by Art Levy
Updated 4 yearss ago
His mother’s name was Lady, but Snooty knew her only briefly. When he was still a pup in 1949, living in a Miami aquarium affiliated with a restaurant and beer garden, Snooty the manatee was taken from her and transported to Bradenton, where a new life and a 3,000-gallon tank awaited.
There, Snooty learned to luxuriate in human attention. His handlers hand-fed him, took care of his medical needs, cleaned his tank and even occasionally rubbed his head. He had fans, too, particularly children. They’d gather around his tank at the South Florida Museum — in 1966, he got a new 9,000-gallon home — and call his name and reach out to touch the bristly whiskers on his chin.
Over time, just by swimming around and eating up to 100 pounds of romaine lettuce and other produce each day, Snooty became the face of the South Florida Museum, the official mascot of Manatee County and probably the most famous manatee in the world. Each time he had a birthday, the community celebrated, and he got a cake made from fruits and vegetables.
Most wild manatees, given boat strikes, cold stress and red tide, don’t make it to 40, but there isn’t much data on how long captive manatees live. When Snooty approached his mid-40s, the museum began preparing for what seemed inevitable. In 1993, it spent $1.5 million to build Snooty a multi-level, 60,000-sq.-ft. aquarium that had enough room for him but also space for two other manatees. The idea was for the aquarium to double as a manatee rehabilitation facility.
Five years later, in 1998, Snooty got a tank mate. His name was Newton, an orphaned manatee from south Florida. Newton was the first manatee that Snooty had seen since he was separated from his mother. According to a Feb. 8, 1998, article in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, not a whole lot happened during the first meeting between the manatees: “If neither seemed delighted with the other’s company, there were at least no outward signs of displeasure.”
Newton died unexpectedly a year later, and Snooty has gone on to outlast another 30 tank mates. Today, Snooty is 68 years old. He shares his space with two rehabbing males: Icecube and Sarasolo. Both arrived in 2015, suffering from cold stress syndrome, and are expected to be released back into the waters off southwest Florida early next year.
Snooty doesn’t have much to do with them, except when they get between him and his food. That’s when the 1,200-pound Snooty gives the smaller manatees “a little flipper nudge” to keep them away, says Brittany Serafin, the museum’s assistant curator of living collections.
“It’s healthy for Snooty to have other manatees here,” Serafin says. “It’s enrichment for him, but, at the end of the day, he’s spent 50 years of his life by himself, and that’s what he got used to. If we’re not out here hand-feeding him, he’ll swim out to the back to supervise what we’re doing, just to hang out with us.”
To keep Snooty’s tank mates from becoming dependent on humans, handlers don’t give them the same attention. They undergo medical exams, but the rehab manatees aren’t hand-fed. For Snooty, though, becoming dependent on humans doesn’t matter. He’ll never leave the aquarium alive.
“If he were released,” Serafin says, “I think he would approach the nearest dock and wiggle his lips and wait for someone to feed him.”