WASHINGTON, DC–Despite valiant efforts to make itself understood, an endangered West Indian manatee failed to communicate its urgent-sounding message to members of the House of Representatives Tuesday.
"Euyah, euyaaaah," said the visibly flustered 900-pound manatee, accidentally knocking over a podium with its flat, paddle-like tail. "Huuun nun. Eyah."
The manatee, one of only 3,000 left in the U.S., arrived unexpectedly in Washington after a long journey from its Florida home. It spent more than two hours bleating to House members, rolling its 10-foot-long body from side to side and waving its clawed flippers.
Democrats and Republicans were united in their confusion over the honking beast.
"Clearly, this manatee has something urgent to say, but what?" House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) said. "Something about, 'Phlupp, phlupp, phlupp,' I guess."
Many House members say the manatee's arrival in Washington was timed to coincide with Tuesday's debate of H.R. 512, a bill concerning relief of airport congestion in Florida. The bill would give the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authority to build a seaplane base and runway on the Caloosahatchee River in Lee County, less than three miles from the manatee's home.
"When we were debating H.R. 512, someone, I think it was Karen, argued that this base would be harmful to aquatic life in the area," said Hastert, referring to an environmental report penned by Rep. Karen Thurman (D-FL) citing collisions with watercraft as a leading cause of manatee deaths. "I asked the manatee if this was what the ruckus was about, but, unfortunately, I was unable to ascertain an answer."
"Nyuuuuh," the animal groaned loudly each time the Caloosahatchee was mentioned, banging its whiskered snout on the floor for emphasis. After the manatee was provided with a microphone, it entreated the legislators in lower, more mournful tones. The manatee eventually fell silent, fixing its large, soulful eyes on House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO).
Tuesday marked the first time a Trichechus manatus has attempted to speak before the nation's top legislative body. Manatees, which make their home in shallow, slow-moving rivers, estuaries, or coastal areas, are found primarily in Florida in the U.S. and rarely migrate further north than the Carolinas.
"While I've never heard of one traveling to Washington before, manatees are migratory by nature," marine biologist Dr. Iri Yadjit said. "They can travel 35 to 40 miles a day and, I would guess, even more if a particular animal is motivated by, say, fear of extinction."
While no one knows for certain how the manatee found its way to the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) was first to spot it, just after noon.
"I was coming back from lunch, and I noticed a hulking figure slowly heaving itself up the steps of the building," Barton said. "A few hours later, I saw it again, this time inside. From the way it was thumping its big, wrinkled head on the door to the House chambers, it was clear it wanted to get in."
According to Barton, after he and five other senators hoisted the unwieldy sea mammal over the threshold, it lumbered to the front of the House floor, pausing periodically to entreat individual representatives with loud, unintelligible lowing.
Though no manatee had ever addressed Congress before, this is not the first time an endangered species has attempted to make itself heard in Washington. In March 1999, nearly 100 St. Croix ground lizards appeared on the Senate floor during debates over regulation of timber operations in the Southeast. In February of this year, Chief Justice William Rehnquist suffered contusions when a small herd of bighorn sheep burst into the Supreme Court chambers during opening arguments of EPA v. Western Montana Mining Company.
Some legislators argued that the manatee should not be permitted to address the House if it cannot speak English, but no steps were taken to physically remove the animal. Among the animal's strongest supporters was Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), who ordered the immediate delivery of 500 pounds of edible aquatic plants and a 5,000-gallon tank "as a gift on behalf of the American people." As of press time, the manatee remains in the House chambers, where it awaits the resumption of debate on H.R. 512 at 1 p.m. Thursday.
Markey expressed confidence that no harm will come to the manatee while in Washington.
"West Indian manatees are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal," Markey said. "I don't think anyone would dare do anything that might violate these laws. Besides, the fella is so gosh-darn cute, you'd have to be pure evil to want to hurt it."