The ballad of Lonesome George
When Lonesome George — the last Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni (Pinta Island Giant Tortoise) — died in 2012, I wrote
As the last of his kind, Lonesome George was a living symbol of the struggle to protect the Gálapagos — and other fragile environments — from the destruction wrought through human activity. While Pinta Island Giant Tortoises, like other Chelonoidis nigra were hunted for their meat, the introduction of goats to the Island destroyed their habitat, leaving George as the only known survivor of his sub-species.
As has been done when other iconic and irreplaceable national figures have passed on — Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Eva Peron, Trigger — the Ecuadorians have announced plans to have Lonesome George embalmed for public display.
Like his fellow Latin American, Evita, George’s post-mortem remains have been shipped around. At his death, he was frozen, then shipped to the Museum of Natural History in New York, which in turn sent the remains to taxidermist George Dante. Unlike Evita though, the goal was not merely show the body at rest, but to restore it to the vigor and sense of purpose the icon represented in life:
Dante didn’t just have to preserve a giant Galapagos tortoise with scientific accuracy. He had to preserve George’s personality. So his first step was to talk to the scientists who knew the tortoise when he was alive.
“Everyone you talked to had a different story about George,” Dante says. “They knew every wrinkle on this animal. They knew every personality trait. He was kind of grumpy, and maybe had his own mindset about the way he enjoyed living his life.”
With input from biologists and museum curators, Dante planned George’s final stance — neck stretched up to its full length, legs bowed.
“What you’re seeing when you look at George is this very regal pose,” Dante says.
While it won’t get the airplay that “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” did, George, like Evita, has inspired an English-language musical number.
(National Public Radio, “Science-Based Artist Gives Celebrity Tortoise A Second Life” 2 March 2015)