The Parker Aquarium, part of the South Florida Museum in Bradenton FL, is home to “Snooty”, the oldest known manatee.
In 1947, the Miami Aquarium, located inside an old Danish Navy ship in Miami Harbor, received a permit to exhibit one Manatee. Manatees are vegetarian marine mammals that are distantly related to elephants. In 1948, the Aquarium, which was privately-owned, obtained an adult female that had been rescued after having been hit by a motorboat. She was named “Lady”.
As it turned out, Lady was already pregnant, and gave birth to a calf at the Aquarium on July 21, 1948. Named “Baby”, the calf was a male, about three feet long and weighing about 75 pounds. Today, any newborn Manatee calf would be kept with its mother for a period of several years, but back then, there were no conservation or rehabilitation programs, and the Aquarium’s permit only allowed it to keep one Manatee. “Baby” needed a new home.
The city of Bradenton, just south of Tampa, was planning an anniversary commemoration of Hernan DeSoto’s voyage to Florida, and when officials heard about the baby Manatee, they arranged for the calf to be brought for the celebration, where he was exhibited in a temporary pool at the city pier, in March 1949. The Manatee was such a popular attraction that the city decided to keep him, as part of its planned “South Florida Museum” at the Pier. Over the next couple of months, town officials acquired the necessary permits and built a 3,000-gallon exhibit tank. “Baby” moved in on June 20, 1949, and soon became known as “Baby Snoots”.
Not much was known about Manatees back then, and Baby Snoots faced long odds. Only a few Manatees had ever been born in captivity, and all of them had died within a few years. The pool was very small, allowing Snoots to swim only in a tight circle, and since there were no other Manatees with him, he became imprinted upon the humans who fed and interacted with him. But the Manatee managed to beat the odds, more as a matter of luck than anything. As he reached adulthood, “Baby Snoots” became “Snooty”. He was now almost nine feet long and weighed about 1200 pounds.
In 1966, the South Florida Museum was moved from the city pier to a larger building onshore. The new museum included a much larger 9,000-gallon tank for Snooty. When the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972, Snooty was one of only four captive Manatees–the others were “Romeo” and “Juliet” at the Miami Seaquarium, and “Rosie” at the Homosassa State Park. After the Manatee was listed as an Endangered Species, both the State and Federal governments began programs to rescue, rehabilitate and return injured and orphaned animals to the wild. As part of the effort to understand Manatees, Snooty became the object of study, with various researchers testing his memory and intelligence. It was discovered that, contrary to their popular image as dull and dim animals, Manatees are actually highly intelligent, able to match dolphins in many tests. Snooty demonstrated an ability to remember the voices of his old keepers, and to recall and perform behaviors he had been taught when he was only one year old.
As part of Florida’s rescue and rehabilitation network for wild Manatees, the South Florida Museum built the Parker Aquarium Manatee Education and Research Facility, with a 60,000 gallon tank, large enough for three adult Manatees. Snooty moved into the new pool in 1993, and in 1998 was joined by a rescued Manatee named Newton. It was the first Manatee Snooty had seen since he was separated from his mother at age two. Newton was eventually rehabbed and returned to the wild. Since then, Snooty has shared his tank with 28 other rescued or orphaned Manatees.
In the wild, Manatees have an average lifespan of around ten years, with a handful reaching as much as 30 years. Snooty is the oldest known Manatee for which a definite date of birth can be established. In July 2016, he will be 68 years old.
Today, around 60,000 people per year visit the South Florida Museum. And most of them come to see Snooty. His keepers do daily shows and feedings, and each year on Snooty’s birthday visitors are given free cupcakes and invited to submit birthday cards.