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Eleanor Sterling happened to be visiting the Galápagos Islands on June 24, 2012, the day Lonesome George died. George, the last of a species of giant tortoise unique to Pinta Island, had become an iconic symbol of the struggle to conserve disappearing species. Sterling had come to the islands on conservation business, but she dropped everything when she heard that George had expired.
The first thing Sterling did was put in a call to George Dante, a New Jersey taxidermist. Sterling, who directs the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) Center for Biodiversity and Conservation in New York City, knew Dante from his previous work for the museum. He impressed on her the need to act quickly to protect the iconic tortoise’s body from the ravages of decay. George’s eyes and the skin, being most prominent, were particularly vulnerable.
That turned out to be no easy matter on Pinta, one of the smaller and more remote islands in the archipelago. Sterling and members of Galapágos National Park Service began to search local stores for freezer plastic or some other material to wrap George in. They had little success at first—store after store told them they would have to wait until the next plane of supplies arrived from Ecuador. As the day went on, Sterling and the others grew discouraged.
But their luck quickly changed. Storeowners, moved by Lonesome George’s death, got on the phones and began scrounging up supplies. “All of a sudden, the materials that we needed started coming from a pig farm here and a fish factory there,” Sterling says. Before any damage occurred, George had been wrapped from head to tail and safely frozen, ready to be swaddled in insulation and shipped out.
Nine months later, on March 11, 2013, Lonesome George arrived at the AMNH. Scientists there inspected the frozen tortoise for any damage that may have been done during his trip, and then packed him up and sent him by truck to Dante’s studio, Wildlife Preservations, in Woodland Park, N.J.
Dante unwrapped George and waited for him to defrost. He and his team of four taxidermists then began to take dental alginate and silicone molds of George’s feet and head. The taxidermists then poured polyester resin into the negative molds to create three-dimensional models. The models will be used for reference throughout the six-month or so process of being stuffed and mounted.
Next, they removed George’s skin and placed it in an acid solution, which cleans and thickens the skin (the skin remains in the bath). They now plan to spend several weeks sculpting all of George’s muscles out of an oil-based clay. While sculpting George’s musculature, the taxidermists will repeatedly wrap the skin around Dante’s clay model and make refinements until it fits perfectly.
Dante, who has done projects for the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Smithsonian Institution, prides himself on the scientific accuracy of his work. He prefers museum projects, he says, because of their high standards. George is particularly challenging. For one thing, the sculpting process tends to be more difficult for reptiles than for mammals. With reptiles, he says, “There’s no fur to hide anything. The anatomy underneath has to be as perfect as it can be because the skin is a very thin membrane.”
George also may be the world’s most famous tortoise, which makes it all the more important for Dante to be true to life. Whereas he has in the past ordered premade musculature that he then modifies, this time Dante is taking no shortcuts: he will sculpt Lonesome George from scratch.