Last Sunday morning, Lonesome George, a 100-year-old tortoise from the Galapagos Islands, was found dead by his keeper of 40 years, Fausto Llere, at the Galapagos National Park in Ecuador. As the last of his subspecies, Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni, Lonesome George had been given the title of the “loneliest creature in the world” and, indeed, dubbed the rarest creature on earth.
On Monday, the Galapagos Island Park announced that “Lonesome George’s body will be embalmed and displayed so that future generations can know him.”
When a famous animal dies, what should be done with its corpse?
Nicholls is the author of Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon in which he argued in favor for “something similar” as, “even when George gave up the tortoise ghost, he would continue to be of immense symbolic value to Galapagos.”
After the Berlin Zoo’s beloved polar bear Knut passed away last year, there was a huge outcry about stuffing and displaying him in a museum. Nicholls admits to being “little uneasy at this talk of ‘embalming’” Lonesome George, though not from reasons of “sentimentality or squeamishness.”
Nicholls recounts the public outrage at calls to stuff other animals who had won the hearts of many, Chi-Chi the giant panda at the London Zoo (and the inspiration for the Worldwide Fund for Nature’s logo) who died in 1972 and Guy the Gorilla, a celebrity at the London Zoo until his death in 1978. The Natural History Museum’s announced that it would send both animals to the taxidermist. The honorary secretary of the Zoological Society, Lord Anthony Chaplin, summed up the sentiments of many:
Are all future hon secs, presidents etc of the society to be stuffed and exhibited in a museum?
Ham the Astrochimp was sent into space in 1961, a few months before Yuri Gagarin became the first human to do so. At Ham’s death in 1983, plans emerged to stuff him and display him in his capsule in the Air and Space Museum. Amid the statements of public outrage was this from the Washington Post:
The only national heroes we can think of who are stuffed and on permanent display are VI Lenin and Mao Tse-tung. Does this nation really want to emulate the Soviet and Chinese models? … How about treating America’s First Ape with a little respect? Bury Ham.
Ham was indeed cremated and is buried at the Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
What should be the fate of Lonesome George? Nicholls, aware of the tortoise’s huge part in bringing attention to the Galapagos Island to help preserve them and their magnificent, and threatened, wildlife, proposes not embalming the tortoise but preserving only his “empty shell, carefully oiled and set on a plinth.” Such would be a way for Lonesome George still to be “a silent but surprisingly vocal activist.” What do you think?
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Photo by Peter Wilton