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Epilogue: Snooty, 69, a breed apart from other manatees (w/video)

Aquarium curator Carol Audette touches noses with Snooty the manatee in 2001 at the South Florida Museum. Snooty was 53 then. [Times 2001]
Published Jul. 27, 2017

New York City has the Statue of Liberty. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. St. Louis has the Arch.

And for 68 years, Bradenton had Snooty.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Snooty, world's oldest captive manatee, dies in accident at Bradenton's South Florida Museum (w/video)

Then tragedy struck last weekend. The most famous manatee in Florida, the longtime star attraction of Bradenton's South Florida Museum, the official mascot of Manatee County, drowned in his tank on Sunday, a day after the celebration of his 69th birthday.

His influence was immense.

"He reached millions of people who now have a better understanding of manatees," said Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.

Yet Snooty's birth and life were so different from every other manatee's that it marked him as a breed apart. Bradenton became his home because of a bureaucratic snafu, and there was similar confusion over his gender and his name.

Even in death, Snooty will forever swim apart from his fellow manatees

He was born aboard one boat in Miami after another one ran over his mother. Some men spotted the injured female manatee in Biscayne Bay, caught her in a net and hauled her aboard a floating museum, the Miami Aquarium and Tackle Shop.

The crew carried the wounded manatee below deck, putting her in their largest tank, recalled Alice Walters Wallace, the daughter of aquarium owner R.J. Walters, in a 2008 interview.

Someone concocted an ointment for the manatee's injuries, she said, "and I would get in the tank and rub it on her back. She liked that ...We'd get in the tank and hug her. For a manatee, she was a beautiful manatee."

They dubbed her "Lady." Then they discovered Lady was pregnant. The aquarium had already had one captive manatee give birth, only to lose the calf. The staff was determined to keep this one alive.

On July 21, 1948, Walters recalled, "my dad called and told us the little one was on the way ... We came down because we wanted to see this new baby. He was such a little fellow in comparison to his mom."

They named the calf "Baby." The newborn was just as affectionate as Lady. When Walters and her sister climbed into the tank — something none of the tourists could do, of course — "both (manatees) liked to be loved and petted. They liked to give kisses."

To entertain tourists, the girls would ride on Lady's back — but never Baby's.

The aquarium's operator, a former women's wear manufacturer named Sam Stout, taught both manatees a few tricks. They learned to come when summoned, and to roll over in order to get a treat and hoist themselves out of the water. Biologists later pointed to those performances as evidence that manatees are smarter than they might appear.

In 1949, Manatee County planned a festival to celebrate the landing of conquistador Hernando de Soto four centuries earlier. Someone came up with the idea of exhibiting a manatee.

But nobody could find any manatees in Manatee County. "Our name will be MUD without the Manatee," wrote one festival organizer in a letter.

Stout bailed them out. He drove Baby across the state and displayed the 9-month-old in a tank for a few days. The calf "gave pleasure to thousands of people who had a chance for the first time to see the animal this county was named for," a local official wrote. "It was a great favorite with children and hundreds of them petted it, fed it lettuce, and watched it roll over ..."

The publicity backfired for Stout. State officials noted that he had a permit for one manatee, not two. He was ordered to let Baby go. Stout was horrified — Baby would die, he said.

His solution: donate Baby to Manatee County. The state said yes.

But no one asked Manatee County officials if they wanted a full-time manatee mascot.

"Bradenton learned with some consternation today that it owns a sea cow," the Bradenton Herald wrote on April 1, 1949. Eventually city officials embraced their new manatee, installing a tank in a building that became the South Florida Museum.

The Miami Herald, writing about Baby's imminent departure, joked that "the youngster probably has an inferiority complex by now, the way she has been treated in recent months."

Note the pronoun. Stout and everyone else assumed Baby was female. At some point in later years, someone figured out he was a he. The name changed too, going from "Baby" to "Baby Snoots" — apparently a corruption of Baby Snooks, a popular radio character.

Finally around 1970, when he was in his 20s, he became "Snooty."

As the years rolled on, Snooty became a treasured institution.

In 1973, a clumsy tourist dropped a mechanical pencil in Snooty's tank. Snooty swallowed it and became badly constipated for more than a week. News reports warned that he might die, and "if he dies, the museum will have lost its main attraction. Manatee County will have lost the embodiment of its name ..."

Snooty survived the Great Pencil Scare. He also survived being raised in a too-small tank, which biologists said stunted his growth before he was finally moved to a larger facility.

The greater concern was solitude. While Snooty was spared the fate of many manatees, being clobbered by boats or poisoned by Red Tide, the price he paid for his perfect hide was celibacy and isolation.

In 1991, when Snooty turned 43, the Save the Manatee Club and the Humane Society demanded he be moved two hours north to Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. There he could meet, and perhaps mate with, seven breeding-age females.

Snooty's solitary captivity is "the most depressing manatee story around," the club's then-president, Judith Vallee, told this newspaper, then known as the St. Petersburg Times. But Snooty's chief keeper, Carol Audette, warned that moving Snooty in with other manatees might be bad for him.

"He's so acclimated to people," she said. "That's all he knows."

Bradenton was bombarded with angry letters from around the country. But Snooty's captivity pre-dated the Endangered Species Act, leaving no legal grounds to challenge it.

In 1998, he started getting roommates, manatees that had been injured in the wild and needed time to recuperate. Snooty, according to Rose, showed them how to behave. Meanwhile the manatee menagerie drew more and more people buying Snooty T-shirts, postcards and plush toys.

As a vegetarian who got lots of exercise, Snooty was in good health for a geriatric. His most recent physical was July 17, a few days before more than 4,000 well-wishers celebrated his 69th birthday on Saturday. Grandparents who had visited Snooty in their young years were now bringing toddlers who were astonished to be so close to such a natural wonder.

Then he was gone, dying in the dark of night under circumstances that are still under investigation.

As with all manatees that die in Florida, Snooty underwent a necropsy. But Martine deWit, who oversees the state's marine mammal pathology laboratory in St. Petersburg, said that, even in death, Snooty won't be like other manatees.

"He won't go into our database" of manatee deaths, she said, "because he wasn't part of the wild population."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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