Museum admits fault in Snooty’s death

Snooty, known as “Baby Snoots” when he came to Bradenton as a one-year-old manatee born in captivity in Miami, drowned in July 2017 at the South Florida Museum when he became trapped in an access tunnel.

BRADENTON – Snooty the manatee drowned due to human error, including poor communication, deficient record keeping and lack of staff and volunteer training, South Florida Museum officials announced on Thursday.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts that the board confirms that the findings show Snooty died as the result of a preventable accident,” John Quinlan, vice president of the museum’s board of trustees, told reporters Thursday.

Snooty drowned the night of July 22 or the morning of July 23 after his gala 69th birthday party, when he swam through a broken access panel leading to an underwater tunnel and became trapped, he said.

After a museum-initiated investigation, “We came to understand that mistakes were made, specifically the aquarium staff were aware of the panel being askew or loose, or that it was missing screws as early as Sunday, July 16, a week prior to Snooty’s death,” said a tearful Brynne Anne Besio, museum CEO. “Due to breakdowns in record keeping, communication follow-through and reporting, some action was taken but no action culminated in actual repair.”

Besio told reporters in July that the panel was visually inspected daily by divers, but corrected herself Thursday, saying, “Those same breakdowns in communication and reporting caused us to share information in the two days following Snooty’s death that was inaccurate, and for that, I am sorry.”

Aquarium director Marilyn Margold no longer works at the museum, Besio said.

The results of the investigation into Snooty’s death by James Gesualdi, an attorney, animal welfare advocate and author of “Excellence Beyond Compliance,” have resulted in partnerships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Manatee Rescue and Rehab Partnership, an aquatic engineer and contractor and others to improve the habitat and operational practices at the aquarium, she said, adding that staff has now been trained and a new dive checklist and record keeping system implemented.

Snooty and Sally

The tunnel where Snooty drowned was known as the “cave,” said Sally Senger, 79, who worked with Snooty at the museum from 1998 until her retirement two years ago.

Snooty grew up at the Bradenton Pier in a four-foot-deep pool, so the museum built a four-foot-deep shelf in his new aquarium so he would feel comfortable, according to museum records.

Under and behind that shelf, “There is a 12-inch pipe that has to be cleaned,” Senger said. “You’d take the screws off the cave door, go in and clean and come out.”

When Senger heard museum officials say that the access panel was inspected every day, she knew something was wrong.

“They never told us to check the panel,” she said.

Snooty and Sally Senger
Snooty and Sally Senger, a long-time volunteer who donned scuba diving gear to clean the manatee aquarium, had a close relationship.

Senger always will have fond memories of Snooty, she said, like bringing him treats of mandarin oranges and fruit cocktail, petting him, and saying “Hi” to him, which always brought him to the edge of the pool.

Like her bumper sticker says, “Snooty lives in my heart.”

Memorial Sunday

A free, Snooty Memorial Open House is scheduled at the museum on Sunday, Sept. 10 from 1-5 p.m. to celebrate his life.

A visual tribute to Snooty will be shown in the Museum’s Bishop Planetarium, and visitors can help create memorial projects honoring Snooty.

The museum continues to honor Snooty’s legacy “by providing as much as we can to the manatee rehabilitation program,” Besio said. Randall, one of the museum’s three manatees in rehabilitation, will be released to the wild this month and the other two, Gale and Baca, will be released in February, she said. 

“Baby Snoots” was born in captivity on July 21, 1948 at the Miami Aquarium Tackle Company, located on the Prinz Valdemar, a former Danish warship that had capsized in Miami harbor in 1926 and became a floating restaurant and aquarium.

He came to Bradenton in 1949 for the DeSoto Celebration, and lived in a pool exhibit at the downtown pier on the Manatee River.

He moved in 1966 to the South Florida Museum and was relocated to the present museum location in 1993.

He was Manatee County’s official mascot.

As the oldest manatee in the world, Snooty continued his contribution to science after death, Besio said, explaining that his necropsy has been thoroughly studied, “and all that information will benefit manatees in the future.” His skeletal remains will be returned to the museum for preservation, she said.

Protest scheduled

Denise Anderson will be at the memorial, she said, to honor Snooty in her own way.

The founder of “Justice for Snooty” will be picketing with other group members, calling for the resignations or firings of Besio and COO Jeff Rodgers.

Denise Anderson/Justice for Snooty
Denise Anderson, founder of Justice for Snooty, calls for the removal of the South Florida Museum CEO and COO.

Margold’s departure from the museum is a step in the right direction, according to Anderson, who told The Sun that she plans to file a negligence lawsuit against the museum if the two executives remain at their jobs.

“Our community needs to begin healing, but we cannot until these employees are removed from the museum,” she wrote museum officials. “The South Florida Museum’s number one job was to keep a safe environment for Snooty and his tank mates. Snooty is dead because of the museum’s negligence or complacency.

“Humans failed Snooty beginning in 1948 when his pregnant mother was captured while swimming freely as she was born to do,” she said. “Humans failed Snooty again when he was stolen from his mother. And humans failed Snooty for the final time when the museum’s negligence allowed him to drown to death.”