Warning to tourists: Save a manatee, ride a horse instead

Last week a Florida woman ended up behind bars as a result of her actions from climbing onto the back of a manatee for a joy ride.

That memorable experience with an endangered species wasn’t a cheap one for 52 year-old Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez.  She is now facing 60 days behind bars and/or a fine of up to $500 for violating the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act.

Gutierrez claims she was new to the area in September when she visited Fort Desoto Park, a few miles from downtown St. Petersburg, and didn’t know riding manatees was illegal.  Like her, tourists from across the country and around the globe come to Florida each year and many have never heard of laws such as the Manatee Sanctuary Act.

A second-degree misdemeanor charge isn't a great souvenir to bring back from your vacation. So, should tourists in The Sunshine State be on the lookout?

While Florida tourists -and locals alike- have been known to have momentary lapses of reason (just think Spring Break), officials say Gutierrez's behavior was "one of the most egregious cases that we'd ever seen of just an absolute disrespect for wildlife."

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“The only reason it ever even came on the radar screen to the law enforcement officials was because she did it for so long that people were taking photographs of it, of her actually on the back of this manatee,” explains Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant to Florida's State Attorney who handled Gutierrez’s case.

The Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act says in part, “It is unlawful for any person at any time, by any means, or in any manner intentionally or negligently to annoy, molest, harass, or disturb or attempt to molest, harass, or disturb any manatee.”

“You’re not supposed to technically touch it, but you kind of take everything to a whole new level when you start riding around on the back of a manatee like a horse,” says Bartlett.

If you were a tourist visiting from Europe though, how would you know all of that?

Warning signs are posted around most boating areas in Florida, but if you’re just walking down to the beach, you’d be hard pressed to see any signs letting you know you shouldn’t ride any sea cows.

With so many miles of beaches in the state it’d be ridiculous to put signs up everywhere, Bartlett says.

“It’s kind of a common sense thing.  If the manatee is there and you want to look at, that’s fine, just don’t touch it or mess with it.”

For tourists who’ve traveled long distances to make lasting memories, common sense isn’t always at the forefront of decision making.  If common sense isn’t enough, officials are hoping the fine of $500 will prove to be a strong enough deterrent for would-be sea cow wranglers.

“Manatees, when they see people, if they start to associate them with food or water they’re going to come closer, and a lot of times these animals are struck by boats, so that’s something we're trying to avoid,” explains Carlie Segelson, a spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Bartlett says most people won’t ever even be in the position of having a manatee swim up next to them to be touched, but if you do get that chance, enjoy it with some common sense and you should be fine.