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RIP Snooty: World's oldest and most beloved captive manatee dies just after 69th birthday

Grieving fans are leaving tributes of flowers and lettuce at the South Florida Museum, where Snooty the manatee lived for nearly 70 years.
/ Source: TODAY

It's been a hard goodbye to a beloved manatee. Snooty, the world's oldest manatee in captivity — and, likely, in the wild as well — died in what's been called a "heartbreaking accident," just two days after his 69th birthday.

The South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida, said on Monday that Snooty drowned after becoming trapped in a part of his enclosure that is normally blocked off. A panel had come loose overnight, allowing Snooty to slip in.

Snooty, the world's oldest manatee in captivity, died at an animal aquarium on Sunday. He was 69.South Florida Museum

"Snooty’s death was a heartbreaking accident and we’re all quite devastated about his passing,” Brynne Anne Besio, the museum's CEO, said in a statement.

That devastation has been shared by all who knew and adored the manatee.

Generations of Floridians and visitors have fond memories of meeting Snooty. The manatee was so admired that thousands of people came to the South Florida Museum on Saturday, the day before Snooty died, to celebrate his birthday.

Snooty was born on July 21, 1948, to a mother who'd been captured while pregnant. In 1949, he came to live at the South Florida Museum, which has been his home ever since.

Under a federal law that came into effect several decades after Snooty's birth, manatees may not be kept in captivity, except temporarily for rehabilitation or if they can't safely be released.

Snooty himself couldn't be released due to a lifetime of reliance on caretakers.

He shared his tank with lots of rehabilitating manatees through the years — though it was said he preferred the company of people.

A visitor feeds Snooty at the South Florida Museum in 1976.Karl E. Holland / State Library & Archives of Florida

Indeed, at the museum, Snooty loved his snacks and his human visitors in equal measure.

The 1,300-pound, thickly whiskered manatee thrived on attention and was a ham for any camera pointed in his direction. He'd hoist himself onto the edge of his enclosure to greet guests — and to beg for treats.

Snooty ate some 80 pounds of vegetables per day, mostly lettuce. Pineapple, strawberries and other fruits were mixed in to satisfy a sweet tooth.

This week, the animal's fans have been sharing their grief and shock at Snooty's unexpected death.

Some parents have grappled with how to tell their kids.

“Snooty was kind of the superstar of manatees. He was approachable; he had this air of attitude about him," Bradenton resident Josh Crotts told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

"He would come up and breach on the side and they’d feed him by hand because he refused to eat with the rest of the manatees in the bottom of the tank. It was definitely a memorable legacy.”

A museum spokesperson told TODAY that one way for people to honor this legacy was to donate to a fund that will help other sick and injured manatees to be rehabilitated.

Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, recommended also taking care to look after others of Snooty's kind.

Last year, 520 manatees died in Florida, with a record 104 of those due to collisions with boats.

Practice safe boating, work toward cleaner waterways, and be good "stewards of the environment," Rose said. "Protect manatees in the wild."

For now, in tribute, grieving Snooty fans have been making a shrine outside the museum. And fittingly, it's made up of flowers, cards and fruit, and many, many heads of lettuce.