'Spokesman-atee' Turns 51

A half-century ago, little was known about wild manatees, also called "sea cows." The Endangered Species Act was a generation away, and no one really knew how to care for the creatures or how long one might live, either in the wild or in captivity.

But then one manatee came along to seemingly single-handedly change all that. Named "Baby Snoots" and later "Snoots," the friendly, slow-moving beast is the downtown darling of the South Florida Museum, where he recently celebrated his fifty-first birthday.

Snooty has lived much, much longer than anyone expected, said Carol Audette, the museum's aquarium curator, who has cared for Snooty since 1984.

"[Marine biologists, scientists] wondered, 'How did these people who didn't know anything about manatees take care of him?' " Audette said. "We just give a lot of love."

Over the years, Snooty has contributed to valuable research about manatees. In 1987, Snooty was the first manatee tested for hearing. Visiting marine biologists discovered that manatees can hear very well in and above the water. Not only that, but they are quite intelligent and have long memories. Snooty has also been X-rayed and had ultrasound.

The hearing tests were done with Audette's help. She signaled Snooty with flags, telling him to go to the other end of the pool and press one of two paddles making a noise.

"They had assumed manatees were dumb, but he was 80 percent right on the testing," Audette said. "He learned what to do in a week or so. They had assumed it would take months."

Not only that, but when the scientists returned six years later, Snooty remembered exactly what to do when he saw the flags and paddles in the pool.

A 1993 move to a new, roomier aquarium - which he shares with a 4-year-old manatee named Mo - brought changes in Snooty. He has become even more sociable, and exhibits extreme pleasure with his human guests, said public relations director Alison L. Roberts. He "shows off" by turning over and over in the water, giving a wave of his flipper to delighted visitors.

"It's hard not to put our concepts on them," Audette said. Snooty is very personable, quite self-centered and "spoiled." He "pouts" if he's not given enough attention, and shows definite preferences and dislikes.

He recognizes faces and voices, and responds to certain colors, such as bright green or red.

"He particularly likes ladies with blond hair," Audette said. "We have no idea why."

A former aquarium worker discovered Snooty dislikes cigarette smokers when he would swim away from her if she had fresh cigarette smoke on her breath.

As a captive manatee, Snooty has endeared himself to generations of Manatee County families and visitors. Audette said many people who first met Snooty as children now bring their own children and grandchildren to see him and Mo. As wildlife advocate recruiters, Sooty and Mo are tops.

"[Education] is the biggest and best part of his job," Audette said of the 1,200-pound Snooty. "Children pay much more attention to [the manatees] than the adults, and are much more protective. They scold adults if they see them trying to touch Snooty, saying 'Don't you know better?"'

Some adults come to the museum just to be soothed by the manatees' slow, graceful movements and mysterious presence.

"A lot of things about these animals are still a mystery," Audette said.

Museum spokesperson Roberts calls Snooty the "spokesman-atee."