HOMOSASSA, Fla. (CN) — Federal and state wildlife officials in Florida continued their search Tuesday for those responsible for etching “Trump” on the back of a living manatee.
On Sunday, a boat captain on Florida’s West Coast discovered the marine mammal with the president’s last name spelled on its back, which was done by scraping away the algae that collects on the animal.
Manatees are slow-moving marine mammals protected under the Endangered Species Act. The animals were listed as endangered until 2017, when President Donald Trump’s administration changed their status to threatened.
Harassment of a manatee of any kind, even touching or petting the slow-moving mammal, is a federal criminal offense punishable by a $50,000 fine and up to a year in prison. That is in addition to state charges punishable by a $500 fine and 60 days in jail.
The manatee was spotted in headwaters of the Homosassa River on the Gulf Coast. Witnesses alerted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, according to the Citrus Chronicle, a local newspaper.
A spokesperson for the FWS said the words were written by removing the algae on the manatee’s back and that the animal “does not appear to be seriously injured.”
Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, said he has sometimes seen manatees with a letter or symbol written in the algae on their back, but nothing as elaborate as this incident.
He surmised that the manatee could have been stressed from traveling from open water to the river.
“That could explain how someone could have taken advantage of the animal, because it was quite weak,” said Rose, who has 40 years’ experience working with manatees.
While the act of removing the algae is not necessarily harmful, the manatee could have suffered more stress, according to Rose.
As photos and videos spread on social media, environmental groups expressed outrage.
“Manatees aren’t billboards, and people shouldn’t be messing with these sensitive and imperiled animals for any reason,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “However this political graffiti was put on this manatee, it’s a crime to interfere with these creatures, which are protected under multiple federal laws.”
The center is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.
Another conservation group, Defenders of Wildlife, called the “vile act” politically motivated.
“This abhorrent action goes beyond the bounds of what is considered cruel and inhumane,” the group’s Florida representative Elizabeth Fleming said in a statement. “I’m disgusted that someone would harm a defenseless creature to send what I can only assume is a political message. We will do everything in our power to help find, arrest and successfully prosecute this coward.”
Florida officials estimate there are roughly 6,300 manatees left in the wild. Manatee deaths rose in 2020 to 637, according to the agency. Encounters with boats cause the most deaths.
Manatees, also known as sea cows, are the state’s official marine mammal. The aquatic herbivores gather in large numbers at Florida springs during winter months, including around Homosassa Springs, where this manatee was spotted.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.