By guest author Ronald Giegerich, Collection Manager at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science & Forestry.
In late August of 2016, Dr. James Gibbs sent me an e-mail inquiring if I was interested in cleaning the skeletal remains of Lonesome George so that they could be added to the vertebrate collection of the Charles Darwin Research Station in Galapagos. Like most people, I knew of the famous Lonesome George — his life had been well documented since his discovery in 1971 on Pinta Island in the Galapagos Archipelago. It was an honor to be asked.
However, before I could take on the task of cleaning the skeletal remains, Galapagos Conservancy staff worked to make sure that everyone was in agreement — specifically the Galapagos National Park.
Lonesome George’s remains arrived at my preparation room at the main campus of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse on October 13, 2016 — as a frozen block. I cut away the plastic bags and placed the mass of flesh and skeleton into a 32-gallon garbage can to thaw. The remains did not include the carapace, plastron, head, or skin — as those parts had been incorporated into the mounted specimen.
This was the rarest specimen I have ever worked on in my 40 years doing vertebrate preparation and the significance of the task filled my mind. I separated out the bones and attached waterproof labels to each one. After three days of soaking, the bones were ready to be boiled in order to effectively clean them. I worked slowly and carefully over the next few weeks. I did not want to use chemicals, as I often do with other animals, because this was Lonesome George. At the end of five weeks, I placed the cleaned and labeled bones into a museum box, ready for shipment.
I thought at the time that this would end my connection to Lonesome George. I was wrong. When it was time for Lonesome George to go home, Dr. Gibbs inquired if I was interested in escorting the mounted specimen and the processed bones back to Galapagos. How could I say no?
First I paid a visit to the Wildlife Preservations studio where George Dante, a world renowned taxidermist, had mounted Lonesome George. It was my good fortune that George was too busy to accompany his iconic specimen to Galapagos; I would fill in for him. He familiarized me with the mounted specimen, showed me how to handle it, and explained what I should do if any touch-ups were needed on arrival.
James and I arrived in Galapagos on February 17, just hours before Lonesome George. The excitement of his arrival (still in his packing crate) to his new home in the “Hall of Hope” was evident in all who were present. But it would be another six days before we would unpack him, as there was still work to be done to ensure the right conditions for his exhibit hall.
I returned to the Hall of Hope several times over the next few days, checking on the installation of the AC units. I never expected that I’d have to wait until February 23 (the day of the grand opening) to finally remove Lonesome George from his shipping crate. But everyone told me to expect these kinds of delays — they were a normal part of Galapagos life.
When we finally opened the box on the morning of the 23rd, it was a great feeling to see that Lonesome George had made his journey home in fine condition. Participating in positioning him in his new display case with all those in attendance was a feeling and image I will never forget.
Later that day, the bones that I had cleaned were deposited at the vertebrate collection of the Charles Darwin Research Station.
That same evening I attended the grand opening of the Hall of Hope, held by the Galapagos National Park Directorate. I enjoyed the event and couldn’t stop thinking that I had that wonderful opportunity because I had said “yes” to cleaning the skeleton of one of the rarest reptiles to have roamed this earth.
While in the Galapagos I took full advantage of my free time exploring Santa Cruz, and took day trips to North Seymour and Bartolomé Islands. I will always think of the many people I associated with on this trip, as well as the endemic species of Galapagos I had the opportunity to see. I thank Galapagos Conservancy and Dr. Gibbs for giving me this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — to work on Lonesome George and participate in his return.
Ronald Giegerich is the Collection Manager and does Scientific Vertebrate Preparation for the Roosevelt Wild Life Station, at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science & Forestry in Syracuse, NY.
Photo credits, from top: Lonesome George in life © Tom Pattee; Lonesome George’s bones and crate arrival © Ron Giegerich; moving Lonesome George to the exhibit © Maud Quinzan.
Read the previous post in this series, Lonesome George: Conservation Symbol, Friend, and Spirit that Will Accompany Me Always, by Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative Director Wacho Tapia.
View the 40-page paperback, The Lonesome George Story: Where Do We Go from Here? by GC Science Advisor Dr. Linda Cayot.