October 2005

The Nation Reviewed

Evolution baby

By Mungo MacCallum
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The year is 1830. William IV has ascended the British throne and Andrew Jackson is US president. France is in revolt after Charles X attempted to restore the absolute power of the monarchy. Joseph Smith is setting up the Mormons in Utah while a flu epidemic rages in Canada. Patents are taken out on the sewing machine and the lawnmower, and Hector Berlioz premieres his first symphony. Closer to home, the Dutch begin their military takeover of Java. Charles Sturt reaches Lake Alexandrina, Western Australia is declared a separate colony and soda water is produced in Sydney. Notable deaths this year include South American liberator Simón Bolívar and French mathematician Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier. Among those born are the poets Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson – and, on the Galápagos island of Santa Cruz, then known as Indefatigable, a tortoise.

Precisely 175 years on, at the Australia Zoo in Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland, this same tortoise is preparing to celebrate yet another birthday – or rather, her keepers and the zoo’s formidable publicity machine are preparing. Harriet, as she is now known, seems remarkably unfussed about it. After all, she has nothing left to prove. She is now acknowledged by no less an authority than the Guinness Book of Records to be the oldest living animal on earth. Given her comfortable, indeed pampered, lifestyle there seems little doubt she can go on for 13 more years and knock off the mark set by another tortoise, once owned by the King of Tonga, which died at 188 – the longest documented life of any animal ever.

It can be argued that longevity is not an end in itself. In any case, Australia hardly needs to import longevity; we already have the oldest continuous human culture, the oldest living plant (the Kings Holly bush of Tasmania, about 43,000 years) and, probably, the oldest living cat (Kataleena Lady, Melbourne, aged 28). What makes Harriet special is her link with history.

Her voyage to Australia was, appropriately for a tortoise, tortuous. Early in life she was moved from Santa Cruz to the nearby island of Santiago, probably by whalers who used Santiago, with its good harbour and plentiful supplies of fresh water and salt, as a sort of living larder. It was there she saw HMS Beagle make anchor on the voyage that changed the world.

Charles Darwin had already been struck by the size and apparent age of the Galápagos tortoises. He had collected two from different islands and was now after a third. The tortoises themselves were not nearly so impressed by him. Darwin wrote in his diary: “I was always amused when overtaking one of these great monsters, as it was quietly pacing along, to see how suddenly, the instant I passed it, it would draw in its head and legs and, uttering a deep hiss, fall to the ground with a heavy sound as if struck dead.”

Perhaps the beasts were anticipating the notoriety Darwin’s visit would bring them. Or perhaps they were worried about what was coming next: “I frequently got on their backs, and then, giving a few raps on the hinder part of their shells, they would rise up and walk away – but I found it very difficult to keep my balance.” Charles Darwin, unexpectedly, was a hoon.

Nonetheless he souvenired his three tortoises, who were inevitably named Tom, Dick and Harry, and took them home to England to study. He had already noted that the different food sources on different islands were somehow mirrored in differences in the animals. For example, tortoises that needed to rear up to eat leaves of trees had developed longer legs. The genesis of the most important idea in human history came, at least partly, from our Harriet.

Tom, Dick and Harry (as she was still called) did not do well in 19th-century London where the cold, damp and pollution sent them into a decline. When the Beagle’s former first lieutenant, John Wickham, was appointed governor-resident of Moreton Bay he offered to take the tortoises with him, and Darwin agreed. With no quarantine or anti-terrorism laws, the transition was a smooth one. In 1860 – the year after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published – Wickham returned to England, bequeathing the tortoises to Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens, where they became part of the zoo exhibit. Dick died soon after of unknown causes but Tom and Harry flourished. As they grew children began riding on their backs, proving that Darwin was not the only would-be tortoise cowboy.

They became a permanent fixture, so much so that their origins were forgotten. After a flood destroyed the zoo’s records in 1893 it was assumed that Harry was a fairly recent arrival and had been named after the zoo’s keeper, Harry Oakman. To add to the confusion there were several other giant tortoises in Australia, some from the Galápagos and a few more from Aldabra Island in the Indian Ocean. Tom died in 1929 and was embalmed for the Queensland Museum; Harry became undisputed king of the gardens until the zoo closed in 1952. The next move was to the fauna sanctuary owned by David Fleay, a naturalist famous as the first man to breed the platypus in captivity and the last to be bitten by a thylacine (also in captivity). It was Fleay who finally put Harry in touch with his female side: at the age of 130 he emerged from his shell, as it were, as Harriet.

In 1987 Fleay signed his park over to the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service which, in a fit of political correctness, decided that Harriet had to go: she might have been resident for 145 years but she was still not a native Australian. Bob Irwin’s Queensland Reptile Park up the road was not so fussy and took Harriet as its star attraction – until, that is, Bob’s son Steve turned the place into Australia Zoo. These days the star is Steve himself, otherwise known as The Crocodile Hunter, the subject of a personality cult of Maoist proportions. Then come the crocodiles, then the tigers. In the wall-to-wall advertising Harriet remains an also-ran, even after her extraordinary history was rediscovered in 1992.

Today, visiting her in her luxury enclosure – pool, heated cave, outdoor grass bed, mud wallow on request, daily rub down, a nourishing and varied vegan diet, and any amount of TLC from her adoring keepers – one can only feel she is doing pretty well in late middle age. Admittedly she has lost a little weight, down from 180 to 150 kilos. But she loves attention, nods to her fans in a regal sort of way and retains her dignity. I suspect she thinks she’s human; when her keepers tried to introduce her to a young Aldabra tortoise for company, she indignantly chased the presumptuous reptile away (the fact that the intruder’s name was Coconut probably didn’t help).

It would be easy to lapse into the sort of anthropomorphism Darwin hated – oh, the places she’s gone, the sights she’s seen, if only she could speak. But without getting too sentimental, it is hard to resist the idea that there is knowledge in that leathery head and sagacity behind those beady eyes. Harriet’s life now is one of gracious retirement – nibbles, petting and dozing in the sun. Sometimes she can be persuaded to rise to her full height, stretch her neck out and emit a hiss. It doesn’t sound like much of a repertoire. But she is not just any old performer in any old zoo. This tortoise belongs to history. And on November 15 Harriet, a passenger on the voyage of the Beagle, will celebrate her 175th birthday with a cake topped with her favourite hibiscus flowers – survival of the fittest in action.

As we were leaving the zoo, an official asked in hushed tones if we had met The Boss. No, I confessed, we hadn’t; and his face fell. Clearly he felt my day, and perhaps my whole life, had been wasted. But bosses come and go, and there is always another superstar round the corner. The politicians and groupies are welcome to shake the hand of The Crocodile Hunter. I’ve fed a carrot stick to Charles Darwin’s tortoise.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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