Texas’ Manatee Girl

A young Stephanie with Dr. Scott Gearhart during a behind-the-scenes tour at SeaWorld after raising funds for the manatee rehab program. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Cohen
A young Stephanie with Dr. Scott Gearhart during a behind-the-scenes tour at SeaWorld after raising funds for the manatee rehab program. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Cohen

By Stephanie Cohen, Public Relations Specialist

“One person can make a difference.” This has been my motto for the past 20 years or more. I’ve always loved animals, and my manatee story starts at the young age of eight in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. I came across a small news article about a manatee that fractured its skull after being hit by a boat in Florida. The manatee was being cared for by Dr. Scott Gearhart at SeaWorld Orlando. I remember thinking this animal was so ugly that it was cute, and I was inspired to do something…and something I did. I started by putting up a jar and selling handmade clay manatee pins at my local veterinarian’s office and my dad’s doctor’s office. I soon wrote a letter to the vet and sent him the $27 I raised to help this manatee. I soon became known as the “Manatee Girl,” and as kids heard of my efforts, they too became interested and wanted to get involved. With the help of family friends, I started my own non-profit organization, Kids Making A Difference, when I was just 10 years old to bring kids together to help animals. From being a Build-a-Bear Huggable Hero to hosting a Manatee Mile Fun Run to sending a paper manatee chain with names of Texans who care about manatees to then Governor Jeb Bush to sharing my story in books and magazines, my childhood was inspired by manatees (and encouraged by my supportive parents).

This passion stuck with me through high school when I self-published a children’s book telling my story in hopes of empowering other young kids—to build a better tomorrow, to read and write their own story, and to find their extraordinary within. Following my love for manatees, brought me to college in Florida, where I attended Florida Tech in Melbourne to study animal learning and behavior. Since graduating, I’ve been working with animals in some capacity professionally for over 10 years, including education in zoological facilities, training animals for TV and film, training service dogs, and animal welfare. I’m grateful that all these opportunities kept me around the Central Florida area, where I was able to support and volunteer with Save the Manatee Club. Recently, I completed my Masters in Anthrozoology from Canisius University, and one of my professors, Kris Stewart, inspired me to keep following my dreams, which has landed me here at Save the Manatee Club. If I could go back and tell my eight-year-old self that this is where I would be today, working alongside those who inspired me as a kid to save my favorite animal, I don’t know if I would believe it.

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