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Snooty, on his 65th birthday

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image Snooty the Manatee, who lives at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, celebrated his 65th birthday on Saturday. Photo Mitch Traphagen

It turns out that Snooty is a full-fledged member of the AARP

By Mitch Traphagen
Manatees don’t have pockets.

That is unfortunate for a manatee named Snooty at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton. If Snooty had pockets, he could carry a Social Security card and cash from his checks. But alas, no pockets. Snooty just celebrated his 65th birthday.

It turns out that Snooty doesn’t appear to mind. Thousands of people turned out for his birthday party on Saturday, sponsored by Riverview’s Mosaic. With that many friends, who needs pockets?

Snooty was born in a Miami aquarium on July 21, 1948. He is the oldest known manatee born in captivity. While there was birthday cake as part of his party, Snooty didn’t partake — not only because he is an herbivore but also because he is on a diet. After once topping the scales at 1,200 pounds, he is now down to a sleek 1,000 pounds. But he did enjoy his favorite sweet treats — pineapples and strawberries. Due to his diet, such indulgences are generally reserved for his one big day each year. And with age more than his diet, Snooty is slowing down a little. Today he generally eats only 70 or so pounds of vegetation a day, unlike the 100 pounds typically consumed by younger manatees.

Snooty is one of only a handful of manatees in Florida that have daily interaction with humans. Born in captivity, people and aquariums are all he knows. He is rarely lonely as he often shares his tank with visiting wild manatees, generally those who are recovering from an injury or illness. Over the years he has had 26 wild tank-mates, including his current friends Longo and Cheeno.

Assuming, of course, you can call any manatee wild. They are gentle and non-aggressive by nature, and although they have them, they can’t even manage to stick out their tongues at you. Over the years, Snooty has been taught to rollover and present a flipper for a handshake. Snooty has proven that manatees can learn from us, as we learn from them. Despite their gentle natures, wild manatees are not pets and neither is Snooty. In Florida it is illegal to harass them in any way, including feeding them fresh water through a hose. As one area woman recently found out through some very public and embarrassing photos and her subsequent arrest, attempting to ride a manatee is absolutely forbidden. But most people have the sense to know that, right?

Manatees are associated with Florida and are a big draw for tourists. But they can wander. They have been known to swim as far north as Massachusetts and back again in a single summer, swimming roughly as fast as a typical person walks. They cannot, however, tolerate water that is less than 68 degrees and thus can be found locally in large numbers during the winter months congregated at the TECO Manatee Viewing Center, which has warm water year-around courtesy of the cooling system at the adjacent Big Bend Power Plant.

Manatees are not fish (nor are they overly curvaceous mermaids) and females bear live young, known as calves. A typical pregnancy lasts for up to a year and it is rare for a female manatee to give birth to more than one calf. Their lungs run nearly the entire length of their bodies allowing them to hold their breath and submerge for up to 20 minutes at a time, using “nose flaps” to keep water out of their lungs. 

According to one area marine biologist, most wild manatees are identified entirely by the propeller scars on their backs. There are few manatees in Florida that haven’t made unfortunate contact with speedboat propellers. Both state and federal laws protect manatees and boating speed restrictions in manatee zones exist for a very good reason. Studies have indicated that relatively few manatees suffer propeller injuries on their heads, while most have them on their backs or near their tails, suggesting that manatees do recognize approaching boats, they just aren’t fast enough to avoid them, particularly in the shallow water they inhabit. From the perspective of a boater, their color makes them almost impossible to see. In fact, the majority of manatee deaths involving boats are due to impact damage, rather than propeller injuries. When it comes to boats and manatees, speed does indeed kill.

On the manatee’s side is time. It is estimated manatees have been around for at least 50 million years and Snooty’s modern ancestors have been swimming the coasts for a million years. As they were here first, perhaps us adapting to them cannot really be considered unfair.

Snooty can talk. For nearly 30 years, he has had a hydrophone inside his tank, giving biologists the first indication that manatees communicate with each other through high-pitched sounds. Hopefully on Saturday, those sounds were strikingly similar to the birthday song.

Back in Bradenton at the South Florida Museum, children played manatee-related games or searched for fossils in a dig site provided by Mosaic. Inside, Snooty waved his flipper at the crowd gathered above his tank while those watching through glass below saw him roll and flap his tail. Birthday cards made by elementary school children lined the walls at the museum. If anyone enjoyed their 65th birthday, it would seem to be Snooty. People cheered him on and he happily munched on pineapple chunks and strawberries. Too bad about not having pockets, he probably would have liked to have saved some of the treats for later. 

And regarding pockets, it turns out that Snooty is a full-fledged member of the AARP (American Association of Retired People). Fortunately, their membership cards are made of plastic and, thus, are waterproof. Where he keeps it is anyone’s guess. Perhaps next to a secret stash of pineapple chunks and strawberries.

The South Florida Museum is located at 201 10th Street West in Bradenton, just across the Manatee River and one block off the U.S. 41 Business route. The museum offers a “Snooty Cam” that is live during regular business hours and on weekends.

For more information, visit www.southfloridamuseum.org.

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