Tucked beside fossils of long-gone gigantic sloths and knee-high horses stands a newcomer to the American Museum of Natural History’s extinction parade: Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island giant tortoise.
For four decades the 100-year-old reptile served as a conservation icon on Ecuador’s Galápagos Archipelago. His subspecies, hunted for meat and tortoise oil, all but vanished in the 1900s. George was its only survivor, and despite several attempts to get him to reproduce with giant tortoises from similar subspecies, he died without descendants on June 24, 2012. Now, what remains of Lonesome George’s legacy is a lifelike mount at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. Designed by an expert team of taxidermists, the display depicts George at his most majestic; with neck outstretched and shell polished.
Serendipity brought him to the museum. On the same morning that Fausto Llerena, George’s handler since 1983, found the tortoise sprawled out dead in his pen, a congregation of conservationists had just arrived to Santa Cruz Island for a citizen science workshop. Santa Cruz Island, where George drew millions of visitors over his 40-year tenure, is one of four inhabited islands in the Galápagos chain; the other more than three-dozen islands and islets are untouched wilderness preserves. When Llerena informed the Galápagos National Park Service of George’s passing, they shared the sad news with their guests, many of whom began to cry. For Eleanor Sterling, a chief conservation scientist at the AMNH who arrived on the island that day, the next 24 hours were filled with disbelief. “We just witnessed extinction,” she says.
Galápagos tortoises can live up to 150 years, so George’s death came unexpectedly. The park had made no prior arrangements. “It’s always hypothetical until you’re in the middle of it,” Sterling says. “Then suddenly you’ve got this big weight on your shoulders.”
Sterling and the other conservationists, many of whom were members of the Galápagos Conservancy, shifted gears from conducting citizen science to making postmortem arrangements. A veterinarian was called to conduct the necropsy; after splitting George’s shell in half with a chainsaw it was determined he had died of natural causes. Next the group needed to stabilize George’s carcass before the 100-degree Fahrenheit tropical heat could rot his remains. For that, they needed plastic freezer wrap and a refrigerator. So the group made frantic calls to local village hardware stores on Santa Cruz Island.
The hardware stores were out of plastic freezer wrap, and it would take two weeks to get more. When the team explained that the supplies were for Lonesome George, employees sniffed out some freezer plastic at a local pig farm. The group then wrapped every centimeter of George’s 1.5-meter-long frame to keep him frozen and thwart freezer burn; they had to protect each individual toe to prevent it from breaking off in the refrigerator. For Sterling, the process was “exciting and terrifying.”
After 36 hours, the bulky, 75-kilogram tortoise was put in a large freezer, safely wrapped and mummified. Meanwhile, word of his death went viral. The Galápagos Conservancy was flooded with e-mails from impassioned fans suggesting next steps. Some recommended burying Lonesome George on his home island. Others wanted to parade him from country to country like a rock star on a world tour. One letter even suggested barbecuing his remains for a celebratory “ingesting George” feast.
Members of both the conservancy and the Galápagos National Park System decided the best option was to preserve George via taxidermy; that way, the thinking went, George could continue to herald conservation efforts even in death. But the restoration job would require a very special taxidermist.
George Dante was tinkering in his office at Wildlife Preservations, a taxidermy firm in Woodland Park, N.J., when Steve Quinn, a senior diorama artist from the AMNH, called. “I could not believe what I was hearing,” Dante says. “Everything was moving in slow-motion. I remember trying to process the fact that George had passed away and this was the end of a species. And then this honor, that they’re asking me if I’m interested in doing this.”
Sterling had recommended Dante for the job. “After I had my 24 hours of sadness and self-reflection, I realized the museum could and had the resources to make a difference,” she says. Dante had done the taxidermy restoration work on 2.5-meter-tall Alaskan brown bears and other creatures for the museum’s North American Mammal Hall in 2012. Preserving George would be his biggest challenge since that project.
Acting on Dante’s instructions, the park’s carpenters and mechanics built a custom box made of hardwood tree bark to ship George from the Galápagos to Dante’s New Jersey office. Getting the tortoise there would require special permits from Ecuador’s wildlife agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ecuador’s presidential office and other authorities. It ended up taking nine months for George to be cleared for travel. In the meantime all Dante could do was cross his fingers while the tortoise sat in a freezer on an island with little infrastructure and frequent electrical blackouts.
On March 10, 2013, the morning of Lonesome George’s departure arrived. James Gibbs, a conservationist from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, had flown down to chaperone the corpse. Gibbs had worked with George for a number of years but says that the tortoise had never liked him. Gibbs’s job was to draw blood samples from George, so every time he would approach the tortoise, George would recede into his shell.
Before dawn Gibbs helped load the frozen tortoise into his box and then onto a truck that took them via ferry to the airport. Along the way, people asked what was in Gibbs’s 225-kilogram box. When he told them it carried Lonesome George, they would touch the box as if it were the casket of a loved one. Some people cried; many offered to accompany George on his journey. “I could actually see in the eyes of people that they really believed in the importance of this,” Gibbs says. “It personalized the meaning of extinction for me.”
On March 11, after 28 hours of travel, Gibbs delivered George to Dante in New Jersey. Opening the hardwood box was a nail-biter: What if the carcass had thawed en route? But after Dante pried the box apart he found that George’s remains were still fully frozen.
Dante defrosted the corpse. After George’s body thawed he measured every centimeter of the tortoise before molding a replica of the body. He filled the mold with foam, which would eventually become the base on which he would add a water-based clay to create George’s features. On top of that clay he would stretch out George’s skin—intact in one whole piece. His biggest hurdle was working on a species that had never been mounted before. Not surprisingly, taxidermy-supply companies do not make parts for extinct giant tortoises. “The beauty is that there’s no handbook on how to do it,” he says.
Dante was well aware he was working on what he had dubbed “the world’s pet.” As such, he knew there was no room for error. Every centimeter had to be scientifically accurate, from his saddle-back shell to the missing toenail on his left front foot. “We couldn’t just look at this as a project of mounting a Galápagos tortoise.” Dante says. “We are re-creating this character.”
He checked hundreds of pictures to fashion every wrinkle in George’s skin. He dashed green stains around George’s mouth and neck to make it appear as if the tortoise had just finished grazing. And he had a glass company create the world’s first pair of custom-made glass tortoise eyeballs for George, which meant visiting a local zoo to observe the intricate colors of a live tortoise’s eyes. When it came time for a pose, Dante consulted Fausto Llerena, who was a part of the group that first found George and the man who discovered he had died. Llerena advised Dante to portray George in a familiar stance, with his neck outstretched in dominance and yet with his tail tucked submissively. Llerena, who is also a well-known wood carver, sent Dante a hand-carved wooden tortoise as a sign of gratitude for restoring his friend of 40 years. “This is my Oscar,” Dante says of the softball-size carving.
On September 18, 2014, after 500 hours of labor conducted over more than a year, Dante was finally ready to present George to the museum and the people who helped bring him there. Among the congregation at George’s unveiling were several people who were also present for his death, including Gibbs and Sterling. They were all pleasantly surprised with Dante’s work. “You could see the look in his eye, and you could see the pose,” Sterling says. “He brought Lonesome George back to life.”
Surrounded by other species lost to time, George looked a little less lonesome. But the difference between him and his neighboring specimens was not lost on anyone who attended the unveiling. The other animals in the hall were driven to extinction by changing climates. George and his kind disappeared because of man.
Editor's Note: Lonesome George is on temporary display at the museum until January 4, 2015, after which he will be shipped and put on display in Quito, Ecuador.