Snooty growing old gracefully at 61

Bradenton Herald – Wrinkles and gray whiskers are definite signs of old age, but Snooty wears them well.

Somewhere under all that manatee skin and those curious button eyes, the beloved animal seems to hold the secret of growing old gracefully.

Snooty, the world’s oldest manatee in captivity, lives at the South Florida Museum and will celebrate turning 61 on Saturday. The museum is planning its annual birthday bash from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

His birthday attracts up to 5,000 people. And the best part for Snooty — perhaps better than the birthday cake — is that he gets showered with hundreds of cards and visits from the community and elsewhere.

Last week, the staff at the museum wasn’t sure if Snooty knew his birthday was just days away, but he had to of known something was up when a Herald reporter turned up behind the scenes of Parker Manatee Aquarium. He darted out of the final minutes of a daily presentation just to say hello and to be adored.

If there’s one thing to be known about Snooty, it is the fact that he loves attention, particularly media attention, said Marilyn Margold, aquarium director.

“Because he’s a people animal, he expects attention from anybody that gets close to him,” she said. “And he’s a ham. He really knows when the press is around especially. He loves getting his picture taken.”

There were no cameras flashing during the Herald’s “interview” with Snooty, but regardless, he hoisted his upper body out of the tank with his fins as he greeted the reporter, rubbing his whiskers on her hand. Since a manatee’s vision is very limited — they only see blue and green colors — they nuzzle things to get familiar with them, Margold said. They also have sharp hearing. So if there’s any new sounds in the aquarium, Snooty quickly investigates it.

But with media attention around, he rarely left the side of the tank. His two younger manatee buddies — Little Nap, a boy, and Coral Lee, a girl, would swim to him from time to time. They were too shy to interview. The youngsters are part of a rehabilitation program that will send them back into the wild so they don’t interact as much with the public.

Snooty — a people-person manatee — has been at the aquarium since he was 11-months-old. He was born July 21, 1948 as a surprise to the staff at the Miami Aquarium and Tackle Company. They had no idea his mom was pregnant with him. When Snooty came to Bradenton for a visit, the city wanted to keep him as a mascot. It seemed fitting since the county is named “Manatee.”

At 61, Snooty has outlasted others like him. In the wild, a manatee is lucky if he or she reaches 20 years old.

Since calling Bradenton home, he’s become an ambassador for the welfare of manatees world-wide, Margold said of the endangered species. He’s participated in years of on-going research, which has greatly contributed to scientists’ understanding of manatee’s behavioral habits, visual acuity and hearing.

Snooty, who is affectionately nicked-named “Snoots,” is quite a character. Margold said he thinks he’s a person in a Manatee’s body. Just like a human, he has his likes and dislikes.

His favorite hobby is snack time. Sweet potatoes, carrots, beets and lettuce is a must-menu item.

“Eating is the No. 1 thing for any manatee,” Margold said.

As a birthday treat, the 1,200 pound manatee used to get a special cake of pineapples and berries, but since Snooty is getting older, the doctor told him he has to watch his diet. So this year, his birthday cake will be made of lettuce and carrots with pineapple juice drizzled on top.

The talk of birthday food during the interview had Snooty folding his fins together in delight.

He also obviously loves attention: getting his skin brushed, receiving a pat on the nose and having crowds watch his every move during presentations. He adores compliments, too.

As for his dislikes, they also surround his favorite subject — food.

He’s terribly picky about what he eats. It has to be fresh and crisp. Not mushy. And heaven forbid someone gets in the way of him and his meal.

“He gets frustrated when the younger ones (manatees) come and try to steal food from him,” Margold said. “He doesn’t like that. Most of the time he knows he can come to us and beg for more but sometimes he just doesn’t want to hassle with that. So he’ll make a little squeak at them or he’ll push them out of the way.”

Snooty is bona fide bachelor. Since the 1990s, it has been illegal for people or groups to breed manatees in captivity. But he has opened his home to female friends.

The 9-foot manatee isn’t much into toys, though he enjoys playing with Little Nap and Coral Lee. Yet the generation gap between the 3-year-olds and the soon-to-be 61-year-old is apparent.

“He’ll play and then he’s got to have a nap,” Margold said.

The younger manatees adore him, following his every move. Like a surrogate grandpa, he’s a mentor to them.

Snooty’s also a music fan. His age gives him away on what he enjoys best — smooth jazz. He doesn’t like anything loud. You won’t hear him jam to Fall Out Boy, Aerosmith or Flo Rida.

And one more thing, he loves hugs. Near the end of the Herald’s visit, he wrapped his fins around one of his animal friends a few times.

“We think that’s been a childhood experience that has stayed with him,” Margold said.

published July 12, 2009

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