The world’s oldest-known manatee has died at the age of 69 after becoming stuck in an underwater area of his exhibit.
Snooty, who was born in 1948, died in the “heartbreaking accident” at South Florida Museum on Sunday.
Snooty had lived at the aquarium for more than half a century and his arrival was the first ever recorded manatee birth in human care.
Wildlife experts have said the museum should “honour” the manatee by “pledging to leave manatees in their ocean home, where they belong”.
Snooty was found at the weekend in an underwater area only used to access plumbing for the exhibit’s life support system, the museum said.
“Early indications are that a panel that is kept bolted shut had somehow been dislodged and that Snooty was able to swim in.
“The other three manatees undergoing rehabilitation in Snooty’s habitat — Randall, Baca and Gale — are all fine,” the museum said in a statement.
Chris Draper, associate director for animal welfare and care at Born Free, said: “Snooty’s death is a sad end to a much-loved animal, and I have no doubt that his keepers and loyal visitors are genuinely devastated.
“However, let’s not overlook the fact that Snooty’s entire 68 year life was spent in captivity, in a tank: in all those many years he never had the chance to experience a natural environment.
“With that in mind, I am not sure which is the greater tragedy: his death, or how he lived.”
Delcianna Winders, vice president and deputy general counsel of Captive Animal Law Enforcement with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) US, said: “For 69 years, all this manatee knew was the inside of a tank.
“He was the oldest manatee in captivity and should be the last on display at the South Florida Museum, which should honour his legacy by pledging to leave manatees in their ocean home, where they belong.”
Brynne Anne Besio, the Museum’s chief executive, said: “Our initial findings indicate that Snooty’s death was a heartbreaking accident and we’re all quite devastated about his passing.
“We’re reviewing what happened and will be conducting a full review of the circumstances.
“Snooty was such a unique animal and he had so much personality that people couldn’t help but be drawn to him.
“As you can imagine, I — and our staff, volunteers and board members — considered him a star. We all deeply mourn his passing.
“We are honoured to have had him with us for so long and will continue his legacy through our manatee rehabilitation program.”
The museum said that Snooty’s habitat undergoes a “daily visual inspection” and that there were “no indications” on Saturday that there was “anything amiss”.
Many people who had met Snooty shared their fond memories on social media.
The aquarium will stay closed while staff continue their investigation and the manatee’s veterinarian of 20 years will be conducting the necropsy.