By Jane Sutton
MIAMI, Feb 21 (Reuters) - A Florida man posted photos on Facebook showing himself hugging a baby manatee and was arrested on charges of harassing the endangered sea cow, wildlife officials said.
A tipster saw the photos and alerted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which arrested Ryan William Waterman on a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Waterman, 21, was released from the St. Lucie County Jail on Monday on $2,500 bond, jail records showed. He told television station WPEC that he meant no harm and did not know it was illegal to touch a manatee.
The Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act prohibits molesting, harassing or disturbing manatees, which are classified as endangered in Florida and are also protected by federal laws.
The photos were taken at Taylor Creek, near Fort Pierce in southeast Florida in January. One showed Waterman lifting the baby manatee part way out of the water and hugging it. Others showed his two young daughters petting the manatee, and one of them sitting on the animal.
Wildlife agents said that could have caused severe stress to the manatee calf, which was likely still dependent on its mother. The large, slow-moving animals gather in warm coastal waters and rivers during the winter.
"The calf also appeared to be experiencing manatee cold-stress syndrome, a condition that can lead to death in extreme cases," said Dr. Thomas Reinert, a manatee biologist with the wildlife commission. "Taking the calf out of the water may have worsened its situation."
A Florida woman was arrested on a similar charge in the St. Petersburg area in November, after she was photographed riding an endangered manatee.