This special gift keeps giving

By  Lisa Petsche
  • November 24, 2006

As Christmas approaches and wish lists get finalized, one thing is certain: no one in our family will receive a bigger gift than the one Sean, the youngest member, received several years ago.

Not only was it too big to put under our Christmas tree, it couldn't even fit through the door. It weighed 450 kilograms and measured three metres in length, to be exact.

"It" was a West Indian manatee named Amanda.

Our family first became aware of these endangered aquatic mammals through a track on the VeggieTales CD, Silly Songs with Larry. Titled "Endangered Love," it's about a manatee named Barbara, who wears lipstick and likes to dance.

We didn't know what a manatee looked like, though, until we visited Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Florida, near my sister's home. Among other things, it's a rehabilitation facility for manatees recovering from injuries.

The first manatee we saw was at a distance; she looked like a boulder in the shallow river (we later learned she was napping). We went on to attend the manatee encounter program, where we got a good look at these unique creatures. They're funny looking at first glance, with their small, wrinkled heads, beady-eyed, whiskered faces, finger-nailed flippers, elliptical torsos and paddle-shaped tails. Once we got used to their appearance and learned some facts about them, though, we couldn't help but find these good-natured, slow-moving herbivores "cute and lovable," in Sean's words. He was completely captivated — and concerned about their plight. (Many manatee deaths are human-related, the most common cause being watercraft collisions.)

Each manatee has a name and a distinct personality, we were told by a park volunteer, who waded chest-high into the river to lure them over with a bucket of carrots.

After the program, we visited "The Fish Bowl," a floating underwater observatory, to see the manatees up close; some showed off by doing log rolls. (To view them, go online to www.manateecam.com.)

When we returned home, my husband and I decided to adopt a manatee for Sean as a Christmas gift. Proceeds from the Adopt-A-Manatee program support the Save the Manatee Club (www.savethemanatee.org), which works to protect manatees and their habitats. From the list of adoptees, Amanda, a Homosassa Springs resident, was the natural choice, having been rescued on Christmas Day after being severely injured by a boat propeller.

Sean was delighted to receive the adoption packet on Christmas morning. It included a photo and biography of Amanda, an adoption certificate, a one-year membership in the Save the Manatee Club and a handbook with information on manatees. A free plush manatee was also included; Sean named it Barbara and they've been virtually inseparable ever since.

On every subsequent trip to Florida, Homosassa Springs Park has been at the top of our family's must-see list. Amanda, who's quite sociable and loves to eat, always shows up at the manatee education program. (Like the other manatees, she's identifiable by her distinctive propeller scars.) Sean, meanwhile, always impresses the park staff with his extensive knowledge of, and affinity for, this warm water species most Canadian kids know nothing about.

Each visit, Sean picks up another plush manatee or two from the gift shop to add to his collection. He's up to a dozen now — in varying sizes and shades of grey. The smallest is Squeaky, a fluffy keychain that simulates the sound of a manatee, and the largest is bullish 56-centimetre Floyd.

Each Christmas, too, Sean looks forward to receiving an adoption renewal package that includes a surprise such as a fridge magnet, manatee-shaped notepad or stickers. We pair it with a calendar from the Manatee Club's online gift shop.

Even at his young age, Sean appreciates that these gifts support a worthy cause. And he takes his responsibility for Amanda very seriously. When people ask if has a pet, Sean replies, "Yes, but she's too big to keep at home." Then he launches into a mini-manatee education program. It's heartwarming to witness such concern for God's creation.

This year, Sean is giving Christmas cards that encourage recipients to "Celebrate the season with kindness to all creatures." Peace on Earth, good will to manatees.

(Petsche is a Contributing Editor to The Catholic Register.)

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