Galapagos tortoise

Galápagos tortoise
Photograph by Sean Baker

The Galápagos Archipelago lies some 600 miles west of Ecuador on the west coast of South America. A remarkably diverse biota has developed in this isolated ecosystem. Early explorers found that many of the islands were populated by an abundance of giant tortoises, and these unique islands are one of the last few places on earth where giant reptiles are still a dominant life-form. The Galápagos tortoise exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo offers visitors a fine opportunity to observe three of these gentle giants interacting in a naturalistic setting. On a cool, overcast day in March, I had the pleasure of interviewing their keeper, Ms.Kathy Nevins, on behalf of the Tortuga Gazette. Most of the interview took place at the exhibit. When we arrived at the exhibit, the three tortoises were inside their barn, having an after-lunch nap.

Mary Cohen (MC): Please tell us something about your background. How did you train for such a specialized job?

Kathy Nevins (KN):I have been a keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo for the past 15 years, the first 2 1/2 years as a part-time keeper before securing a full-time position. After I had worked for four years as a full-time reptile keeper the Galápagos tortoise exhibit was opened, and I asked that it be added to my string.

MC: Let's meet the Los Angeles Zoo's Galápagos tortoises.

KN: Currently, we have 3 Galápagos tortoises on exhibit. Flash Darwin, our female, is 30 years old and weighs 225 pounds. Her carapace is domed. She was hatched in the Galapagos, and was among one of the last groups to be collected. She is probably from Isabela Island. Now, of course, all tortoises in the Galápagos are fully protected by law. Flash is very smart and is a very good climber. By the way, the name Flash Darwin is an adoptive name. This means that her care and feeding is funded by a member of the public who has given her this name. Bubba and Clarence, our two males, are on breeding loan from the Houston Zoo. The two males were collected from the Galápagos by the 1927 Townsend expedition. They arrived in Houston in 1928, when they weighed about 13 pounds and were probably about three years old. Now, 67 years later, Bubba weighs approximately 500 pounds. He has a domed carapace. He is very slow-moving, slow to react and even a little stubborn. Clarence, weighs somewhat more than 500 pounds. His carapace is also domed but with a slight flare at the front and back edges. Compared to Bubba, Clarence is very smart and very mellow.

MC: When did Clarence and Bubba arrive? How did they react to their new surroundings?

KN: They came by truck from Houston and arrived on October 16, 1991. Clarence is very smart and settled right in to the routine. Bubba took more coaxing but has settled in well. They are both healthy, active tortoises in their prime.

MC: How did Flash react to the newcomers?

KN: She was so unhappy! She did a lot of biting the first week. Then she became depressed. She stayed in a corner of the tortoise barn for six weeks; she wouldn't come out and wouldn't eat. We were worried. Then one day she came out of the barn, pushed Clarence aside and ate his meal!

MC: What sort of foods do you feed them?

KN: They are fed three times a week. At each meal they each get one pound of bananas, one pound of carrots, one pound of apples, two bunches of spinach and a papaya. They have quite a sweet tooth. They also eat lawn grass and cactus (Opuntia) pads in their enclosure. If there is enough lawn grass, they don't eat the spinach. But there isn't much lawn left; because they are so heavy, the grass never has a chance to grow back! They have eaten a whole garden of cacti that was planted in the exhibit. They eat the entire plant, branches, stem and all. The Opuntia is close to gone and the column cactus has disappeared.

MC: Do they have favorites among these foods?

KN: Papaya is definitely their favorite fruit. Lawn grass, when they can get it, is their favorite green.

MC: Do they need nutritional supplements, such as vitamins or minerals?

KN: They don't seem to. Their diet has been reviewed by a nutritionist and was found to fulfill all their needs.

MC: Do they produce a lot of droppings?

KN: They produce large quantities of droppings! These are collected by the staff and discarded immediately for sanitation reasons.