The idea of making taxidermy animals as homage to conservation is so homo sapiens; we really excel quite well in irony. But it’s something we’ve been doing ever since we started filling cabinets of curiosity with natural specimens and reached a fever pitch with Theodore Roosevelt’s haul of 512 big game animals – including a rare white rhino – from Africa in 1909 for the Smithsonian. We are a species of such folly.
Yet here we are in 2015, and we’ve got the somewhat morbid specter of the world’s most famous tortoise, Lonesome George, stuffed and mounted at the American Museum of Natural History.
It was back in 1971 when Lonesome George was discovered on Pinta Island – surprising researchers who thought that the island’s namesake tortoises were already long gone. A year later Lonesome George was moved to the Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Center on Santa Cruz Island where he was introduced to a number of closely-related females in hopes of sparking some romance. Alas, no love connections were made and his unique DNA was never passed on to a hybrid species. Lonesome George remained in captivity for 40 years until he died in 2012 of natural causes; he was over 100 years old at the time of his death.
As the last known Pinta Island tortoise, George became an international icon of conservation – one that scientists felt worthy of eternalizing. And like Roosevelt’s specimens a century before him, Lonesome George was sent to the stuffing studio at the American Museum of Natural History to be frozen in perpetuity for the crowds to admire.
Museum scientists and a master taxidermist faced a number of decisions and challenges as they created a mount that was scientifically accurate. The short film here goes behind the scenes as the team works on preserving the world’s last tortoise of its kind. While the museum’s aim is to “inspire discussion about nature, science, and conservation,” in the end, the tortoise taxidermy feels like just a sad tribute to all the things we've lost. Not to get too mopey here, but really. Godspeed, stuffed Lonesome George.