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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Consider the Manatee

The Manatee is large, not very fast moving aquatic mammal, lacking the grace of the porpoise and dolphin.  The latter two, of course, are cetaceans and the manatee is a sirenia, which probably explains it.  You never see high-spirited manatee leaping from the surface of the water, and Sea World does not have a "manatee show" featuring manatees leaping through hoops, playing underwater basketball, or whatever tricks dolphins and killer whales do.  There is a reason for this.

Manatees are also known as sea-cows, which is mildly defamatory to cows.  Compared to a manatee, a cow is a chiseled and svelte physique.  Manatees look like something a three-year-old starting making out of Play-Doh and left unfinished.  The name manatee comes from a pre-Colombian word meaning breast, which is an odd thing to single out about this animal.  Whether the name signifies that the manatee nurse their young, that the body vaguely resembles a large boob, or something made by a large boob is unclear. The order sirenia, to which manatees belong, refers to the sirens of mythology because sightings by ancient sailors may be what gave rise to legends of mermaids.  This will give you an idea of how terribly lonely ancient sailors must have been.

The plight of the manatee - which faces probable extinction - has stirred many people to action.  In waterways all over Florida, you will see signs posted telling boaters to slow their engines and watch for manatees.  A manatee lacerated by an outboard motor has an expression of stupefied betrayal, as if to say, "What happened to me?" and this naturally arouses the sympathy and indignation of people.  While not minimizing the seriousness of protecting wildlife, it should be noted that the manatee always looks stupefied and betrayed, it can't help it; it's the only expression its face has.

The Pacific lamprey is also endangered, but maybe doesn't get the attention it deserves because it's not as lovably mopey-looking as a manatee.  Putting it frankly, lampreys are creepy looking.  Look inside a lamprey's mouth and you'll see rows and rows of little teeth like something in a creepy science fiction movie. Also, some lampreys cling to other fish and suck their blood, not all lampreys, just some, but you know how people tend to stereotype.  The manatee looks like a science-fiction creation, too, but one of the lovable variety, something Frank Oz would supply a voice to and talk in inverted syntax, "Ooh, dark days ahead I see."

The lesson for the rest of us is looks matter, and this is as true among the ecologicall- minded as the rest of us.  If you have a lamprey's funnel-like sucking mouth and slimy eel-like skin, you need to visit your orthodontist and dermatologist promptly.  Better to be a misshapen but oddly endearing lump like the manatee.

The world is a cruel hard place with asteroids, and psycopaths, and outboard motors overhead.  You need to be wily, smart, and fast on your feet.  If you can't be that, be lovable.

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