Nova Scotia’s most beloved reptile is now 100 — or close enough for a party.
Gus the gopher tortoise has been in residence at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History in Halifax since 1942. While his actual hatching day is lost to history, August seems like the right time to celebrate.
“So it’s an average time, mid-August, for when tortoises start to hatch from their eggs,” said Liz Spence, one of the museum’s curatorial staff who takes care of Gus. “But also a good time for visitors to come. So we could accommodate a lot of people for a gathering like this.”
In 1942, the director of the province’s provincial museum bought Gus from a pet store in Florida for a modest $5.
Because the burrowing tortoises are threatened in Florida, he wouldn’t be allowed to emigrate today.
Gus’s birthdays have been a museum event since the early 1980s.
In the early days, Gus had free range of the museum’s galleries. Old photographs show his shell polished from the hands of curious visitors.
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Today, children still delight in joining him on his daily walks, but touching is not allowed.
This year, Gus’s party will last an entire weekend, with twice-daily rounds of singing Happy Hatch-Day To You, and carefully arranged plates of Gus’s favourites: blueberries, bananas and romaine lettuce.
Birthday treats ignored
At the 11 a.m. AT birthday chorus on Friday, dozens of children sang at the top of their lungs while Gus sat motionless on a square of beige carpet, blinking occasionally, and ignoring the food.
Spence says he usually perks up in the afternoon.
“He’s never slowed down in his speed. He’s always been consistent with his diet,” she said. “And just a great personality, a great frame of mind. He always wants to go for his walks.”
It’s an impressive display of consistency from the oldest tortoise of his kind on record. Gopher tortoises live from 40 to 80 years in the wild.
“I’m hopeful for many, many more years from Gus,” Spence said.
After the birthday chorus, Gus’s guests asked Spence many questions, such as when he falls asleep (8 p.m.), how he bathes (in a few centimetres of water) and how well he digs (quite well; he’s working on a burrow on the museum lawn).
Spence showed off a display of vintage Gus memorabilia in the lobby, including a letter from a Galapagos tortoise in 1979, a pewter Christmas ornament, pins, magnets and a limited-release local root beer.
Today the gift shop is doing brisk business in Gus’s birthday merch — T-shirts and tote bags are nearly sold out. Pins and stickers are still available.
Spence makes sure Gus is compensated for the use of his image.
“He gets his payout in bananas and lettuce. That’s how he like to take his cut,” Spence said.
Anyone who wants to extend good wishes to Gus in person can stop by on Saturday and Sunday for his birthday appearances at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
After that, Spence says you can catch Gus around 3 p.m. on his regular daily stroll.