SAN FRANCISCO -- Floating lazily in a dark corner of the Steinhart Aquarium, 'Butterball,' the only Amazon manatee in North America, chomps his daily ration of lettuce unaware that a bureaucratic tug-of-war nearly cost him his life.
The Amazon manatee is a funny looking 200-pound lump of flesh, with a heart-shaped tail, flat snout and arm-like flippers.
Along with their cousins, the Florida manatee, the aquatic mammals sometimes known as sea cows are said to be the 'true basis of the mermaid myth' because female manatees develop pendulous breasts when nursing their young, said Steinhart director John McCosker.
'To a very lonely sailor a manatee might look like a woman,' he said.
For 15 years, Butterball, one of only a few thousand Amazon manatees left in the world, has lived in a specially designed corner tank at the Steinhart Aquarium.
He was rescued from a Leticia, Colombia, fish market as a calf when a Steinhart staff member on vacation discovered him with a harpoon wound. He was rushed to San Francisco on an airline coach seat.
Butterball has become one of the star attractions at the aquarium. Nearly a half million people annually watch him leisurely bounce off the bottom of his tank as he munches 20 heads of lettuce, celery and spinach each day.
'He has been the subject of the lion's share of research on manatees,' said McCosker. Scientists have poked and prodded him to learn the blood makeup, chromosome and vocal patterns of manatees.
He has been the subject of two masters theses and a Ph.D. dissertation, McCosker said.
Then Butterball got into trouble.
In 1972, the federal government included the Amazon manatee in the Marine Mammal Act -- even though it lives in fresh water.
The Rare and Endangered Species Act was passed the next year, forbidding importation of endangered animals, including Amazon manatees.
Then, McCosker said, 'The Department of Agriculture, unknown to Butterball or us, passed federal rules for captive marine mammals in 1978.'
Without consulting the Steinhart Aquarium on how it managed to keep the only Amazon manatee in the country alive for 15 years, the department set standards that required a tank for Butterball large enough for a killer whale.
'Butterball bounces off the bottom of his tank to go up and breathe. He'd drown in a tank as big as they wanted,' McCosker said. 'We were ordered to stop our illegal detention of a manatee.
'We said, 'We're not moving him,' in direct violation of the law, because it would kill him and violate the rules of two other agencies. If we lifted him out of the tank he would die. His lungs would be crushed by his body weight. And he wouldn't live a day if he were put back in the wild.'
Discussions grew heated between aquarium staff and federal officials as the illegal detention of Butterball continued for three years until the bureaucrats sensed some real harm might befall him if he was moved.