Embalmed and now on display at the Biological Field Station on Santa Cruz Island, Lonesome George will forever look out at us and to the multitudes of generations yet unborn with his innocent — but dead, dead, dead — dark eyes and ask that most damning and eternal of questions: “WHY!!! Why did you let this happen?”
Readers of this humble column know, that besides sharing the occasional tidbits of my veterinary knowledge with the world, I like to share as well tales of our world travels. Which is good for me, because after 20 years of kicking out these stories, both myself and my readers are getting a bit tired of my constantly pontificating on and on about rabies shots, constipation, heartworm prevention and flea/tick control. These things are important with regards to the health of our dogs and cats, but what I’m about to point out, I THINK, is infinitely more important in terms of our humanity.
Most of our travels involve destinations and goals that give us a deeper insight into the lives and events of the people and places that have shaped the world we live in today: the beaches of Normandy, the Great Wall of China, and the crumbled walls of Jericho. We’ve tested the limits of our meager physical endurance by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiking across the width of England, and trekking 16,000 feet into the Himalayas to the source of the Ganges River. And I cannot forget to include my most favorite of all of our trips: those of numerous Holy Pilgrimages to places like Fatima and Medugorie, the Shrines of Saints Francis, Faustina, and Theresa of Lisieux, as well as to God’s Holy Mountains: Sinai, Nebo, Ararat, and Calvary.
But our travels also have a darker side. I call it “The Death Watch.” Along with Theresa, one of my unspoken goals as a biologist (my Bachelor’s degree was in biology with a minor in chemistry), veterinarian, and citizen of our planet is to seek out and to document endangered species in the wild before they are gone forever. These journeys have taken us to both Antarctica (for the Wandering albatross) and to the Arctic (for the Beluga whales), to Swaziland and Indonesia (for the quickly disappearing Rhinos), to the central Pacific islands of Yap, Kiribati, and Tuvalu (for reef sharks), and to Uganda (for the mountain gorillas.) Sometimes, knowing that these guys will be gone—almost exclusively by the hand of man—is almost too hard to bare. One of our early trips in life was to the Galapagos Islands. The following is a short excerpt from my recently completed travel book.
Sitting directly on the equator 450 miles west of the South American nation of Ecuador are the Galápagos Islands. This isolated, distant chain of volcanic islands—and the oceans surrounding them—are home to some of the most amazing (and strangest) animals I’ve ever seen: iguana lizards that swim, cormorants that don’t fly, penguins that don’t require any ice, a tool-using finch, and of course, the giant Galápagos tortoise. It was the biological uniqueness of these islands, along with their thirteen distinctly different species of finches (buntings, actually), that inspired a then very young naturalist named Charles Darwin to propose one of the profoundest and most controversial theories in the history of science: the theory of evolution.
At the Charles Darwin Research Center on the main island of Santa Cruz lives a Galápagos tortoise named Lonesome George. As we stood outside his pen in the equatorial sun watching the magnificent tortoise as he chomped away at a head of cabbage, Faustus, our tour boat’s naturalist, told us Lonesome George’s story. The haunting history of this poor creature turned out to be just another version of the same sad story that has darkened mankind’s legacy on this planet since we first picked up our first tool and smashed it over the head of another animal: that of wanton environmental destruction to satisfy our own—and mostly selfish—wants.
Charles Darwin noticed in his landmark study of Galápagos Island finches that each isolated island had its own separate and distinct species of this bird. And so it is with the Galápagos tortoise; each island has its own unique species. Lonesome George had the misfortune of being a native of the ecologically ravaged island of Pinta. For a hundred years, sailing ships would come ashore on the island and, by the thousands!!!, gather up as many of George’s brothers and sisters as their ship’s storage capacity would allow. The tortoises would languish alive in the ship’s holds for months and thereby provide a source of fresh meat for the sailors. When the tortoises’ number became too low to bother with, ship captains set loose goats on to the island to forage and multiply. It was these goats that ate all of the food the tortoises needed to eat.
In 1971, a biologist discovered Lonesome George near death and brought him to the research center where he lives to this very day. He is the last of his kind on the face of the earth. For the last forty years, his caretakers at the institute have been trying to mate him with what they feel are closely related species, but all of the eggs he has fertilized have proven to be infertile. Barring a miracle of biological science, when Lonesome George dies, so will his species.
And that will be that.
And now, and for all of eternity, that is that!!!
“Lonesome George, spread your angel wings and fly
Go and meet your tortoise lady
On that island in the sky.”