Science-Based Artist Gives Celebrity Tortoise A Second Life

Mar 2, 2015
Originally published on March 2, 2015 5:38 pm

George Dante fell in love with taxidermy as a young child. His parents took him to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and he couldn't tear his eyes away from the dioramas in the Hall of African Mammals.

When Dante was 7, he preserved his first specimen: a small fish he caught in Barnegat Bay. He formed the body with green floral foam, added a pair of dolls' eyes that his mother bought at a craft store, and painted the faded scales with watercolors.

In high school, Dante started Wildlife Preservations, the taxidermy business he still owns and operates. He became a rock star in the taxidermy world, famous for his scientifically accurate specimens. He even started contracting with the museum that had inspired him as a child. So when that museum encountered a taxidermy emergency, they knew whom to call.

It was the summer of 2012, and Lonesome George, the famous giant Galapagos tortoise, had died. He was the last member of his species, and he had become an important symbol in the fight to protect endangered animals. His caretakers were determined to preserve Lonesome George so his story could endure. They froze the body and shipped it 3,000 miles north to the American Museum of Natural History, which in turn sent it to Dante.

"This is absolutely the most important project you could ever do in your life," Dante says.

It wasn't easy. Dante didn't just have to preserve a giant Galapagos tortoise with scientific accuracy. He had to preserve George's personality. So his first step was to talk to the scientists who knew the tortoise when he was alive.

"Everyone you talked to had a different story about George," Dante says. "They knew every wrinkle on this animal. They knew every personality trait. He was kind of grumpy, and maybe had his own mindset about the way he enjoyed living his life."

With input from biologists and museum curators, Dante planned George's final stance — neck stretched up to its full length, legs bowed.

"What you're seeing when you look at George is this very regal pose," Dante says.

He made casts of George's legs and sculpted clay muscles, painstakingly building a scientifically accurate armature. Then he tailored George's actual skin around the model. George got a couple of custom-built glass eyes; his natural color was restored by paint.

"When you get to stand there, face to face with him, there's an undeniable connection you make," Dante says. "I hate to see him leave."

Lonesome George was put on display at the American Museum of Natural History for a few months last fall. Soon he will make his way back home to the Galapagos Islands to become the centerpiece of an exhibit about threatened species. Millions of visitors will once again be able to stand face to face with the tortoise who died alone.


Take a look at Skunk Bear's musical tribute to Lonesome George:

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Lonesome George was a giant Galapagos tortoise, and he was also a celebrity. As the last surviving member of his species, he had become a conservation icon, the wrinkled, green face of extinction. Millions made the pilgrimage to his home in the Galapagos Islands while he was alive. And his death back in 2012 was international news. And that inspired NPR science reporter Adam Cole to compose a musical memoir.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONESOME GEORGE")

ADAM COLE, BYLINE: (Singing) He was just a giant tortoise, the last one of his kind, a hundred-year-old reptile, not even past his prime.

SIEGEL: As Adam was writing this song, George's caretakers in the Galapagos were taking steps to create a different kind of memorial. They froze his body and sent him to New Jersey to be prepared for display. And Adam recently went up to meet him.

COLE: I'm in Woodland Park, crunching through the snow towards a plain storefront between a plumber shop and a glass company.

Hello. I'm here to see George. Is that you?

GEORGE DANTE: That's me.

COLE: That's not Lonesome George. It's George Dante. He's run this taxidermy business, Wildlife Preservations, since he was in high school, and his shop is filled with artfully posed animals.

DANTE: Everything from some zebra, kudu, sable, antelope right there, we have.

COLE: Is that a whale fin or what is that?

DANTE: That is the right flipper of a blue whale.

COLE: And there, in the back room, surrounded by cardboard walls, stands Lonesome George.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONESOME GEORGE")

COLE: (Singing) Everybody knew his name, but he left this world alone. He saw love all around him, but no love to call his own.

DANTE: So what you're seeing when you look at George here is this very regal pose.

COLE: His long neck is stretched up to its full length, making him about four feet tall. His battered tortoise face is fixed in an expression of disapproval. Dante says this was a particularly difficult project. He didn't just have to preserve a scientifically accurate Galapagos tortoise. He had to preserve George in all his George-ness. So his first step was to talk to the scientists who knew the tortoise when he was alive.

DANTE: Everyone you talked to had a different story about George. And they knew every wrinkle on this animal. They knew every personality trait. He was kind of - kind of grumpy and, you know, maybe had his, you know, had his own mindset about the way he enjoyed living his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONESOME GEORGE")

COLE: (Singing) Oh, he didn't fall to pieces. No, he didn't fall apart. But beneath that sturdy tortoise shell, beat a broken tortoise heart.

George was the last of the tortoises who once called the Galapagos' Pinta Island their home. After decades of being hunted by European sailors, they were presumed extinct. But then, in 1971, scientists found George. They were thrilled. Maybe this was a chance to bring back Pinta Island tortoises. The trouble was, there weren't any female tortoises left on Pinta, so they tried to get George interested in a mate from a different species.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONESOME GEORGE")

COLE: (Singing) George, they brought you ladies, but they weren't your type. You tried to make some babies, but it didn't feel right.

One of George's potential mates finally laid eggs in 2008. But, alas, they never hatched. And four years later, George died. He was in the prime of his tortoise life - a mere hundred years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONESOME GEORGE")

COLE: (Singing) Lonesome George - he's gone his lonesome way, nevermore to walk the shore beside Tortuga Bay.

Dante has reconstructed George's skeleton, sculpted clay muscles and then patiently tailored the tortoise's actual skin onto the armature. George got a pair of custom glass eyes and his natural colors were restored with paint and pigments.

DANTE: When you get to stand there face-to-face with him, there's an undeniable connection you make. I hate to see him leave.

COLE: Soon, George will head back home to the Galapagos to become the centerpiece of an exhibit about threatened species. Millions of visitors will be able to stand face-to-face with the tortoise who died alone. Adam Cole, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can see pictures of Lonesome George and hear Adam's full song on NPR's science YouTube Channel, Skunk Bear. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.