If anyone wants to blame me for being a shameless tree-hugging, earth-loving environmentalist, I will point the finger of blame directly at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Florida. It was this little state park that made me a believer, all the way back in 3rd grade. Within that vacation, it even trumped riding Space Mountain, my first rollercoaster.
My family visited Homosassa on a bit of a lark, as one of many stops on a long Florida trip. Once an entertainment-oriented park like Gatorworld, it was transformed in the early 1990s into a cross between a rehabilitation center and zoo of native species. Most of Homosassa’s efforts were and are focused on their manatee population. Because manatees are strictly warm-water species, they gather near springs and other warm-water areas in the winter. Through the Adopt-a-Manatee program, Homosassa takes in manatees struck by boats and either rehabilitates them to re-release into the wild or permanently cares for those whose injuries are too great. One of the best features of the entire park is the fishbowl, where instead of putting manatees in a tank, the people themselves walk down into a “tank” to look out at the manatees in the spring.
It was looking through that fishbowl that my tender nine-year-old heart fell in love with these creatures. They were so playful and curious, looking in at us funny humans. From that trip onward, manatee were my favorite animals for several years, leading to a number of stuffed toys and a rather lengthy report in 4th grade.
But what really brought it beyond sheer animal love was to find out simultaneously that humans were threatening their very existence. How could we do such a thing? Coming home from that trip, I knew I had do do something to “Save the Manatees.” So in addition to convincing my parents to adopt a manatee, I convinced my third grade class to do so as well. That taste of activism – motivating people to do something you truly believe in – was enough to get me addicted for life.
So that’s why it’s particularly weird that as we planned our trip to Florida, I didn’t even think of visiting Homosassa. In fact, the idea didn’t even occur to me until my mom suggested it after we were already there, visiting my grandmother. But then, despite my husband’s pleas that we were really there to visit Disney, it was too late. We were going to Homosassa come hell or high water. I wanted to return to my environmental heartland.
As we drove there, I tried to keep my expectations reasonable. I was sure it couldn’t be the magical place I remembered it – everything seemed so big and astonishing then. But I kept my mind and heart open, hoping that it offered just a little of the spark that fired me up originally.
As it turned out, my expectations were just about right – it was a lovely little state park with manatees as its stars. It had a couple of nice surprises – a nice collection of native birds, a fuel cell providing power, some very charismatic alligators, and a hippo who is the most likely the only non-human naturalized Florida state resident in existence. They even added a peaceful boat ride through the swamp that provided us with an easy-going close to our visit.
And of course, there were the manatees. This time, it seemed as if there were actually far fewer than there used to be. It was difficult to tell if this was due to budget cuts, more places to care for injured manatees, or a lower number of manatees needing rehab. Regardless of the reason, it was interesting to hear the ranger report that the two in rehab being readied for re-release were actually in cold shock, not hurt by boats. The particularly chilly winter had left them rattled. Like with so many environmental problems, as the simple risk fades, the more difficult one of climate change increases.
Sadly, the manatees were not as enchanting to me as they once were. They really are the cows of the sea: slow, innocent, not-terribly-bright and constantly eating. They did little during the show except swim around a bit and eat lettuce – more species-appropriate than the show I remembered, but not as engaging.
Since then, I’ve given my heart to dolphins, with their very human conflict of beauty, grace, and cruelty. I see dolphins the way The Doctor seems to see humans on Doctor Who – perhaps not as smart or technologically advanced as us, but carrying the essence of so much that is both good and bad. Frankly, manatees are less complex.
But I believe that simplicity is what attracted me as a child. The gentle giants weren’t threatening anyone and yet we were cutting them to shreds with our recreational boats. The idea of such an innocent creature being harmed out of sheer thoughtlessness was quite shocking. And unlike the destruction of the rainforests, I could actually see the damage in their scars and mangled tails. The truth was right there in gray and white on the animal itself.
Even though I no longer have the love affair with manatees I once did, I still hold on to many the those values that started developing that first trip. Of course, I deeply believe in protecting animals and habitats in general. But more broadly, I’ve maintained that concern for the most vulnerable among us, whether animals or people. That sense of anger at injustice drives much of my activism today.
Even though it wasn’t the bright, shining place I remembered it, I was very glad I visited Homosassa. It reminded me why I started all of this in the first place, and of the passionate, innocent enthusiasm it once sparked.