A lot of times when we talk about animal cruelty, we are referencing situations in which individuals are accused of abusing or neglecting domesticated or stray animals.
However, our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorneys know that there is another type of animal protection law that can make criminals out of people who simply didn’t know any better. Many times, these people are tourists who figure their actions will be a thrill and won’t hurt anyone.
But in fact under the law, when those actions involve Florida wildlife, they may be considered harassment or molestation. Any form of this, particularly when protected species are involved, is taken very seriously by both state and federal wildlife authorities.
A number of high-profile incidents recently have illustrated this fact.
Last year, a St. Petersburg woman was arrested on a misdemeanor warrant after she was photographed two months earlier riding a manatee in a state park. After the images went viral, authorities asked for the public’s help in identifying the woman in the pictures. The 53-year-old woman later admitted she had touched the endangered animal, but said she was new to the area and didn’t realize it was against the law.
In fact, Florida’s Manatee Sanctuary Act makes it a misdemeanor to at any time, by any means or in any manner intentionally or negligently annoy, harass, disturb, molest or attempt to do any of the aforementioned to a manatee. The crime is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and a jail term of up to 60 days.
However, doing so may also potentially violate federal law. Specifically, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 defines harassment as the “intentional or negligent act or omission that creates the likelihood of injury to wildlife by annoying to such extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavior patterns.”
This is the statute that will likely be applied in the case of three friends who were visiting Cocoa Beach. They allegedly lured a mother manatee and her calf near the dock, where one of the men then jumped onto the mother. Both manatees swam away, apparently unharmed. The men videotaped the encounter in a 51-second clip. That video then went viral. Now, the three are facing federal harassment charges.
While jumping or riding a manatee might seem like obvious harassment, even petting one can be deemed against the law, as one Fort Pierce man learned recently. He was photographed holding a baby manatee out of the water for his children to pet. In one image, a child was even placed on top of the manatee, although she wasn’t actually “riding” it, per se. Those images were posted to the father’s Facebook page, where they eventually caught the attention of authorities with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The number of manatees in Florida is down somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000, despite the fact that they have been legally protected since the late 1800s. Authorities are going to take any action against them seriously. As one official put it, “It’s like tackling someone in a wheelchair.”
We understand however that most people who violate these laws are enchanted with the creatures, and never meant them any harm. It’s our goal to ensure that these individuals aren’t forever branded as someone who is a danger to animals or a violator of federal law.