Gertie

Despite a case of mistaken identity, Gertie the Galápagos tortoise still found Hollywood fame.
  • 1930s
  • 1960s

One of the group of Galápagos tortoises that came to the Zoo in 1933 was rather unfortunately dubbed "Gertie with the goiter," because of a swollen neck gland. The name was not only unflattering but also misleading, since Gertie was a male! But Gertie didn't seem to mind. He was, in fact, one of the friendliest of the tortoises and sought out people to interact with. Because of that, Zoo director Belle Benchley often introduced him to special visitors.

Belle felt that a good zoo story was always “news,” and the Zoo could always use publicity. So in those early days, she would give reporters free reign on grounds to rustle up their own intelligence. One time a press photographer took a picture of a Gertie, looking up at a small tortoise that a keeper was holding above his head, presumably to show the tremendous difference in size between the two. Unable to verify “who or what” later on, however, the photographer obtained his information from a person who cleaned cages, then called a “swamper.” At press time, the photo bore the caption: “Gertie sees her little son, born in the San Diego Zoo, for the first time.”

Much to Belle's consternation, this comedy of errors overlooked several facts: the tortoises were two different species; Gertie was male; and tortoises are not “born” but hatched. “Moreover, no Galápagos tortoise has ever yet been hatched in captivity, and such an event would make zoo history,” Belle said at the time. “I am still explaining and denying that nothing of this kind has happened in San Diego.”

Gertie was to have another encounter with fame. In 1941, he had a cameo appearance in the Hollywood film “Malaya” with Dorothy Lamour and Jack Haley. In the scene, the hero tries to sit on a log in the jungle only to discover it is a crocodile, and then tries to sit on a rock only to discover it is a tortoise—Gertie. The tortoise and keeper Bob Smith spent a week in Hollywood, and Gertie got some exercise each day by following Bob around the studio’s back lot. He was even hand fed by Bob. Ah, the life of a star!

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