How Baby Snoots Became the World’s Most Famous Manatee
For a recent edition of Smithsonian Magazine, I wrote a retrospective on the life and career of Marie Fish — ichthyologist, bioacoustician, and epitome of nominative determinism. Fish spent decades recording marine animals in her laboratory and at sea, and revealed that, far from being the “silent world” described by Jacques Cousteau, the ocean was as raucous as a dive bar on Saturday night. Sculpin hummed like generators, toadfish honked like foghorns, and even seahorses clicked like telegraphs.
Word counts being what they are, though, I didn’t have space to chronicle all of Fish’s exploits. And there was one incident in particular that I especially regretted leaving on the cutting room floor: her session with Baby Snoots.
In June 1956, Fish and her husband, Charles, went to Florida to spend a day recording Baby Snoots, a captive manatee at the South Florida Museum. At first, the hydrophone that the Fishes dangled into Baby Snoots’s tank picked up only the monotonous crunch of a manatee masticating carrots, lettuce, and celery. As the day wore on, though, Baby Snoots began to open up. When Baby Snoots was startled or surprised, the Bradenton Herald reported, she emitted a sound “like that of old, creaking leather.” She also uttered a squeak, this one apparently voluntary, “something like that made by a mouse in full flight from a housewife’s broom.” “Throughout it all,” the paper added, “Baby Snoots maintained a curious but cautious attitude.”
As I scrolled through these clips, I was struck at Baby Snoots’s apparent celebrity. The Tampa Bay Times described her as “Bradenton’s famous Manatee.” The Herald had deemed her activities of sufficient interest to run on A1 — above the fold, no less. Evidently Baby Snoots had been renowned in her day. What I didn’t realize was just how long that day had lasted, how many it lives it touched, or how recently and tragically it ended.
Baby Snoots was born on July 21, 1948, at 51 pounds, to a captive female manatee named Lady. Lady was in the care of Samuel J. Stout, the owner of the Miami Aquarium and Tackle Company (a bizarre facility housed aboard a Danish warship that had capsized in the harbor two decades earlier and been resurrected as a floating restaurant). Stout only had a permit to hold a single manatee in his jerry-rigged facility, so in the spring of 1949 he donated the baby — which he called, creatively, Baby — to the city of Bradenton, which lies in Manatee County, and whose leaders gotten the idea that a live manatee would make a “tremendous attraction” for a festival commemorating Florida’s (bloody and colonial) roots.
As legend has it, Stout drove Baby to Bradenton in a pickup truck, wrapped in a tarp, with an attendant on hand to continually douse the manatee with water. The local sheriff brought a detail of prisoners down to the pier to unload Baby and dump her in a tank inside the Chamber of Commerce. Although less than a year old, Baby was already so hefty that the convicts had to remove the door to get her into the building. One city councilman instigated some controversy when, having decided that Baby needed a more dramatic backstory, he announced that the manatee had actually been captured via harpoon from the wild. That roused the ire of the Board of Conservation and the Humane Society, and nearly got Baby shipped back to Miami. In the end, though, myth was sorted from fact, and Baby stayed in Bradenton for the festival.
After the festival ended, the manatee was transferred to a 3000-gallon tank at the local South Florida Museum, where she was rechristened Baby Snoots — perhaps after a TV show called Baby Snooks, though no one really knows — and fed “from one to two bushels of head lettuce, celery, cabbage, carrots and cauliflower daily.” The world’s only captive manatee, Baby Snoots shot to fame almost overnight. Bradenton slapped her visage on billboards, and her keeper taught her to “perform like a trained dog by rolling over, shaking hands, and making up funny faces.” Soon thousands of tourists were visiting her tank annually. The museum’s curator, Lester Leigh, rightly guessing that not even residents of Manatee County could quite picture a manatee, drummed up publicity with some fanciful analogies:
“She is one of the oddest animals you can imagine… She has a very flat, broad tail that runs in the opposite direction to that of a fish’s tail, that is, her tail is crosswise, or horizontal with the bottom of the tank. The tail is very thick and reminds you of a beaver’s tail. She has two flippers with primitive toenails; in this respect she reminds you of a seal. Her body in the central part is almost perfectly round and very plump and fat. Her eyes are very small in proportion to her size, and her snout resembles that of a hog’s snout… and her skin is somewhat like that of a rhinoceros.”
Throughout the 1950s, Baby Snoots generated news as reliably as a Kardashian. Papers reported when she received a visit from her former owner (the manatee “registered glee over the reunion by rolling about in her tank”), when she was upset by the clamor of building renovations, and when she underwent surgery to have a boil lanced. Hardly a month passed without a reference to Snoots in the Bradenton Herald: “Baby Snoots Greets Public,” one headline trumpeted, like she was Jackie Onassis. She even earned national press from time to time. The Chicago Tribune named her one of Florida’s prime attractions; the Boston Globe photographed her playing with a hula hoop. Not all the attention was positive: A churlish biologist visiting from Iowa described her as “close to the last word in unattractiveness.”
Everyone assumed that Baby Snoots’s time at the museum would be fleeting. Nobody knew then how long a manatee lived, but the museum guessed their lifespans were around 15 years. When Snoots celebrated her seventh birthday in 1955, she was described as “middle-aged.”
But Snoots just kept on ticking. She received penicillin shots and recovered from colds; at the age of 12, an electrocardiogram deemed her heart fit. She made headlines when she got the flu, and headlines when she got better. By 1967 — now living in a more capacious tank at the museum’s new location — she weighed nearly 700 pounds and would’ve been old enough to get sent to Vietnam. “Baby Snoots” hardly seemed appropriate; thereafter, she was mostly referred to as plain-old Snoots, or Snooty.
Around the time Snooty turned 21, the museum’s staff made a surprising discovery: “The sweetheart of Bradenton,” who for more than two decades had been considered a female, was in fact a male. It’s not entirely clear how the error was discovered, but it isn’t surprising that it was made in the fist place; apparently even biologists have a tough time differentiating manatees. Snooty’s twenty-first trip around the sun earned more fanfare than the misidentification of his sex: “He’s been deluged with birthday cards, birthday gifts, and an assortment of birthday cakes,” the Herald cheerfully reported.
And so life went for Snooty — and went, and went, and went. At the age of 23, he grew severely constipated after eating a mechanical pencil that had fallen into his tank; a week later, happily, he had a “close to normal bowel movement” and recovered. When he turned 29, the county commission celebrated “Baby Snoots Day” in honor of his “selfless contributions” to the “education and entertainment of the people and its visitors.” He became the official county mascot; he appeared in Captain Kangaroo; he met Dan Quayle.
As the 1980s closed, Snooty had entered his early 40s; the Herald named him its “Mammal of the Decade.” By 1999, Snooty was 51 years old, and, per the Associated Press, had “lived much, much longer than anyone expected.” Forever a ham, he was wont to “(give) a wave of his flipper to delighted visitors,” or to haul himself onto a ledge and “grin directly into the camera.”
If anything, Snooty’s quality of life seemed to be improving as he aged. In 1998, after fifty years of solitude, he received his first tank-mate: Newton, a rambunctious four-year-old orphan who had been rescued from the wild. No one was quite sure how Snooty — now a majestic 1,300 pounds — would react to company, especially such a young and high-spirited companion. To his keepers’ delight, he proved “tolerant of the younger manatee’s puppylike antics.” Belying his pompous name, Snooty became a reliable friend and mentor to the injured and orphaned animals who passed through the museum’s manatee rehabilitation center. Ultimately, he would play host to thirty-three rehabbing manatees.
As I perused the Snooty archives, I assumed that his star would eventually fade. Sooner or later, the public tires of practically every aging performer; surely Snooty was due for a Fat Brando phase. But the Artist Formerly Known as Baby Snoots only seemed to get stronger: As one keeper observed, years of hauling himself onto ledges to charm his fans had beautifully toned his pectoral muscles. When he turned 65 in 2013, more than 6,000 celebrants showed up to fete him — the largest crowd in the history of the South Florida Museum.
Four years later, on July 22, 2017, the museum celebrated his 69th birthday with his traditional cake of fruits and veggies. He was, by this time, the Guinness-certified oldest captive manatee in the world: a hale senior citizen in a state known as a sanctuary for the elderly.
The very day after his 69th birthday bash, though, Snooty’s story came to an abrupt and tragic end. Snooty, the stricken museum announced, had died. An access panel to the tank’s underwater plumbing area had been left ajar, and Snooty slipped through. Undone by his own prodigious bulk, Snooty had been trapped underwater. Baby Snoots, the sweetheart of Bradenton, had drowned.
Bradentonians responded like Brits grieving Princess Di. His fans declared him a “historical monument,” and “the best thing about Bradenton.” “I cried myself to sleep last night,” wrote one mourner. “I feel like a part of my childhood died,” gasped another. He transcended generations, touched lives, became a rite of passage: People had visited him as children in the 1950s, and then taken their own kids to see him, and then their grandkids. Others had gotten married at the museum, with Snooty as their witness.
Snoot-lovers insisted that the county throw him “the best dang funeral a manatee can have,” and, more ominously, that the museum “find out how it happened and take care of those responsible.” (A month after the accident, the museum acknowledged that the panel had been loose for a while before Snooty’s death, and one keeper resigned.) A resident launched a petition to tear down an old Confederate monument in Bradenton and replace it with a bronze statue of Snooty. A trainer described him as “the love of my life.”
Ultimately, though, Snooty’s most enduring legacy wouldn’t be a statue. Before Baby Snoots came along, biologists had disparaged manatees — sluggish and taciturn compared to whales and dolphins — as dullards. One anatomist described their smooth, small brain as resembling “the brains of idiots.” But Snooty put the lie to such unjust perceptions. He was trainable, sociable, and obviously intelligent. In the 1980s, scientists gave him a simple memory test, which he aced. His impressive performance catalyzed a wave of research on manatee cognition and sensory capacities, with Snooty as its star subject. Snooty taught scientists that manatees could see in color; that they could differentiate individual humans; and that, despite frequently being victimized by boat collisions, they had good hearing (Snooty had a special fondness for Elvis).
Research on other captive specimens during the mid-2000s proved that manatees, under the right conditions, were “as adept as experimental tasks as dolphins.” As one biologist put it, tongue half in cheek, to the New York Times: “They’re too smart to jump through hoops the way those dumb dolphins do.”
All of this seemed fitting to me. After all, when I first learned about Baby Snoots, it was in a scientific context: Back in the 1950s, recall, a delighted Marie Fish had recorded his crinkly leather hisses and mouse-like squeaks. After that had come a long, fallow period of research. Even as Snooty waved to thousands of adoring fans, danced with hula hoops, and performed barrel rolls on command, researchers didn’t deign to study his intellect. In Snooty’s middle age, though, biologists had at last come to recognize his loquacity and brilliance. Marie Fish — a woman who spent her career proving that sea creatures had unguessed-at capacities — would surely have admired Snooty’s achievements. So here’s to Baby Snoots: one of the most famous marine mammals who ever lived, and a 1300-pound testament to the brilliance and charisma of our fellow beings.
Above: Snooty celebrates his 63rd birthday. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Dhphoto.
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