Citizen Gus | The Coast Halifax

Citizen Gus

The oldest gopher tortoise in the world has spent the last 75 years burrowing into our hearts. It's time to recognize his legacy.

click to enlarge Citizen Gus
Alex MacAskill
A touchstone of continuity. A living childhood memory.

Last year was his 75th in the city. He has reigned over Halifax’s hearts longer than Queen Elizabeth II has ruled the British empire. She sits on a throne, under a golden crown. He lives in a plexiglass enclosure, under the warming glow of a 150-Watt heat lamp. A humble life, of no less magnitude.

Gus, the Museum of Natural History’s gopher tortoise, is an icon unparalleled in this city.

He is a living conductor of wilderness awareness—a multi-generational ambassador of conservation who has stirred the imaginations of millions over the past three-quarters of a century.

Beyond that, Gus holds a special place in this city’s heart. He is the bedrock foundation of Halifax’s identity. Generations have grown up looking down into that expressionless gaze. Our faces age. His stays carved.

For all these reasons, and more, we are nominating Gus the tortoise for the Order of Nova Scotia.

Representatives from The Coast sent off the completed nomination form this week, accompanied by letters of support from Ecology Action Centre wilderness coordinator Raymond Plourde, former Gus caretaker Scott Pelton, HRM deputy mayor Waye Mason and former Halifax Member of Parliament Megan Leslie.

The province’s highest distinction is awarded each year to those who have brought honour and prestige to themselves and their community through outstanding contributions to Nova Scotia.

Traditionally, the ONS is only bestowed on humans. But any Canadian who’s a longterm resident of the province is eligible. The only listed exceptions are public officials holding office. Since there is no regulation explicitly stating tortoises can’t be nominated, under international Air Bud rules we believe Gus is eligible and deserving of this long overdue honour.

The gopher tortoise who would burrow into Halifax’s heart hatched from a golf-ball sized egg in Silver Springs, Florida circa 1922. Twenty years later, he was the fully-grown property of Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute.

Half tourist attraction and half research centre, visitors to the famed herpetologist’s institute could watch poisonous snakes be handled and alligators wrestled before purchasing their very own reptile to take home as a souvenir.

Former Halifax museum director Don Crowdis paid $5 back in 1942 for an indigo snake, baby ‘gator and gopher tortoise during his visit to Ross Allen’s. All three were brought back to their new home in Nova Scotia. Only Gus survived.

It was a different time. Wild animals were not always treated with the care they need, or respect they deserve. The knowledge of wildlife experts has thankfully evolved, though it’s been a slow crawl. Today, conservationists have a better understanding of the fragility of natural ecosystems and the roles all species play in that delicate balance.

Gus animates that concept. His life is literally the story of wildlife conservation exemplified, serving as a key entry portal for children to learn about nature. A quiet guy, says zoology curator Andrew Hebda, with some powerful messages.

Hebda’s been at the museum for 25 years. He oversees all animal exhibits, living or dead, including tortoises. He’s practiced—mischievous even—when speaking. One imagines his answers have been honed by countless field trips and March Break presentations. Ask him about Gus. The playfulness in his speech softens. His tone borders on reverence.

“He’s our longest living volunteer,” says Hebda. “In a way, he’s sort of like the soul of the museum.”

For the first 30 years in his new home, Gus had the run of the place. He’d wander around the tanks and under the desks of the museum’s old Spring Garden Road location. Eventually, he was given a sandbox within which to dig around. Plexiglass was placed around the enclosure in the ’80s, to prevent unwanted touches.

Watching over the tortoise in those early days was volunteer, and later assistant curator, John Augustus Gilhen. So closely associated were the two that Gus takes his moniker from Gilhen’s middle name.

Hebda is one of the keepers of those stories from years gone by. Most of the tales are apocryphal; passed down from one generation of museum staff to the next.

Rumours of a kidnapping, for instance. Museum documents say a janitor stole Gus for a number of years in the ’50s before returning him. Another time he escaped on his own, making it almost as far as the Public Gardens.

Neither legend is true, claims Hebda. Gus’ only excursions out of the museum have been the result of fire alarms, trips to the vet and to avoid the occasional construction work. “And he was on Vicki Gabereau once.”

The intrinsic connection of Gus to the city seems to almost will those wild tales into existence, suggests Hebda. People like to think of him out there. “Kids want to find him.”

“Gus’ impact on our community goes well beyond his commitment to sharing his passion for nature and conservation: he quite simply occupies a special place in the hearts of so many Haligonians.” —Megan Leslie

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Gopher tortoises are a keystone species. That is an animal that holds up many other creatures within its own ecosystem. The clawed shovels on Gus’ forearms are built for digging long burrows deep in the soil, ranging several feet deep and an average 15 feet in length.

It’s protection from predators and harsh temperatures that also act as a communal dorm. The gopher tortoise’s burrow is often shared with dozens of other species, including mice, snakes, rabbits, frogs, even owls.

In the wild, Gus would travel up to eight kilometres a day foraging, digging and evading threats. His life at the museum is far simpler.

He sleeps four to eight hours a day. Every afternoon he’s taken out of his sandbox for a walk. On warmer days, he’ll venture outside onto the museum grounds in search of some clover to snack on.

Some days he eats a lot. Some days not at all. Tortoises can go weeks without food, if they’re so inclined. His diet these days is mostly leafy greens with some vegetables and fruits.

Twice weekly he’s given Vitamin D supplements and multivitamins. The temperature in his enclosure is carefully maintained, and double-checked with infrared thermometer.

While Gus is in good health, museum staff takes special precautions to make sure he stays that way.

“How do you treat a member of the family?” asks Hebda. “Properly.”

Meals, cleaning and general temperament are diligently recorded in daily logs: 11 blueberries and “somewhat active.”; Banana and a couple bites of lettuce; “Pretty active after he had his snack.”

Staff keep an eye out for harmful cleaning chemicals on the museum’s floor and pesticides on the grass outside. Plans for any renovation work inside the building are always devised “Gus-first,” taking into consideration the project’s impact on his care.

“He’s written into the fire plan,” exclaims Hebda.

If necessary, Gus is also taken on sleepovers with staff when the environment could prove stressful or the museum is shut down for extended periods. Internal procedural manuals carefully outline his precise requirements during those overnight visits, and what his host should expect.

“Homes are very different than the museum and it may surprise you what Gus will try to explore,” read the instructions. “Gus himself may be very cranky about the whole situation and not want to move.”

Twice a year he gets a checkup from the exotic animal experts at the Fairview Animal Hospital. Doctor Suzette Dibblee has been looking after Halifax’s treasured pet during those visits since 2009—performing blood work, taking X-rays and every so often trimming Gus’ overgrown beak with a Dremel.

“He’s gotten used to it over the years,” says Dibblee. “If I do it too long, he might pull his head back and then you can’t get in there. He’s like, ‘Nope.’”

Normally, private medical records aren’t publicly available in a Freedom of Information request. But seeing as how he’s a living museum exhibit, Gus’ privacy isn’t closely guarded by the province. His X-rays and vet bills were included in documents sent to
The Coast two weeks ago.

Inside were notes about the mild health problems the ageing tortoise has endured: A limp on his right hind leg for a period in 2014; struggles with regularity in 2016. Most notable is his bladder stone—a six-by-seven centimetre mineral mass that showed up the first time Gus was X-rayed in 2009.

Dibblee theorizes the stone’s origins could stretch back decades, to a time when less was known about tortoise care. There was a general feeling in the past that the animals didn’t need much water, she says, or a varied diet.

The stone isn’t causing her patient any pain or physical distress, so other than keeping an eye on its growth, they’ve left it in place.

“With a tortoise his age, to go in and consider surgery when it’s not causing clinical concerns, we could lose him to the anaesthetic,” she says. “It’s a big surgery. You have to remove the shell to get into the abdomen. So it’s better left alone, for sure.”

It’s a mineral monument to evolving standards of care, and a reminder that Halifax’s ageless icon is still mortal.

Citizen Gus

Back in August, shortly after his latest birthday, museum staff began to discuss the inevitable: What happens when Gus dies?

“We should have a plan ready so there is no confusion and his death is handled appropriately,” writes assistant coordinator of animal care Heather McKinnon-Ramshaw in an email to several of her colleagues.

“I know this is a topic that we may not want to discuss. I have been putting off organizing this meeting for the last 10 years. Now that he is 95, we really need to start thinking about the future.”

In the wild, gopher tortoises can live anywhere from 40 to 60 years. In captivity, well, we don’t really know. Eighty years seems average, but museum staff say 150 is well within reason. Gus might be closer to middle age than his twilight years.

None of that changes the unavoidable truth that someday there will be a Halifax without a Gus.

When the Queen dies, a carefully orchestrated plan will be enacted by a flurry of key personnel, politicians, news outlets and government departments. They will together mourn one head of state while preparing for the coronation of her successor.

What happens when Gus shuffles off this mortal shell is still TBD. The question of his remains, the communication plan for the public, memorial services and other commemorative efforts are all still left unanswered.

“We like to talk about it, but it’s not a formal plan that’s in place,” says the museum’s visitor experiences curator Jeff Gray. “It’s like a family member. It’s hard to get together and talk about grandpa.”

Unlike the queen, there will be no successor to his reign. There are no plans for a replacement Gus—as if that were even possible—and he has no children to carry on his legacy.

A lifelong bachelor, Gus has “shown interest” in finding a mate only a couple times over the years, says Hebda—always to no success. Museum documents say he was offered a female companion once, but “ignored her.”

Here’s another undeniable fact: Gus is alone. He’s a wilderness symbol for an ecosystem to which he doesn’t belong. He’s not just a come-from-away, but a fossil from a bygone era of collecting and displaying animals with far less concern for their wellbeing.

“I like to think the story he shares of conservation and the importance of wildlife, that that story will always go on for us,” says Gray. “I think we live in his moment as much as he lives in his moment.”

Gus can’t be released back into the wild, and it’s unlikely he’d fare well even if he could.

The town of his birth is not what it once was. Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute is no more, having shuttered in the ’70s like many other nearby tourist attractions thanks in no small part to the opening of Disney World.

Today, gopher tortoises in the area are increasingly threatened by habitat destruction and degradation from land development.

He can’t go home again.

“You are where you are, and if you can’t leave, then how can you contribute or how can we use him to best contribute to that broader understanding,” says Hebda. “Where he came from isn’t there anymore. He can’t go back.”

“He has taught many residents of this province their first lesson about wilderness protection—inspiring, engaging and strengthening Halifax’s and Nova Scotia’s environmental consciousness.” —Raymond Plourde

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In 2009, the province celebrated Gus’ 87th birthday with a brief press release describing his impact on generations of Nova Scotians. “His shell wears a gentle sheen from being touched by more than a million children’s hands,” it reads.

That was nearly a decade ago. Millions more have visited since.

“What he does, and what he is, is this,” says Jeff Gray, gesturing to the crowd gathered around Gus’ tank on a chilly March afternoon. “I feel like all staff are rewarded when people are excited about seeing Gus. There’s nothing more that we need out of that.”

He is a touchstone of continuity you can always depend on, says Hebda. A childhood memory, says Gray, that people get to live over and over again.

“If you’re here long enough, and you hang around the front desk long enough—it sounds made-up, and I swear that it’s not—you will see grandparents come in with grandchildren who say ‘I remember going to see Gus at the museum when I was your age.’”

How the hell do you properly commemorate that?

Gus’ caretakers are less interested in talking about those future discussions than seeing how today goes. Today is about Gus’ 3:30pm walk. Today is about his meal and constitution. Logged and watched over.

It takes some practice to discern a tortoise’s mood. They aren’t known for being expressive. But get close, says Hebda. Get on the ground, face-to-face with Gus and see what happens. He’ll crawl right up and look you in the eyes; sizing you up amongst the millions of other human faces who’ve peered down at him over the last century of life.

The more you watch, the more Gus’ personality emerges. The more you look, the more you see. It’s a motto museum staff hope he inspires in visitors when they walk back out into the wilderness around them—when Gus’ adopted family walk around this place that is his home.

“He doesn’t just belong to us,” says Hebda. “He belongs to everyone.”

Jacob Boon is The Coast’s city editor.