A shark, a manatee, a bull, a lion and a pelican walk into a room.
No, this isn't the setup for a bad joke. These animals were choosing the newest apprentice to join their ranks. Gilly the Shark (from Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium), Maverick the Manatee (from State College of Florida), Rocky D. Bull (from the University of South Florida), Ruben the Reading Lion (from the Ringling Museum) and Scully the Pelican (from the World Rowing Championships) all convened in the South Florida Museum's planetarium to select a new human to don a costume created in the image of the museum's beloved manatee, Snooty.
The real Snooty, who turns 69 this Saturday, lives a cozy life at the museum, where the lettuce and medical attention are plentiful. But the real Snooty also can’t leave his 60,000-gallon tank to see his fans, which makes the mascot role crucial. The mascot must hit the streets and act as Snooty’s ambassador. Whoever the winner would be would have "big flippers to fill,” in the words of Jessica Schubick, the communications manager at the museum.
Three contestants auditioned to fill those flippers: Foster Swartz, a recent high school graduate; Steve Dickman, a 13-year mascot veteran as Gilly the Shark; and Craig Phillip, a chemistry professor at Hanover College in Indiana. Each performed in front of the mascot judges and a small crowd of adoring Snooty fans.
Each contestant played to his strengths during the auditions. Swartz graduated from Pine View and will attend Vanderbilt in the fall. His background in theater and student government guided his performance. He strode into the planetarium and recited a 500-word poem in a booming voice, making sure the class of summer camp children in the back could hear him.
“I hope you’ll enjoy the words that I give thee, and I hope you’ll employ yours truly as Snooty,” Swartz rhymed. “My father was born a human baby. My mother was born one, too. But me, I was born as a manatee. I am a sea cow, through and through.” The judges nodded in approval.
Dickman followed up Swartz’s performance, and he mainly let his résumé do the talking. His 13 years as Gilly the Shark gave Dickman the tools to handle the role, but his whole heart wasn’t in it. “I would vote for [Swartz],” Dickman said at the start of his audition. “I’ve got no poem.” Plus, he admitted, he didn’t want to be the new full-time Snooty. The role, coupled with his work as Gilly, would be overwhelming. He only auditioned in the hopes of occasionally filling in.
Dickman also provided secret insight into the life of a mascot: The human operator sees through the mouth of the mascot. And Dickman always has someone with him to make sure he doesn’t trip over a child and to ensure he stays hydrated. Because the Snooty costume is made of hard foam and not fake fur (which is soft), Dickman said the costume would be difficult to operate.
Phillip rounded out the competition. He began by pumping up the crowd and refusing to use a microphone. “First off, I want to say thanks to Foster and Steve for trying out as well,” Phillip said. “Foster was awesome. Steve has been doing this forever. I’ve never done this at all, but I would love to.” Phillip focused on an internship program he started at Hanover that brings students to the South Florida Museum for the summer. He estimated that about 15 students have come through the program over the past five years.
Hanover's students spend time preparing food for the museum's manatees, helping with water quality and giving presentations. They end up at schools like Stanford’s doctorate program in genetics and Notre Dame’s doctorate program in computer science. Students call working with Snooty “life-changing” and spread the word about the museum, Phillip said: “It’s the internships that are important for my students. Because of all that, I would really love to be in that Snooty manatee costume just once.”
After the three performances, the judges left the planetarium and convened for approximately four minutes before returning with the decision. Maverick and Rocky whispered into Schubick’s ear. She was the only person to hear their voices the entire morning.
Swartz won. Dickman won “semi-pro pinch hitter and mascot mentor.” He'll teach Swartz and fill in as needed. Phillip, meanwhile, won “long-distance Snooty ambassador.” He'll spread the word about Snooty, and Schubick pledged that his dream of getting inside the costume, of seeing the world through Snooty's eyes, will come true.
After the announcement, Swartz came back out in the Snooty costume. Phillip shook his flipper, and Dickman gave him a hug.
“My job is [to be] an ambassador on behalf of Snooty, the world’s oldest manatee, this weekend at his 69th birthday bash,” Swartz told the crowd after the show. “I won’t be a kid. I’ll be a manatee.”
Snooty is indeed the oldest manatee in captivity, and the oldest known manatee in the world. David Murphy, a veterinarian at the museum, said the oldest manatee he knows of in the wild is 55. The contestants and the crowd visited the real Snooty in his tank after the decision. Snooty had just finished his physical, which he gets twice a year. He's gained 70 pounds since his last checkup, and he stretches 9 feet 8 inches long and weighs 1,230 pounds. The costume crafted in tribute to him can fit anyone from 5 feet 4 inches to 5 feet 10 inches tall.
The contestants gathered around the tank, and Snooty swam over to them. Snooty spent a long time looking at Swartz, as if inspecting his new ambassador, before eventually returning to his lettuce.