A self-anointed “student preacher” from the sunny Florida Keys landed himself in the slammer on misdemeanor charges of manatee molestation. You read that right: getting too handsy with a manatee is illegal in Florida, and one bizarre man is learning this lesson the hard way.
What brought 47-year-old James Roy Massengale, Jr. to Key Largo’s small Islamorada Library Beach is currently a mystery, the Bradenton Herald reported. Massengale, who is believed to be homeless, was photographed cozying up to two adult manatees and their two calves. The unsuspecting sea cow family had been trying to make its way up a creek when Massengale rudely dropped in.
It wasn’t long before several witnesses had gathered. One of them allegedly tried to warn the manatee molester about the illegality of his actions, but Massengale wasn’t having it. “I’m riding it!” he yelled back.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Officer Courtney Baumgartner was eventually called to the scene, noting that Massengale was “reaching for, touching, and lying over top manatees in the creek.” When Baumgartner managed to fish Massengale out of the water, he claimed that the witness never warned him about the law and become “verbally combative,” FWC Officer Bobby Dube said.
“A short time later, [Massengale] changed his story and admitted he did talk to the witness, but ‘wasn’t going to stop until someone with a badge’ told him to,” Dube added.
Baumgartner wore a badge and indeed told Massengale to stop, going as far as to write up a notice to appear in court to answer for his crimes against manatee-kind. Massengale, perhaps consumed with guilt, didn’t want to wait for the justice system to run its course. Instead, he “continuously chanted ‘Take me to jail!’” and insisted that he would skip his court date.
Massengale got his wish granted by a Monroe County Sheriff’s Officer, who hauled him off to jail. True enough to his character, the sea cow stalker refused to make life easy for the booking officer by failing to identify himself as anything other than a “student preacher.” His protest earned him a one-way ticket to solitary confinement as well as a $25,000 bond that he has not managed to post. If convicted, he faces up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Such a heavy punishment might seem out of line; the dude just wanted to ride a manatee, right? What’s the harm in that? First of all, manatees are considered “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which means that they could theoretically go extinct if they are not able to reproduce and stay out of harm’s way.
As it turns out, humans are the primary cause of manatee deaths. According to the United States Geological Survey, several natural factors can harm manatee populations: hurricanes, dropping water temperatures, and red tides (toxic algal blooms that strike periodically). However, the USGS blames propeller-driven boats and ships for causing the vast majority of manatee deaths, along with pollution, the destruction of their natural habitats, and certain water control systems like floodgates and canal locks.
Massengale’s interaction with the manatees still seems harmless compared to all these calamities, but direct contact between humans and manatees can prove dangerous and even fatal for the gentle creatures.
In 2013, 21-year-old Ryan William Waterman of Fort Pierce was arrested after he posted pictures of himself holding a manatee calf on Facebook, WPTV reported.
In response, the FFWCC released a statement that shed light on the danger of interacting with manatees. "An interaction that may seem harmless and innocent may ultimately have serious consequences for manatees and other wildlife,” the statement read. “This was a young manatee which was likely still dependent on its mother for food and protection. Separating the two could have severe consequences for the calf."
The calf appeared to be suffering from cold stress syndrome, FWC manatee biologist Thomas Reinert told the Palm Beach Post. “Taking the calf out of the water may have worsened its situation,” Reinert said.
Mankind’s impact on manatee populations led to the 1978 passage of the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. The law was meant, in part, to “provide limited safe havens where manatees can rest, feed, reproduce, give birth or nurse undisturbed by human activity,” as well as to “protect manatees from harmful collisions with motorboats and from harassment.”
It is from this piece of legislation that Massengale’s legal troubles stem. The law is not a perfect solution: the United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 99 manatee deaths are due to human-related activities. However, the organization decided in January of this year to downgrade manatees in Florida from “endangered” to “threatened,” proving that the conservation efforts of the last four decades seem to be working.
When Christopher Columbus first sailed the ocean blue, he swore that he spied a gaggle of mermaids, noting, with some measure of disappointment, that “their faces had some masculine traits.” As it turned out, the legendary explorer had merely spotted a group, or “aggregation,” of manatees. Perhaps ol’ Massengale – disturbed as he seems to be – had a Columbus moment and figured he was about to get lucky.