On this day: World’s oldest captive animal dies

By Laurene Joost 7 November 2013
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A giant Galapagos tortosie that was once the pet of Charles Darwin died on this day, aged 176, in 2006.

In 2006, Harriet, the world’s oldest captive animal and the last living witness to Charles Darwin’s most famous voyage, died in Brisbane.

ON 23 JUNE 2006 a female giant Galapagos tortoise by the name of Harriet – the world’s oldest captive animal – died at the estimated age of 176.

“Giant Galapagos land tortoises live an incredibly long time. Harriet was estimated to be… at least one generation older than any other tortoise in Australia, and then the oldest living animal in the world,” says Kelsey Engle, Australia Zoo’s animal curator. “She was an international conservation icon, a national treasure, a beloved member of the Australia Zoo family and even a contributor to modern science.”

Harriet’s contact with the western world began in 1835 when she was captured by Charles Darwin in the Galapagos Islands and kept as his pet during a five-year trip around the world on the HMS Beagle.

Darwin noted that Harriett (then called Harry as they hadn’t figured out her gender)  and two other giant tortoises, Tom and Dick, had adapted their behaviour to the food sources available to them. Darwin developed his theory of natural selection based on a myriad of observations made during this trip, and in this small way Harriett played a part in formulating one of the most important theories in history.

Oldest tortoise was pet of Charles Darwin

After a number of years living in England, ‘Harry’ made her way to an unlikely part of the world in 1841.

She arrived with Tom and Dick on the Queensland coast under the care of Darwin’s former naval officer John Clements Wickham. In 1860 all three tortoises were donated to Brisbane’s botanic gardens. Dick unfortunately died shortly afterwards, but Tom lived until 1929.

‘Harry’ moved from the botanic gardens to the wildlife park of writer and naturalist David Fleay in 1958. She was thought to be male for over 100 years. After several unsuccessful attempts at coaxing her to mate with other female tortoises, this misconception was cleared up in 1960 when a visiting keeper from Honolulu Zoo found her to be female.

From 1987 onwards, Harriet was a local celebrity at the Irwin family’s Australia Zoo up near Beerwah before her death from heart failure in 2006.

“Her remarkable history has been a point of fascination and extensive research for many years, and generations of Australians have known and loved this extraordinary old lady,” Kelsey says. 

– Text by Laurene Joost