On Sunday 9 July 2011 we were all saddened by the loss of our old friend and long-time animal resident, Methuselah the giant Galapagos Tortoise.
Methuselah arrived at Reptile Gardens in December of 1954 from the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, South America. He was flown to Miami and then transported by train to Rapid City. Thankfully, the crews of the rail freight company took good care of him, keeping him warm as he traveled from Florida to South Dakota in the dead of winter. He arrived in good health and adapted to life in South Dakota quite well. He joined a growing herd of giant tortoises already at the Reptile Gardens. The herd was made up of both Galapagos tortoises and Aldabra tortoises from the Seychelles Islands off the coast of Madagascar.
Earl Brockelsby obtained his first giant tortoise in 1949, a large Aldabra tortoise. Several other tortoises were added over the next few years. In the fall of 1954 an animal dealer in Florida contacted Earl to let him know he had been offered a very large Galapagos tortoise that had just been taken from the Galapagos by a dealer in Peru. Earl did not hesitate and jumped at the chance to obtain the big tortoise even though the cost for this tortoise plus transportation was many times higher than any of the others he had recently purchased.
In the 50’s and early 60’s, our herd of tortoises numbered around 20. At one point, we sent all the female tortoises we had to a facility in Florida where they were added to a captive breeding program. Over the years, our most elderly tortoises slowly died off until Methuselah was the last one remaining here from our original group.
Those of us who worked with the tortoises on a daily basis learned each one’s personality, their habits, preferences, and behaviors. Methuselah, honestly, always had the most personality. He was smart and knew how to get what he wanted. He could be cunning even. Sometimes you could tell he was thinking, as though he was formulating some plan.
For a while, in the 1970’s, he was nicknamed “Earl” by some of our staff members, after our founder Earl Brockelsby. Some of you may remember him by that name. But, over the years as he continued to hang in there and outlive his peers, we went back to Methuselah as it seemed so appropriate.
We estimate, based on our visitation figures, that Methuselah contacted well over 12 million visitors in his 56 years here at Reptile Gardens. There are tens of thousands of photos of Methuselah and our visitors out there. Many of you have been sharing your photos with us in the days since his death. We have been enjoying seeing them, and thanks for the memories. It is fun to know that old tortoise made such an impression on so many people.
Methuselah is survived by his two tortoise yard mates, Tank and Quasi, two large male Aldabra tortoises. If it happens that other adult giant tortoises become available from zoos or breeding programs we may add one or two friends for Tank and Quasi. But for now, even though Methuselah’s passing has left a big hole in our lives, his two pals are here ready to meet our visitors and give them that same rare chance to see one of the world’s most remarkable animals up close.