Manee Nanny

Coddle the Cows

Tailpipe loves those elusive, cuddly sea cows that loll around in the shallows hereabouts, like Kirstie Alley in a bathtub. If only he could find them. Last time he looked — and looked and looked — there was nary a manatee to be found.

Still, a lot of money has been raised in the name of manatees since they were deemed endangered in the early 1970s. The Save the Manatee Club, co-chaired by Jimmy Buffett, takes in more than a million dollars a year through donations and sales of license plates. Folks can "adopt" a manatee at $25 a pop or pay $10 for the chance to name a manatee pup.

Now, FAU's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce is getting in on the game in a big way. The institute recently received a $5.8 million federal grant from the Army Corps of Engineers to install manatee detectors on the six navigation locks around Lake Okeechobee.

This is definitely a diamond-studded example of endangered-species programs. There are an estimated 3,000 manatees in all of Florida, so the "manatee acoustic detection sensor protection system" works out to just under $2,000 per sea cow. And that's only if you assume that each of these mammals will at some point pass through one of those gates. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, locks or gates have caused at least 191 manatee deaths statewide since 1974.

Just a thought. Save those hard-working Army engineers a lot of sweat by assigning an intern with a rowboat to each manatee. Whenever one of the beloved bovine sea grazers approaches an underwater lock, there's an intern there, ready to chauffeur him to the other side.

Miracle Fruit

Curtis Mozie, a 64-year-old retired postal worker, doesn't look like an exotic horticulturalist. But strolling around his west Fort Lauderdale house in shorts and black socks pulled high on his thin legs, he guides you through a gallery of hard-to-find fruit growing on trees and bushes on the property. There are scotch bonnets, ice cream beans, and dragon fruit. "But that one there," he says, indicating an inconspicuous bush about five feet tall, "that's the miracle fruit."

Miracle fruit — Synsepalum dulcificum — is a small berry from West Africa. The "miracle" is the startling effect of the fruit on human tongues. After eating one of these tart fruits, which look like elongated cherries, everything that should taste sour tastes sweet. Mozie is the biggest commercial grower of miracle fruit in North America.

An ardent skeptic, the 'Pipe was at Mozie's place to see if this miracle is really more hype than heavenly power. Mozie, a brisk, energetic man, was happy to demonstrate just how this tiny berry can blow someone's mind.

He reached under some of the firm leaves on his plant and carefully clipped off a bright red sample. On one end of the oval-shaped fruit is a stem; at the other end is what looks like a thin hair protruding. "That's the tail," Mozie says. He washed it with a garden hose and picked off the stem and hair.

"Bite into it," he says. "You should feel the skin slide right off. Careful not to eat the pit." The fruit is tart, like a mild grape. "Rub it all over your tongue."

Then Mozie pulls out a jug of water and a lime. He pours the water into a cup and cuts a few slices from the lime.

"Squeeze the lime into the water," he instructs. "Now have a taste."

It tastes like Country Time lemonade with a pound of sugar added. The lime itself tastes sweeter than a peach. 'Pipe can't stop licking his own fingers (yeah, wiseguy, Tailpipe does have fingers), which, covered with lime, taste like Pixy Stix.

"Women love it," he says. "It makes their boyfriends taste like candy."

Mozie pulls a beer from his refrigerator. It's like it was made from mangoes and pears. He pours a shot of pure white vinegar into a cup. Vinegar! No puckering up here. The stuff tastes like warm soda.

This fruit, whose sweetening effects last about two hours, could change the way Americans consume everything, Mozie says. For diabetics, it can be turned into a sugar-free additive. For cancer patients, it could eliminate the post-chemo metallic taste in their mouths.

'Pipe remembers having to choke down disgusting cough syrup when he was a young emissions-venting cylinder. With Synsepalum in the medicine cabinet, getting children through strep throat could be a lot easier.

A few scientists have studied the plant. In the '60s, researchers isolated the active protein, which has been dubbed Miraculin. The fruit is so delicate, Mozie explains — it withers away three or four days after being picked — that it makes research difficult.

Unfortunately, the fruit also takes a long time to cultivate. Mozie has some young plants in his backyard, no taller than five inches. "Those are six months old," he says. It takes three years to bear fruit, complicating commercial endeavors.

Mozie first encountered miracle fruit 12 years ago in an exotic-fruit market in Davie. When the proprietor gave him miracle fruit, he was stunned. "I didn't believe what was going on in my mouth," he says. "I knew there was money to be made on these things."

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