BRADENTON He was an institution, a part of our childhood, Manatee County’s official mascot. He was so much more than a manatee.
And now, in what the South Florida Museum is calling a tragic accident, Snooty the manatee has died.
Jeff Rodgers, the South Florida Museum’s provost and chief operating officer, took it upon himself to stand on the museum steps in downtown Bradenton on Sunday to inform people before they purchased admission tickets that Snooty, the main attraction, was dead.
Snooty was found Sunday morning before the aquarium was opened to the public in an underwater area only used to access plumbing for the exhibit life support system, Rodgers said at a 3 p.m. news conference.
Early indications are that an access panel door that is normally bolted shut had somehow been knocked loose and that Snooty and was able to swim in, Rodgers added. Perhaps because of his size, Snooty was unable to swim back out, Rodgers said.
The impact was felt well beyond Manatee County, as Pixie James of Terre Haute, Ind., expressed on Facebook: “I think I saw Snooty 2-3 times every year growing up and had a stuffed Snooty. Loved going to see him. Huge part of my childhood.”
The news of Snooty’s death garnered almost immediate national attention, with breaking-news alerts joining Bradenton.com and Bay News 9 from Time magazine, NBC news, NPR media and many others.
“Snooty the Manatee dies, and a Florida community mourns,” NPR tweeted out. And Time wrote, “Snooty, the beloved manatee who was the oldest of its kind to live in captivity, died Sunday morning — just two days after his 69th birthday.”
If Snooty drowned in the plumbing area or died due to another cause, it will be revealed in a necropsy, or animal autopsy, which will be performed at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory in St. Petersburg, Rodgers said.
Rodgers said at this point human error is not considered a factor in Snooty’s death.
Sharing spotlight with Snooty
Rodgers’ decision to let Snooty fans know right up front that the manatee had passed also revealed the level of respect the museum has for Snooty, who had become so much more than a museum attraction, according to local officials who shared the spotlight with the manatee over the years.
“Snooty was the most iconic citizen in Bradenton,” said Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston. “Everyone knew Snooty and therefore, everyone knew Bradenton.
“It’s awful, horrible, heartbreaking. I am trying to get over the shock. We will have a lot of conversations about how to honor him. But we can’t replace him. We can never replace him. Manatees are not the most handsome of creatures, but he was beautiful.”
Museum officials said they will hold a celebration of his life for the public at a time to be determined.
“Snooty has been a significant part of our Bradenton community for decades,” said Johnette Isham, executive director of Realize Bradenton. “He was beloved by children and adults all over the world and we were looking forward to his 70th birthday, which would be a big one.”
“Snooty was really one of the most friendly ways that we showed Manatee County to the world,” said Jacki Dezelski, president and chief executive officer of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce. “Snooty was our county mascot. My guess is that condolences will pour in. People from around the world met Snooty.”
That includes Tampa resident Kenneth Green, who shared his thoughts on Facebook: “I am 73 years old and remember going with my grandfather as a very small boy to see Snooty in the museum when it was on the first floor of the Bradenton Pier. He was the first manatee I ever saw.”
Generations of Manatee County youngsters remember being taken to the museum in downtown Bradenton to see Snooty. Those children took their children.
“My family is a perfect example,” Dezelski said. “I remember growing up seeing Snooty on field trips. I know multiple generations of families visited the museum to see Snooty. Seeing Snooty is something you looked forward to every year.”
Dezelski said it would be hard to know exactly how Snooty’s death will impact the area.
“I know the museum staff and their board are going to need community support,” Dezelski said. “They will feel this more than any of us will.”
Snooty just turned 69
Poston often tells the story that in 1949, when Snooty was 1 year- old and the first recorded birth of a manatee in human care, the sea cow was brought to Bradenton to be part of the 1949 DeSoto Celebration.
Brynne Anne Besio, the museum’s chief executive officer, confirms that Snooty, then known as “Baby Snoots,” did come for the celebration from the Miami Aquarium and Tackle Company and was moved to the museum later that year. But how Snooty made the trip to Bradenton has achieved mythic status.
“Dr. W.D. Sugg and Paul Bartley, the Herald photographer, brought him to Bradenton in a wash tub,” Poston said.
Although his actual birthday was Friday, July 21, Snooty celebrated his 69th birthday Saturday with a splendid bash.
Unlike any other manatee, Snooty could raise himself up out of the water and place his upper body on the edge of his tank, where he enjoyed basking in the attention of his human helpers, who fed him lettuce by the truckload.
Snooty did his tricks during his final birthday party, when he one-upped his own mascot, Sarasota teenager Foster Swartz, by making little trumpeting sounds while Swartz wasn’t allowed to talk at all.
“Snooty was such a unique animal, and he had so much personality that people couldn’t help but be drawn to him,” Besio said. “As you can imagine, I, and our staff, volunteers and board members, considered him a star. We will deeply mourn his passing.”