Iíd like to know why, in spite of our being good people, we continue to kill and injure your friends and families. Shouldnít our right to have fun be secondary to your right to survive?

Youíre asking me to think as a human, which I canít. Try as I may, I canít think in terms of who has rights and who doesnít. We manatees have etched out a humble living for millions of years by not thinking about such matters. Everything we do is simple, from the way we have fun to eating, drinking and romance. We take child-rearing seriously but nature has a way of providing us with everything we need. We take our time, knowing there is no need to rush through life. Happiness lasts longer the slower we travel.

So how do we humans go about slowing down?

Manatees have a saying: ďHe who goes too fast, gets there too soon.Ē Thereís only one outcome for those who rush through life and thatís a quicker death. Frankly, I donít know if your species will ever adopt a slow-down philosophy. But I suspect if you donít, your days are numbered.

And because of us, so are yours, right?

We hope not. But there isnít much we can do to change things. We are who we are and you are who you are.

So you have no advice for me to take back?

If you mean, can I say anything that will make your kind behave differently, the answer is no. Why would you listen to me when you wonít listen to yourselves? I will tell you that we harbor no resentment. Itís not our way. We wish you the best and hope you find happiness by being slow thinkers, not lazy thinkers. Now, if youíll excuse me, Iím late for my nap.