Who's Manateeing the Phones?

State wildlife officials say that amateur hotlines set up to help protect endangered manatees are putting the animals at risk

In some respects this year's gala fundraising dinner-auction benefiting the Manatee Survival Foundation (MSF) was a disappointment. And not just because Broward County Commissioner Lori Parrish, in a break with past practice, left her manatee costume at home.

The turnout for the event was lower than ever -- "probably less than a hundred," estimated one participant -- as was the overall take. An affair that used to bring in at least $10,000 ended up garnering a couple thousand dollars less this year. (MSF officials refused to divulge the final tally.) Yet the evening, which took place March 19, did have its bright spots. The Mexican-style buffet was decent; the crowd enjoyed snapping up items in the charity auction -- everything from fishing excursions to arty knickknacks; and the spectacle of maritime executives and their spouses dressed up in ponchos, sombreros, and colorful Mexican dresses was entertainingly goofy.

Best of all, the shindig didn't result in the death of a single manatee.
But then that was purely a matter of luck. State wildlife experts are convinced the day is coming when the foundation -- and other organizations like it -- will find itself responsible for the death of one of the very animals it was created to protect. In fact, says Mike Schrager, director of the nonprofit State Wildlife Rescue, "I'm surprised it hasn't happened already."

Schrager's concern centers on the foundation's manatee-sightings hotline (954-943-4391). "They say that hotline is just for 'sightings,'" he explains, "but what happens when there's an injured or dying animal and the information is just left to sit there on somebody's answering machine? At the best we're going to have an avoidable delay. At the worst we're going to have another dead manatee."

The MSF hotline has thus emerged as the latest battleground between two factions that have been at war for years: the biologists of the Florida Marine Research Institute (FMRI) and amateur wildlife enthusiasts who insist on giving the institute a helping hand, however unwanted it may be.

Because of the manatee's status as an endangered species, state law restricts their handling to experts certified by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Foremost among these experts is the FMRI's Amy Perry, who, as the staff biologist responsible for a seven-county swath of South Florida, spends much of her time on the road responding to reports of manatees struck by boat propellers, trussed up in fishing lines, and stranded behind canal locks. Because delay can mean the death of an injured animal, "calls need to get to us as soon as possible," she says. Problem is, non-FMRI groups and hotlines create confusion in a situation that requires clarity.

For the past two years, Perry has been fighting a two-front war against the MSF and another group called the Marine Mammal Conservancy (MMC), a Key Largo outfit that also operates an emergency manatee hotline. Unlike the folks at MSF, however, MMC director Rick Trout goes so far as to respond to manatee emergencies, which has led Perry to threaten him repeatedly with arrest. "I think I might end up being a test case," Trout laughs, while vowing to continue responding to injured-manatee reports.

Trout's hotline message, however, clearly instructs callers to dial Florida Marine Patrol dispatch with emergency information and then goes on to provide the number (800-DIALFMP). The MSF hotline -- which is listed on the "Emergency Numbers" page of the Greater Fort Lauderdale phone book -- merely instructs callers to leave detailed information at the sound of the beep. Nowhere does it mention the FMP. "When [manatees] need help, you've got to get out there quick," Trout says. "I don't care who gets there first, but somebody has got to respond."

To Mary Anne Gray, founder and director of MSF, the criticism is unfounded, because she says the hotline plays only a small role in the foundation's mission; most of the group's budget is earmarked for educational projects and an annual grant to the Miami Seaquarium. She also insists that "if we get a call or report of an injured manatee, we always pass it on to the appropriate officials." But Perry says she's never received a single forwarded report from Gray. "That's why we set it up so that people are supposed to call the Florida Marine Patrol," she says. "From anywhere in the state, that call goes straight to dispatch. Why would you want to call anybody else?"

In her own defense, Gray claims that quite a few of the injured-manatee reports she receives turn out to be false alarms. "A lot of times, somebody will call in with what they think is an injured manatee, and I'll talk them through it, get them to describe to me what they're seeing, and it turns out to be something else," she says.

To Schrager, though, the thought of an untrained amateur conducting what amounts to manatee triage over the phone is the most alarming aspect of the entire hotline fracas. "When you're talking about manatees, you've got to know what you're doing," he says. "That's why the state goes to the trouble of training people like me and requiring permits. For instance, if somebody called in an injured manatee and said, 'This manatee's got a white line across its body,' well, that could mean a couple things. On the one hand, it could just be an old prop[eller] scar, because once a manatee's struck by a prop, it carries that scar the rest of its life. On the other hand, it could be a recent injury, because a manatee's got blubber like a whale -- a prop wound can be four or five inches deep and still only be visible as a white line on their skin."

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