They clapped and cheered as the manatee — who had outlived his brethren in the wild by roughly half a century — used his abnormally strong pectoral muscles to climb on the edge of his 60,000 gallon tank and affectionately nuzzle his handlers.
But Snooty’s record setting 69th birthday would be the creature’s last.
In the wee overnight hours, Snooty and his manatee tank-mates, Randall, Baca and Gale, managed to swim into an underwater hallway used to access plumbing for the exhibit’s life support system, officials with the Bradenton, Fla., museum said. The area is usually blocked off by a bolted panel, but it somehow became dislodged.
Randall, Baca and Gale, all weighing between 500 and 600 pounds, were able to navigate their way out and up to the surface, where they could breathe again.
It appears Snooty, more than twice their size, was unable to turn himself around.
His large and weathered body wasn’t discovered until Sunday morning, when Parker Manatee Aquarium staff were greeted by Randall, Baca and Gale — but no Snooty.
“It appears that Snooty was able to get into the area,” Jeff Rodgers, the South Florida Museum’s provost and chief operating officer said Sunday afternoon during a news conference, “but he was not able to extract himself from that situation.”
Museum chief executive Brynne Anne Besio called Snooty’s death a “heartbreaking accident” and said in a statement that aquarium staff is “quite devastated.” Snooty’s body will be taken to St. Petersburg, Fla., where a necropsy, or animal autopsy, will be performed at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory, officials said.
Sorrowful tributes from the mayor, sheriff and other top tier government officials in Manatee County flooded local newspapers. On social media, news of Snooty’s death spread to the millions of visitors he had charmed over his seven decades in captivity. By day’s end, the manatee had become a Twitter Moment — a measure in 2017 of a life well-lived.
Mourners left flowers, cards and heads of romaine lettuce — Snooty’s favorite snack — outside the museum in his memory. Adults and children wept at the news. Local resident Kylie Ameres wrote online that officials “better throw Snooty the best dang funeral a manatee can have.”
“Bradenton lost its most iconic citizen,” he said.
It may seem odd that a large and lumbering water dweller would trigger such universal sorrow from all corners of the globe, but Snooty was no average sea cow. He appeared on the “Captain Kangaroo” show, had his own stuffed animals and has been the official mascot of Manatee County for decades.
Snooty, the brand, is even trademarked.
Since birth, the world-renowned manatee has been an integral representation of Florida’s battle to protect the once endangered species and teach the masses just how smart, intuitive and vulnerable manatees can be — particularly to the thousands of schoolchildren who visited every year.
Harry Truman was in the White House and the Endangered Species Act did not exist when Snooty was born in Miami aboard a capsized Danish warship called the Prinz Valdemar that later became a floating restaurant and the Miami Aquarium Tackle Company.
Samuel Stout, the boat’s owner, had only bargained for one manatee when he received a permit from the state to keep in captivity “Lady,” a female who was recovering from a propeller injury. But it turned out Lady was pregnant, and on July 21, 1948, she gave birth to a three-foot, 75-pound calf, reported the Sarasota Herald Tribune.
“Baby,” as the calf was first called, because the first known manatee born in captivity.
But Stout couldn’t keep the calf, so at just 10-months old he was taken to entertain fairgoers at the 1949 De Soto Heritage Festival in Bradenton, Fla. Soon after, “Baby” moved there permanently — in the back of a pickup truck inside a bath tub, according to local legend — and was given a new name in his new home.
They called him “Baby Snoots,” a play off Fanny Brice’s “The Baby Snooks Show,” according to the Herald Tribune. Eventually Baby Snoots outgrew his childhood name and became just “Snooty.”
Throughout his lifetime, Snooty served as a test subject for researchers studying manatee communication and hearing. Joe Moore, a pioneering manatee biologist, visited Snooty in 1950 and used his ability to perform tricks as early evidence of the creatures’ intelligence, according to a Tampa Bay Times timeline.
Despite his generally affectionate ways, Snooty’s attitude was at times, well, snooty. He spent his early decades alone in small, confined tanks. He eventually graduated to the 60,000 gallon tank in 1993 and finally had enough room for company. In the quarter century since, Snooty bunked with dozens of injured or orphaned manatees that needed space to rehabilitate before returning to the wild.
He often found their youthful energy fairly annoying.
And though he was a flirt — particularly with blondes — Snooty never knew the touch of a wo-manatee or made a Snooty Jr. This was a topic of contention on several occasions, as some manatee conservation activists pushed for Snooty to be relocated to the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park with others of his kind — including a cast of eligible bachelorettes.
But concern was too great that Snooty would never survive in the wild after living his entire life in captivity. That constant human socialization led Snooty to behave less like a creature of the sea and, in the words of one psychologist who studied him, “more like somebody’s pet dog.”
He spent his days eating 80 pounds of vegetables, barrel rolling for attention and sometimes sleeping on his back. Those who knew him best began to assign Snooty human attributes. He was ticklish, moody, at times standoffish. He was unimpressed by rock and rap music, staffers learned, but couldn’t pull away when Michael Bublé came over the speaker, reported the Herald Tribune in 2013.
Because he drew massive crowds who were taught wildlife conservation during their visits, a museum staffer once called Snooty their “spokesman-a-tee.”
He even lived through his own fake news scandal — twice — when misleading social media posts falsely reported him dead, and endured conspiracy theories (that he had passed on long ago and been replaced by a Snooty decoy.)
For his 60th birthday, the Save the Manatees Club secured him an AARP membership.
James Powell, a Sarasota manatee biologist, told the Tampa Bay Times that Snooty has been “a manatee ambassador forever.”
“I am trying to get over the shock,” Poston, the mayor, told the Bradenton Herald. “We will have a lot of conversations about how to honor him. But we can’t replace him. We can never replace him.”
Preston added: “Manatees are not the most handsome of creatures, but he was beautiful.”