Museum: Snooty the manatee remembered through rehab program
BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) — Snooty the manatee’s birthday will be forever coupled with his tragic death — July 23, 2017, a day after fans of the beloved sea cow celebrated his record-setting 69th birthday.
Many grieved like it was the death of their best friend — with sadness, confusion and anger over the accidental drowning.
South Florida Museum officials later acknowledged after the conclusion of an incident review — and after an investigation by the Herald-Tribune revealed that the access panel that led to his death had been loose for a substantial period of time — that Snooty’s death was a “preventable accident.”
His primary caretaker, Marilyn Margold, director of living collections, no longer works at the museum.
In her place, former Lowry Park Zoo caretaker Virginia Edmonds was hired for the newly created role of Parker Aquarium director.
Edmonds is tasked with guiding the museum’s Stage 2 manatee rehabilitation program that was made possible by Snooty’s incredible life, one that began in 1948 — when “Woody Wood-Pecker” by Kay Kyser and His Orchestra topped the charts, when the Soviet Union was jamming Voice of America broadcasts and the Berlin Blockade began and when President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order ending racial segregation in the United States Armed Forces.
This year, on the anniversary of his birthday, there was no “birthday bash” or commemoration planned for the manatee first known as “Baby Snoots.”
Edmonds says she is honoring Snooty’s memory through her work with the museum’s manatee rehabilitation program and other sea cow organizations.
She began in November, overseeing a renovation in December that was part of a $250,000 grant that South Florida Museum received from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. As part of that work, the fiberglass ledge that included the hatch where Snooty was trapped and died was sanded, repainted and covered. The medical pool for manatees was repainted and the underwater viewing windows were resurfaced and sealed around the edges.
Edmonds said she has used her first eight months to develop an understanding for visitors of the current rehabbing manatees — Tannebaum, O’Neil and Baca — that are being prepped for release into the wild.
Since 1998, the museum has housed and rehabilitated 36 sea cows. The animals are fed a variety of plants so they develop an instinct for what to eat and what not to. They are offered hydrilla and hyacinth, invasive plants from the wild that give the animals some “wild bacteria” in their stomach. That helps them digest wild food for when they are freed, Edmonds said.
The biggest message that the aquarium director said she wants to pass on to visitors is that there is a rehab program for manatees and that it has been successful.
“It’s conservation that happens in our own backyard,” Edmonds said. “It gives people a new consciousness, not just boating, but everything that affects manatees.”
Her goal is for museum guests to leave feeling inspired to help.
Edmonds already has inspired museum leaders. “She’s in their head,” museum CEO Brynne Anne Besio said of Edmonds’ rehabbing efforts. “This is Virginia’s passion.”
“I grew up in a household that really cared about animals,” Edmonds said. “Having the opportunity to do it now and be able to help with a rehab program for manatees is sort of the ultimate. Not many people get to do this — and I feel very fortunate.
“Working with animals in general has definitely been a dream come true.”
Call for help
Those who responded to the museum that fateful day last July will never forget what they encountered.
Bradenton Fire Department Battalion Chief Steve Trompke and other firefighters were cleaning their station when they received a phone call at 9:39 a.m. for help with a missing manatee. A heavy rescue truck with equipment for swift-water rescue responded, but it did not have diving equipment.
A firefighter trained to dive used the museum’s equipment to investigate the space where Snooty was found trapped. The firefighter found the manatee’s hulking 1,300-pound body pale and lifeless. The diver was unable to use a breathing apparatus to revive the animal.
“It was a matter of getting a rope tied around him,” said Trompke of the dangerous close-quarters operation. “It took a little bit to get the momentum of him moving. The color of him compared to the other manatees who were in there, I remember there was a remarkable color change.”
Seven firefighters were involved.
Snooty was taken to a separate tank away from the three rehab manatees — Randall, Gale and Baca — and hoisted out of the water.
The firefighters not involved in the actual recovery consoled museum staff, Trompke said.
“What I remember most was that we just wanted to treat Snooty with dignity,” the chief said. “He was an icon. A lot of the guys that grew up in Manatee and Sarasota County, they grew up with Snooty as a kid going to visit and seeing Snooty. It was a somber occasion.”
In a meeting with Herald-Tribune representatives and other museum representatives, board member Jackie Barron, Mosaic Co.’s public affairs manager, acknowledged Snooty’s incomparable impact.
“An amazing ambassador.”
The death of Snooty, who had greeted more than a million visitors in his lifetime, was first confirmed by visitors met by a staff member at the doors to the museum.
Those reports migrated to social media, where confused readers believed it was related to a hoaxer who made up and reported a false story of Snooty’s death only days earlier.
Disbelief continued even after the South Florida Museum shared a post with Snooty’s picture and embedded text that said “Snooty 1948-2017.” It was accompanied by a statement saying the museum was “deeply saddened to share the news that our beloved Snooty has died.”
“NOOOOOOOOO” wrote commenter Susan Moen on a Herald-Tribune story, followed by five crying emojis.
Poster Andrew Todd Loeffler wrote: “This didn’t happen, the manatee is still alive.”
But the museum replied, “It is unfortunately true.”
Elizabeth Anke, in part of her comment stated, “Didn’t I just watch his birthday party yesterday?”
Children arriving at the museum with their parents offered tributes — sunflowers, pictures and other tokens.
There also were heads of the romaine lettuce that Snooty loved so much.
The museum staff still talks about these gifts.
A 4-year-old girl from Denver left and came back with a bouquet of flowers, which she gave to a woman at the door who was informing people about Snooty’s fate.
One boy said, “Snooty is in a better place now.”
A memorial service for the lovable mammal, certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest manatee in captivity, was held in September and included a visual tribute in the museum’s Bishop Planetarium.
His fans left countless memories of him in an online tribute page on the South Florida Museum website.
State Sen. Bill Galvano, a lifelong Bradenton resident, summed up the experience of many locals.
“Like so many others, my first encounter with him was in elementary school.”
Information from: Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, http://www.heraldtribune.com