Oldest manatee on record was second born in captivity
BRADENTON, Florida––Snooty, 69, both the oldest Florida manatee on record and the only Florida manatee on record who lacked scars from boat propellers, drowned on July 22, 2017 at the South Florida Aquarium in Bradenton, his almost lifelong home.
Snooty had two scars on his side from the surgical removal of abscesses more than 30 years before his death, but was never hit by a boat because he was never in the wild, and was apparently only the second Florida manatee born in captivity.
Snooty may not have actually been the oldest living manatee. According to Craig Pittman, author of the 2009 book Manatee Insanity, Sea to Shore Alliance director Buddy Powell believes at least one wild manatee whom he observed in 1967-1968 as assistant to biologist Woody Hartman was at least 20 then. This manatee, a female named Sadie, “has been been dodging boats and bearing calves ever since,” says Pittman.
But even if Sadie is a few years older, which would put her in her seventies now, Snooty’s life spanned the entire history of manatee conservation.
Born in a beached sailing ship
His accidental death came just one day after his birthday, annually celebrated by the South Florida Museum staff presenting him with a cake made from fruits and vegetables while museum visitors sang “Happy Birthday” to him.
Snooty was born on July 21, 1948 in the beached Danish barkentine Prins Valdemar, home of the long defunct Miami Aquarium & Tackle Company.
The keel for the steel-hulled, four-masted, square-rigged Prins Valdemar, remembered by Wikipedia as “one of the last great ships of the sailing ship era,” was laid in 1891. Launched in 1892, the Prins Valdemar was originally used as a training vessel for the Danish navy.
“However,” recounts the Miami History web site, “several years after she was commissioned, the ship was caught running guns during the Mexican revolution and was seized by the Mexican government. The ship was sold to an American firm who used it to transport lumber between Australia and the west coast.”
Purchased by the German navy before World War I, the Prins Valdemar “was one of the Germans most successful blockade runners,” according to Miami History, “until a British torpedo chased it into Copenhagen, a neutral port, where she remained until the end of the war.”
Acquired by an American syndicate, the Prins Valdemar was briefly “used to transport coconuts from Nicaragua to New York,” says Miami History, before returning to service as a lumber carrier.
Capsizing and sinking in Biscayne Bay on January 10, 1926, “the Prins Valdemar blocked the entrance to the port for weeks,” recalls Pittman in Manatee Insanity. “Finally a salvor dragged it to the city’s waterfront. No longer seaworthy, the Prins Valdemar became a struggling restaurant and even a 100-room hotel for a while. Then R.J. Walters turned it into the Miami Aquarium,” originally called the Prins Valdemar Aquarium, opened on May 1, 1928.
First recorded birth
“Walters’ aquarium offered more than the average roadside attraction,” continued Pittman. “On May 26, 1930, it became the scene of the first recorded birth of a manatee in captivity. The joy over Sunny, as the calf was known, didn’t last long. In November 1931 an aquarium employee trying to transfer Sunny to another tank accidentally dropped the calf, killing him.”
While Walters continued to own the aquarium, the day-to-day management was in 1947 turned over to Samuel Stout, who added a fishing tackle store to the marine animal displays and renamed the location the Miami Aquarium Tackle Company.
Snooty’s mother Lady
Eager to add a manatee display, Stout in mid-1947 harpooned a pregnant manatee through the tail, which he mistakenly believed would not hurt her, and reportedly made progress in taming her, but released her when she fell ill about six months later.
Then, in 1948, a badly injured pregnant manatee was found floating nearby. This was Lady, Snooty’s mother. She lived at the aquarium until late 1949, when the Miami City Commission condemned the Prins Valdemar as allegedly unsafe and gave Walters 90 days to dispose of the animal collection.
Lady and most of the 2,500 resident fish, including a large nurse shark, were returned to Biscayne Bay, where they had been captured.
Ordered to be released
But Snooty had already been relocated to Bradenton to be exhibited at the Bradenton pier during the 1949 DeSoto Heritage Festival.
Although Snooty was briefly returned to Miami afterward, Walters and Stout had a permit to display only one manatee, not two. Amid the fracas that followed, Florida State Board of Conservation director George Vathis unsuccessfully ordered that both Lady and Snooty be released back to the wild.
After Walters and Stout insisted that Snooty could not survive in the wild, Snooty––then called Baby––was trucked back to Bradenton, this time to stay in a new 3,000-U.S.-gallon tank at the South Florida Museum.
Says Wikipedia, “According to the book The Legacy: South Florida Museum, Stout,” who was hauling Baby, “arrived in Bradenton late at night and was unable to locate the museum’s curator, Lester Leigh, to unlock the door, and received help from the sheriff and a group of prisoners to move Baby into his new home. As the manatee aged,” Wikipedia adds, “he became known simply as Snooty,” more-or-less coinciding with the museum staff learning that he was male, not female as had originally been presumed.
The name transition, according to Pittman, actually took until about 1970 to fully take hold.
Meanwhile, beginning circa 1949, Snooty became the first and for many years the only captive manatee studied by Joe Moore. Moore, a D-Day veteran, after his U.S. Navy service became an Everglades National Park warden in 1947. By 1949 Moore had become a prolific author of scientific papers about Everglades wildlife, especially manatees, who were little documented in previous scientific literature, but were often hunted by backwoods Floridians for meat.
Moore established early in his career that individual manatees can be identified by the propeller scars left by boats on their backs, touching off what is now more than sixty years of conflict between manatee advocates and boaters about boat speeds and routes.
Also beginning circa 1949-1950, Snooty learned a variety of training routines which, decades later, demonstrated manatee intelligence, after Snooty showed that he could remember the voices of former keepers he had not seen in many years, and could remember as well the particular training behaviors associated with each keeper.
As Snooty grew, and interacted often with South Florida Museum visitors, he became a local celebrity. The major events in his life included moving into a pool three times the size of his first pool in 1966, when the South Florida Museum moved from the Bradenton Municipal Pier to the current location at 201 Tenth Street West. Headlines followed Snooty’s winning battles with flu in 1967 and the consequences of having ingested a mechanical pencil in 1973.
In 1979 Snooty was designated the official mascot of Manatee County, helping to build support for manatee protection.
Amid high-profile campaigns calling for the return to the wild of other captive marine mammals, notably the orca whale Keiko, who starred in the “Free Willy!” film series, Snooty was in 1993 moved to a pool twenty times the size of his first pool. Five years later, after further pool modification, Snooty gained two companion manatees, who were being rehabilitated for return to the wild.
During the last 20 years of his life Snooty shared his accommodations with at least 25 other manatees who were eventually released through the joint efforts of the Manatee Rehabilitation Network, the Sea to Shore Alliance, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
On the morning of July 23, 2017, the South Florida Museum announced, “Snooty was found in an underwater area only used to access plumbing for the exhibit life support system. Early indications were that an access panel door that is normally bolted shut had somehow been knocked loose and that Snooty was able to swim in,” as could two younger and smaller manatees in the tank.
The younger manatees were able to swim back out, but Snooty got stuck.
“Snooty’s habitat undergoes a daily visual inspection and there were no indications the previous day that there was anything amiss,” the South Florida Museum said.
Wild manatee numbers to double?
Snooty lived from an era when Florida manatees were almost unknown to the world beyond their habitat, through their designation among the first recognized U.S. endangered species, years of political battles over boat speeds and critical habitat designation, and in April 2017, a report from U.S. Geological Survey computer modeler Michael Runge that as Pittman summarized for the St. Petersburg Tampa Bay Times, “Florida’s manatee population is likely to double to 12,000 over the next 50 years,” even as more manatees than ever will be killed by boats and red tide algae blooms.
Also, wrote Pittman, “Florida’s manatee population will shift northward, pushing into areas in North Florida where manatees are now rarely spotted, and increasing the number that call Crystal River home year-round.”
“Replace Confederate statue with Snooty”
Much as Florida alligators have extended their range into adjacent regions of the Deep South, enabled by global warming, manatees are likely to extend their range. Already lone wandering manatees have appeared as far north as Rhode Island and as far west as Texas.
Meanwhile, suggests Sarasota resident Anthony Pusateri in a Change.org petition, “There is a Confederate memorial statue that stands directly in front of the old courthouse in Bradenton, just blocks away from the aquarium where Snooty resided. To honor Snooty’s legacy as a positive icon in Bradenton, I propose that the negative symbol of racism and oppression that is the Confederate monument be relocated and replaced with a statue of Snooty the Manatee.”