Last week we brought you the story of Lucifer, the oldest hippo in captivity in the Americas (and maybe the world). The dung-flinging star of the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park recently celebrated his 59th birthday.
Lu is just one of many iconic animals in the state that have achieved star status over the years. Florida has also served as the retirement destination for several famous chimps, an exotic animal rental business, and the birthplace of a ferocious shark legend.
Here are some of Florida’s most famous (and unusual) animals from over the years:
Snooty the manatee
Snooty lived to the ripe old age of 69, but many feel that the sweet West Indian Manatee was taken from this world too soon. The beloved resident of Bradenton’s South Florida Museum was the world’s oldest manatee in captivity. Manatee County even named him as their official mascot in 1979.
Snooty was born at the Miami Aquarium and Tackle Company on July 21, 1948. Lovingly referred to as "Baby Snoots,” the manatee was brought to Bradenton the following year for the DeSoto Celebration festival. Shortly after, he was adopted by the South Florida museum.
About 25,000 schoolchildren visited him every year. The South Florida Museum’s website says the manatee greeted 2 million people through the online Snooty Cam and in-person museum visits over the years.
Snooty’s tragic death in 2017 came just a few days after the community celebrated his birthday. At 69, Snooty had lived 39 years longer than most manatees in the wild do.
About 5,000 museum visitors came to see Snooty as he feasted on his traditional birthday “cake” made out of fruits and vegetables. Shortly after that, he swam through a broken hatch into an underwater plumbing area. Other manatees who came with him were able to get out of the narrow area, but Snooty’s 1,300-pound body became trapped. After an investigation, museum officials said workers knew about the loose hatch, and that Snooty’s drowning could have been prevented.
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Snooty’s legacy lives on. An online petition to replace a Confederate statue with a Snooty statue amassed more than 14,000 signatures. The museum named September 10, 2017 as a day of remembrance. And Snooty enthusiasts can fill out an online form on the museum’s website to share their memories of the sea cow.
Winter the dolphin
A few years before Dolphin Tale came out, the then-St. Petersburg Times published a four-part series on Clearwater’s famous Winter.
In 2005, a fisherman found Winter tangled in a blue crab trap in Mosquito Lagoon on Florida’s east coast. She was rescued and brought to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, but she lost her tail.
Winter’s prothetic tail was made by Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics’ Dan Strzempka, who had worn a prothetic himself since losing his leg in a lawnmower accident when he was a child. According to Times archives, Strzempka and Hanger vice president Kevin Carroll spent about $200,000 and two years developing 50 prototypes for the prosthetic tail. It seems like a lot of effort and resources for just one dolphin, but the technology that was created for Winter (like the gel liner that fits over her tail stump) have since been used on humans who need prosthetics.
The innovations that came from Winter’s tale were just the beginning of the dolphin’s impact. One by one, children with disabilities of their own came to visit Winter. She became an inspiration for children and adults who also wore prosthetics.
In 2010, Dolphin Tale was filmed the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The movie featured Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr., and Ashely Judd. St. Petersburg artist Lee West made a stained-glass ornament shaped like Winter that hung on a White House Christmas tree that year. A sequel came out in 2014 and featured another dolphin named Hope.
Bubbles the chimp
One of Michael Jackson’s dearest companions now lives in bliss at the Center for Great Apes, a sanctuary in Wauchula that is closed to the public.
According to Bubbles’ bio on the sanctuary’s website, the chimp was born in a Texas biomedical lab in 1983. He was still a baby when he was sold to a Hollywood trainer for the purpose of becoming Jackson’s pet.
Bubbles became a worldwide celebrity as Jackson’s companion. The chimp wore outfits, traveled and moonwalked. He even sipped tea with Jackson and the mayor of Osaka in Japan during the singer’s Bad World Tour in 1987.
Bubbles is said to have been Jackson’s favorite chimpanzee, but his bio states that he was not included in the singer’s will. Bubbles lived with trainer Bob Dunn for a few years until 2005, when he traveled from California to Florida to live at the sanctuary. The Center’s website reveals that Jackson acquired other chimps after Bubbles, but at the time the general public mistook the new chimps as the original Bubbles.
No longer a tabloid star, Bubbles lives in a large enclosure filled with plants (although La Toya Jackson did visit him at the sanctuary in 2010). He enjoys painting, watching television and giving piggyback rides to smaller chimps. His best friend is Ripley, a fellow resident of the Center for Great Apes whose claim to fame was a cameo in Seinfeld.
Old Hitler, a giant hammerhead shark that supposedly has been sighted under the Sunshine Skyway bridge, is more lore than anything. But old timers still talk about him and his massive, 22-foot-long body.
Jeff Klinkenberg wrote about the legend of Old Hitler in 1999, dating the origin of the story back to World War II anglers whose lines kept snapping thanks to an enormous shark. The story is rooted in Boca Grande, where hammerhead sharks can be seen when the tarpon come in the summer. The legend made its way up to Tampa Bay, where fishers used to talk about Old Hitler sightings under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Bobby Lastra of the Tampa Bay Sharkers told Klinkenberg that Old Hitler could be a single shark, or many.
"Old Hitler is the true giant that every fisherman dreams of hooking into,” he said in the 1982 interview. “Every time you hook into one of those freight trains you’ve got to think you’ve got the old boy.”
Old Hitler’s story was featured during Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.
Elvis the alligator
Elvis was best known as the alligator on Sonny Crockett’s boat in the 80′s television show Miami Vice. He was 350 pounds and 8 1/2 feet long, according to a profile in the South Bend Tribune.
Producers said he was well-trained, but like many of his Hollywood counterparts, Elvis had his share of diva moments on set. His trainer sometimes would have to cover his face with a T-Shirt to calm him down. AP reported on another instance when Elvis had to be captured by scuba divers after he scurried off into the Biscayne Bay. His Miami Vice co-star Don Johnson expressed his qualms in the Sun-Sentinel, saying “All in all, working with Elvis is a very scaly experience.”
Elvis’ double was a slightly smaller gator named Presley. According to a 1984 article in the Miami News, alligator trainer Arti Malesci rented the animals from Gatorland, a Davie-based roadside zoo, for $250 a day.
The zoo was one of the many roadside attractions in Florida that faded away after the rise of Disney World. It was housed in Flamingo Gardens for two decades before both shuttered in 1990. According to a 1992 article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the exotic animal owner George Harrell kept some of his creatures and continued to rent them out. Elvis, for example, was paraded through a Hershey’s sales convention in Ft. Lauderdale on a custom-built wagon.
It is unclear what happened to Elvis since the 1990s, or if he’s even still alive. But his offspring, Elvis Jr., apparently stayed in the family business and played a role on Clarissa Explains it All, according to Bustle.
What other noteworthy Florida animals do you remember? Let me know in the comments.