A sign declaring "Have Dead Manatee, Will Talk" must have been hanging over the dock. As the teenagers tentatively waded into the brown muck, a skinny, worn-out alcoholic teetered over from his broken-down pickup. "I've never seen one of these before," he declared, his Adam's apple bobbing like a freaked-out aquarium fish. His breath drowned me in sweet, fermented fumes. "I've always wanted to. I love wildlife." He peered down, nearly losing his balance. "Not doing so well, huh?"
"Yeah, this cold water, even though it's only in the mid-60s, is pretty rough," I offered, passing on information I had only just learned myself. "It kills them, even."
"This one's not dead, though. Just hurting a bit, huh?" Oily fluid was oozing from the body and the odor of decay lingered in the air. After I broke the news, the man ambled away, shaking his head. "Oh, I wanted to see a live one. Never seen one of them."
That's what I went down to Florida to do, too—to see a very special live one named Brutus. You see, Brutus is my son. My youngest sister adopted him for me on my birthday last summer, coughing up $20 to the Save the Manatee Club, a Maitland, Floridabased conservation group dedicated to protecting this endangered species. The West Indian manatee, that less-than-streamlined marine mammal, was placed on the endangered-species list in 1973, threatened with wholesale habitat destruction. Up until the 1950s, the giant herbivores were plentiful enough to be hunted, but no one really has a clue how many there were at their peak—guesses range throughout the tens of thousands, and wandering manatees are almost impossible to count. But by 1973 there were likely fewer than a thousand left in this country, and scientists estimate the current Florida population at a mere 2,600, along with small pockets in the Caribbean and Central America. Their death rate rises each year.
The day Brutus's adoption packet arrived, I merely glanced through it desultorily. I read that manatees mate only every two to five years and their gestation period is 13 months. Plus they have a high infant-mortality rate. Didn't sound good. I read more. Manatees live in the shallows of both fresh and saltwater, where pollution and development destroy their habitats. Boats hit them all the time. Well, that's awful, I muttered, and began wondering how best to remove chewing gum from my two-year-old's hair. But then something about Brutus's sad face and sunken eyes caught my attention.
As I read on, I noticed that Brutus, probably in his thirties, was very close to me in age, but we had even more in common. He likes water; I like water. He eats nearly 200 pounds of hyacinths and various water plants a day; I've been known to eat 100 pounds of junk food. He weighs nearly 2,000 pounds; I weigh 170. He is quite the ladies' man, always chasing the girls. I... But what was this? The literature said that Brutus is "often found sleeping by himself." Was he sad? Bitter? Having a midlife crisis? (Manatees live up to 60 years.) We had to make sure he was OK. "Brutus, we're coming down to see you!" I cried, speaking also for my wife and three daughters. "We'll swim together. Take pictures. Make you feel like part of the family."