“If it wasn’t for Snooty, we wouldn’t have a manatee rehabilitation program,” said Virginia Edmonds, the new Parker Aquarium director at the South Florida Museum.
Improving that program and the museum’s role is the ultimate goal that brought Edmonds on board. Hailing from the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa for the past three decades, most of which were spent working with manatees, Edmonds said her new role fits into her overall life goals.
“I love manatees and taking care of them and teaching people about manatees,” she said. “They already have a basis for a great manatee rehab program here, and this was an opportunity to come here and help build on that and help us play a greater role in the program. I left a great staff at the zoo and want that here. Anyone who wants to take care of manatees must want to do it as best as possible. If you do it well, it means saving manatees, and that’s important to me.”
Snooty died just hours after he turned 69 years old in July after swimming into a maintenance tunnel. The panel on the tunnel fell off, Snooty swam in and was unable to turn around. The world-record holder for the oldest manatee drowned and a community mourned. The former aquarium director left her position, though museum officials would never say whether she was fired or resigned in the emotional aftermath of Snooty’s death.
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The museum is planning to shut down the aquarium for a couple of weeks in mid February to address maintenance and safety issues in the tank, but museum CEO Brynne Anne Besio said none of the work is associated with the accidental death of Snooty. Besio said an aquatics engineer dove the tank after the accident and found nothing wrong.
“We began planning this a couple of years ago in preparing to move our manatee rehab program into the future,” Besio said. “Snooty has led us to this program and we knew we would keep it going. The tank was originally built just for Snooty, not for bringing animals in and out. Now with the program focused entirely on rehab, we got a grant from Florida Fish and Wildlife, who was already working with us on these improvements and it’s been a great collaborative effort.”
This facility has has a wonderful, successful program that has helped manatees over the years and I’m privileged to be a part of it.
Virginia Edmonds, new South Florida Museum Parker Aquarium director
FWC awarded the museum a $250,000 grant that can be applied over several years, but the bulk of the work will be done during the two-week closure. Besio said it will be used toward everything from buying a new refrigerator to store fresh, wild food for the manatees in rehab, to replacing rusty screws on the dock. The grant will cover costs for a new medical pool door and a centralized harness over the pool to better move the manatees in and out of the tank.
“All things that are important to this program,” Besio said.
Edmonds, hired officially in November, said she is still getting a feel for her new staff and environment and “how I would like things to be done in the most efficient manner for the animals. Right now, I’m considering a lot of fact finding and taking my time figuring out what is next and teaching the staff what I would like to see.”
The aquarium’s two remaining manatees are Baca and Gail. Edmonds said the timing of the work will depend on when the two are scheduled to be released. Gail should be released back into the wild next month off the East Coast where she was rescued, but Baca will likely head to Sea World before being either released or returned to the museum for further rehab.
“Baca is still too small for release, so he’s not there yet,” Edmonds said.
The aquarium is a stage-two facility, meaning the manatees come after being medically treated. Edmonds said that can be a traumatic experience for manatees, so the goal of a stage-two facility is to prepare them for release back into the wild by being as hands-off as possible in the way the animals are fed and keeping their environment as close to natural as possible.
She requires no learning curve, she can jump in and take us where we need to be.
Brynne Anne Besio, South Florida Museum CEO
“I’m very excited about being here,” Edmonds said. “Often facilities like to grow and do something new. You look at what you have and then how you can do it better.”
Edmonds is the chair of the manatee release committee, of the Manatee Rescue, Rehabilitation and Release Program, which involves FWC, several manatee rescue organizations and care facilities like the museum.
“I’ve known Virginia for a long time having worked in the rehab program,” Besio said. “Virginia has a great background, not only in animal care but also managing a program. She’s immersed in the manatee rehabilitation partnership. It will allow us to keep building our partnership in that program. She requires no learning curve, she can jump in and take us where we need to be.”
Building on what Snooty has done for the rehabilitation program at the museum will be a personal venture for Edmonds.
“I also knew Snooty,” she said. “I thought the world of him, and if it wasn’t for Snooty, there wouldn’t be manatees here. So now it’s the time to open the door for everyone to see there is a rehab program here for manatees and we can do that more now that I’m here. Folks that are involved with manatees are very excited about me being here and knowing that this facility is committed to continue to contribute to that program. This facility has has a wonderful, successful program that has helped manatees over the years, and I’m privileged to be a part of it.”