Kit Curtin, Urban Manatees Best Hope In Miami, Loses Funding In Recession

​In a murky, garbage-strewn canal next to a dilapidated apartment complex, a mossy-colored beast breaks the water's surface. The manatee looks as out of place in this hood as a three-piece-suit-clad banker chillin' at Churchill's.

Kit Curtin, a veteran biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, says it ain't easy being a manatee in the big city, but there are hundreds in the waterways. "This might be the only place in Miami where manatees can sleep in peace," she says. Now the manatees face a new threat: the loss of Curtin, whose federal grants have evaporated in the recession.

Curtin is a thin, blond 53-year-old from Key Largo. She has a weathered complexion earned during 20 years of photographing manatees and laughs easily while telling stories about the creatures. Nicknamed "sea cows" for their gentle, corpulent figures, they can grow to 1,300 pounds, about 1.5 times heavier than a Harley-Davidson Road King.

Over the decades, Curtin has seen it all: poachers butchering the animals, dams crushing them alive, even human bodies floating through their habitat.

"Kit's contributions are huge in keeping manatees healthy and safe," says Cathy Beck, her supervisor at USGS. "It's only through her dedication she's been able to keep doing this."

Curtin, a Boston native and '92 Florida International University grad, began tracking manatees through Miami in 1987; now she knows several by name. 

Once, fishermen told her about a van full of poachers they'd seen slitting manatees' throats and speeding away with their illegal catch. In the Cocaine Cowboy-era '80s, the owner of an apartment complex near a manatee-filled canal kept track of the human bodies washing up versus manatees killed by boats or dams. (Humans won, eight to seven, Curtin says.)

Mostly, though, Curtin's job is tracking the creatures, which have rebounded since flirting with extinction in the early '70s. Today, 5,000 live around Florida, including 800 in South Florida. Twenty percent of those swim in Miami's canals, she says.

Curtin now hopes to raise enough cash through private donations to the Sea to Shore Alliance to continue her work. "Everyone knows me in these neighborhoods, and I know all the manatees," she says. "I just hope I can keep doing this for another 20 years."

Want to donate? Check out the Alliance here. (And if you see any injured manatees about town, call 1-888-404-FWCC.)

Here's a larger version of that photo, shot this summer by Curtin in one of the manatees' favorite urban canals:

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink