South Florida resident oddballs and eccentrics have inspired two of our modern Mark Twains, Carl Hiaasen and Cave Barry. In Manatee Insanity: Inside the War over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species (University Press of Florida, $27.50), St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman succeeds in serious reporting of the follies and issues surrounding the manatee, an unlikely marine mammal that became the emblem of the divisions and conflicts that characterize Florida. He documents their raw material with a straight face. The issues are serious business, involving devastation of Florida’s natural resources and landscape and political corruption, the themes of the 21st century. It’s just that, in South Florida, the characters are so outlandish that it’s impossible to overlook the humor even in desperate situations.
He establishes the background against which the weird dramas play out. The dramatis personae of Manatee Insanity are real people he brings to the reader in all their personal quirkiness and corruption.
Issues facing us in our relationship with the oceans are as overwhelming and hair-raising as the sea monsters that terrified sailors of the past. Garbage gyres covering hundreds of miles in plastic trash, acidification corroding coral reefs and shifting the biodiversity of entire ecosystems, the wholesale disappearance of fish that were once so abundant they seemed unlimited. Into this maelstrom swims the manatee, a creature whose unlovely appearance contrasts with its peaceful nature, a slow-moving hulk that munches on the watery greens of ocean pastures. It’s so inoffensive that it possesses no resistance to the pressures of frenzied Florida development, yet its whiskery face and sweet nature attracts powerful feelings in human hearts. What better critter to become the charismatic megafauna of conflict?
Even scientific research to establish the natural history and population of the manatee, which was included on the first Endangered Species List in 1967, becomes fodder for wrangling and disagreement. Many are killed in accidents with boat propellers. Boating accidents are so common that scientists use the scars on the survivors’ backs to identify individuals. Boaters and their business advocates fight regulations that would limit the number of boat docks and marinas built to enhance residential developments and require boaters to drive at lower speeds in manatee locations.
Craig Pittman witnessed these battles between development, greed and self-interest vs. conservation and describes them here. He teases out the history that leads each participant to the arena, the internal politicking of local, state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations and follows the story where it leads. It’s as convoluted as an air-boat ride through the Everglades, but he gets us there.
Manatees hang on in South Florida’s warm waters, finding sanctuary in the warm-water discharge from power plants and man-made canals. The burst of the real-estate bubble in 2008 thrashed the liars’ loan-fueled development market, taking some of the financial motivation but none of the intensity out of the conflict.
The Florida Humanities Council added Manatee Insanity to its list of essential Florida books every Floridian should be familiar with in 2010. The council said "Manatee Insanity" belongs on this list because, "In microcosm, the saga reflects the decades-long struggle between development and wildlife, and how one has impacted the other during Florida’s booming growth."
Pittman’s account of the players and the history is invaluable to watching the story unfold into the future.