When Henry Flagler was building his railroad down the east coast of Florida there was a place in Florida Bay called Cow Pens, where young sea cows were herded like cattle to be kept to feed the construction crews.
Craig Pittman, the award-winning environment writer for the St. Petersburg Times, writes about the Cow Pens and about manatees as dinner in his book Manatee Insanity, that was published earlier this year by University Presses of Florida.
How does manatee taste? Pittman says he has never tasted it himself but notes that a Civil War soldier thought it rivaled the finest Tennessee beef. A scientist who tried some more recently told Pittman it had the texture of pork and the taste of beef.
If the idea of dining on this beleaguered gentle and slow moving creature is repugnant to you, you’re not alone. Thousands of Floridians and others have rallied too the defense of the manatee since 1981 when Jimmy Buffett and Bob Graham started the Save the Manatee Club.
Pittman was drawn to the subject by the wackiness of the animal’s admirers and the sheer vociferousness of the opposition. In his 12 years of covering environmental issues for the Times, manatees are the one topic that is most divisive, he said. There is no sign of compromise.
He also wanted to tell a history of Florida that is not well known to most Floridians. He wanted to tell how Florida has changed over the decades and how it has changed those who live here. In the process, Pittman has produced what is arguably the more comprehensive study of the political and social fallout over "Florida's most famous endangered species."
On the whole, how’s the manatee doing in Florida? It’s a mixed bag, he says. The future of the manatee is by no means assured.