Farewell Greatest Manatee Who Ever Was

It’s a sad day in Gulf Coast Florida and for manatee lovers throughout the world. A day after a birthday party celebrating his 69th birthday, Snooty the Manatee, the oldest manatee in captivity, was found dead under suspicious circumstances at the South SnootyTheManateeFlorida Museum’s Manatee Aquarium in Bradenton, Florida. Snooty the Manatee, the lovable sea cow, had been entertaining and socializing with audiences since calling the museum tank his home in 1949.

I met Snooty when I worked in Bradenton as a sportswriter in the mid-1980s. During our visit to his tank, Snooty took an immediate attraction to my friend, most likely because of my friend’s large 6-foot-6 1/2 frame, propelling himself out of the water to nuzzle.

Snooty was immortalized in my book, Three Yards and a Plate of Mulletbased on my experiences as a rookie sportswriter in a football-crazed small Florida town. Patterned after Snooty, Sneekey the Manatee develops an instant mutual kinship with a basketball player/teacher, the roommate of the sportswriter.

Now that Snooty has moved on to the Great Manatee Tank in Sea Heaven, I am glad that my book includes an ode to The Most Famous Manatee There Ever Was, who brought awe and delight to millions of visitors.

Manatees have faced harm from humans and boaters and near-extinction for many years. But the prehistoric, shallow water floaters are making a comeback, thanks partly to the work of the Save the Manatee Club. Consider supporting this organization.

Here is my tribute to Snooty, from a chapter in Three Yards and a Plate of Mullet:

Sneekey the Manatee

We had heard so much about the manatee – there’s even a county on Florida’s Gulf Coast named after the lovable, docile sea cow, also known as floating speed bumps by callous motor boaters who carve them up and threaten to drive them into extinction – we decided to visit one at the Drabenville Sloane Marine Aquarium.  We approached the admission window and saw the marquis announcing $15 for general admission and $20 including the 15-minute film, “Manatee: Peaceful Giant of the Shallow.” As I reached for my wallet, I heard an unusual sound behind me.

“BU-BU-BU-bu-bu-bu-bb-bb-b-b…”

“What the hell is that?”

Again: “BU-BU-BU-bu-bu-bu-bb-bb-b-b…”

“Shlomo, is that you? What’s that noise?”

“That’s the radioactive bagel.”

“The what?”

“You know, the Jew-dar.”

“Judo? You’re practicing karate?”

“No. Don’t you know? Jewish Radar. The Hebe-horn.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Whenever I’m about to pay too much, I start to sweat and the bagel goes off in my head. You know, BU-BU-BU-bu-bu-bu-bb-bb-b-b… It’s automatic. It’s a common Jewish affliction but it’s also helped us survive and prosper, you know, control all the banks and media and Hollywood.”

Shlomo motioned me to step out of line before I forked over a couple hours’ worth of paycheck. “Let’s go around to the side. I saw a door to the theatre there. You got to go through the side to get in free,” he said as he excused himself from the line and loped toward the theatre.

The manatee film was finishing its 15-minute loop and several Aquarium patrons left via the exterior door. Shlomo dutifully held the door open for the departing patrons and wished them “good day” as if he were the doorman at an exclusive New York Park Avenue apartment. “Follow my lead,” he said. As the last patron left, he casually entered with Dieter and me trailing, and continued loping along, feigning all-encompassing interest in anything that caught his eye – an Aquarium guide he found on a seat, a photo on the wall, a velvet rope – any distraction that would make him seemingly oblivious to anything else around him.

I followed Shlomo’s lead by meticulously inspecting a seat cushion, as if investigating for DNA. Eventually a Sloane employee cleaning and preparing the theatre for the next showing addressed the elephant in the room: “Can I help you?”

Shlomo continued intensely reading the educational display on the wall about the manatee’s diet and gestation cycle, completely enraptured.

“Can – I – help – you?” the usher asked again, this time in the loud, slow, meticulously enunciated cadence typically used with 80-year-old tourists. The usher approached Shlomo. Just as she did, Shlomo loped obliviously toward a statue of a giant loggerhead turtle on the opposite side of the theatre.

Visibly frustrated, and probably paid $6 an hour with no financial incentive to enforce any rules, the usher gave up chasing the rogue giraffe, finished her duties, and left the theatre, not even bothering to question me and Dieter, still curiously examining the architecture of the theatre seats, and with our more human-like size, much less conspicuous than the Sasquatch.

We hunkered down in our seats as paying customers began filing in the proper entry door and handing tickets to the usher. After the film, we sauntered into the main exhibit hall, right by the elderly security guy working a cushy retirement job, alongside the suckers who paid full price. Shlomo’s side-door, intensely-curious-demeanor ruse worked.

“I like to do things for free,” Shlomo repeated as we visited each exhibit room and aquarium tank.

We came to Sneekey the Manatee’s tank, a sad and dirty circular blue pool, like the oversized bathtubs that people who can’t afford in-ground swimming pools put in their backyards and euphemistically call an “above-ground pool.” Sneekey was 1,200 pounds and 40 years old and had lived most of his life in the oversized bathtub at Sloane Marine, so was used to people watching him, but apparently had encountered few as enormous and affectionate as Shlomo.

“Oh, Sneekey, you’re so beautiful. You’re so large and gray and gorgeous. I love you, Sneekey,” Shlomo kept repeating in his best bedroom voice. It seemed to have an effect on Sneekey, who elevated himself above the water to the top of the tank to get closer to Shlomo to…see?…smell?…hear? Who knows, but to get a better sense of a fellow gargantuan mammal speaking the language of love.

I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t actually see it, but it was clear that Sneekey was returning Shlomo’s affection by nuzzling up to him and coming out of the water to visit Shlomo frequently while ignoring the loud and obnoxious kids screaming for his attention. “Oh, Sneekey, blow me some lovin’ out of your pretty blowholes, you big boy, you. I’ve missed you so much!” Shlomo prattled on to Sneekey’s growing delight.

This love-at-first-sight encounter lasted 30 minutes until Dieter and I pried Shlomo away from the tank.

“I have to go but I will return. We will see each other again Sneekey, I love you, don’t forget that,” Shlomo bid, a scene as maudlin as Rhett Butler leaving Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind.” Before we left Sloane, Cheap Bagelman Shlomo plunked down a $195 check for a lifetime membership in the Save the Manatee Club.

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