Experts: Harassment is harmful, even if manatee isn't physically hurt

The investigation continues into figuring out who scraped the word "TRUMP" into the algae on the back of a manatee in Citrus County.

Now, wildlife advocates around the state are shining a light on how harmful that kind of behavior can be, even if it doesn't physically injure the mammal. 

When the water gets cold in the winter months, manatees flock to Florida's springs for warmth and safety.

"They make Florida really special," said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida Director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

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Sadly, one manatee, photographed Sunday in the Homosassa River, became an easy target. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigators say someone scraped the word "TRUMP" into the algae on its back.

"The manatee was taken advantage of. It was despicable," said Patrick Rose, Executive Director for Save the Manatee. "Even if it was the word 'love' that was scratched into the manatee's back, it's still a despicable thing to do."

While the word itself may elicit political feelings, the crime is in the action. 

Manatees are protected by state and federal law against harassment. You can't feed, scratch, chase, or ride them. Any of that can change their behavior and cause them to be hurt or killed.

"It's possible that this was a manatee that was trying to find a spot to get warmed up and maybe it was already suffering some stress from being in the cold or maybe it wasn't able to leave this warm area because of the life-saving benefits," Lopez said.

Though USFWS found the manatee was not seriously hurt, the Center for Biological Diversity is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.

"We wanted to send a really clear message that harassing manatees like this is not okay," Lopez said. 

Meanwhile, Rose is working to find out why the manatee let this happen - was it friendly or was it sick?

"That manatee had barnacles still on it," Rose said. "That means it was not long that it's come into the fresh water and the natural springs to stay warm. And, if it came in this late in the season, it could've come in actually stressed out from cold stress." 

If there's a silver lining, it's all the attention one manatee is getting.

"It's evidence that people do love the manatee and want to see it protected and that's good news for Florida and it's good news for the manatee," Lopez said.

If you have tips on the case, call Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) and they'll forward them to federal investigators.