A manatee with the name “Trump” etched into its back was found in Florida’s Homosassa River over the weekend, prompting federal officials to open an investigation into this disturbing disfigurement of a threatened animal, according to the Citrus County Chronicle.
While it remains unclear when and how the manatee was mutilated—or if the ongoing investigation has secured any leads about the perpetrators—footage of the vandalized animal has sparked widespread outrage and revulsion.
The mutilation is “one of the most horrifying things I have ever seen done to a wild animal,” said Douglas Nowacek, Repass-Rodgers University Professor of Conservation Technology at Duke University, in an email.
“This act is horrific,” said Ruth Carmichael, a Senior Marine Scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and a Professor of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama, in an email. “I have no words to express how deeply troubling, thoughtless, and potentially cruel this is.”
The West Indian manatee is a herbivorous marine mammal found in coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. The species was considered endangered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service until 2017, when their conservation status was downlisted to “threatened.”
Though manatees are beloved by the public for their rotund bodies and curious temperaments, those same qualities also make them vulnerable to human threats such as boat strikes and, in this case, harassment.
Marine biologists said it was difficult to assess how much harm was done to the animal using only video footage.
“It’s a little hard to see the extent of damage from the video,” said Carmichael. “It is harassment regardless. If the scrape penetrates the skin, then it likely caused some pain and stress. The animals have nerves and sensory hairs in the skin. Additionally, open wounds could become infected.”
Iske Larkin, a lecturer and interim director of the Aquatic Animal Health program at the University of Florida, also said that “this type of mutilation can cause damage” in an email.
“They may be scarred permanently and it could lead to infection,” she continued. “It would hurt the animal, so I am not sure how they would be able to do that without restraining the animal in some manner.”
Fortunately, the letters look to be relatively shallow, so it's possible that it was mostly algae, not skin, that was scraped from the animal’s back. In that case, the “injury would be virtually non-existent,” said Graham Worthy, Department Chair and Pegasus Professor at the University of Central Florida, in an email.
Even if the manatee did not suffer serious injuries, harassment of these animals can result in severe penalties if the perpetrators are found.
“Violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act may result in fines of up to $100,000 and one year's imprisonment for individuals and up to $200,000 for organizations,” Worthy noted. “It is illegal to approach and make contact with these animals let alone deface or injure them. It is illegal to feed or harass wild marine mammals including dolphins, porpoises, whales, seals, sea lions, and manatees.”
“You are not allowed to feed, swim with, or harass these marine animals,” he concluded. “They should be observed from a distance of at least 50 yards.”
Update: This article has been updated to include comments from University of Florida lecturer Iske Larkin.