Saturday, June 24, 2006

Poor old Harriet

Old Harriet the tortoise has died. I photographed Harriet for London's Daily Mail at Steve Irwin's Australia Zoo last November on the day of her 175th birthday. (See photographs at my gallery here) She died overnight in her sleep from a suspected heart attack. It was a real pleasure to photograph her, touch her shell and feed her with her favourite food, hibiscus flowers. To know what has passed her by over 175 years is really quite humbling. Daily Mail writer Richard Shears wrote this amazing tale of her life.

Coaxing an Old Girl Out of Her Shell
From Richard Shears in Queensland (Photography by Cameron Laird)

It had been five years since I last saw Harriet and for once I didn't have to lie to a lady about her age. 'Why,' I exclaimed, 'you haven't changed a bit!'
In fact Harriet hasn't changed much at all since reaching maturity some, oh, 160 years ago. She still has that wrinkled, toothless, smile, those same watery eyes and an affable, easy-going attitude, content to go on living life in the slow lane.
So while the guests at Harriet the tortoise's 175th birthday party on Tuesday will be dancing and singing, she'll be content to munch away at the special anniversary treat they'll serve up for her - the petals of the hibiscus flower. In any case, it's not that easy to fit all that many candles on a cake.
The oldest living creature on the planet, Harriet could tell us a few things about the history of the world if she could only speak - and given the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, who first found her on the island of Galapagos way back in the 1800s, her descendants might well end up with that ability a few million years from now.
In the meantime, if truth be told, visiting Harriet is rather like dropping in on a maiden aunt. Apart from being a little shy - it takes a while to coax the old girl out of her shell - she doesn't do much apart from pretending to be a large rock, eating zuchini, carrots and eggplant, and walking around at half a mile an hour.
But it's the weight of history that she carries on her enormous back, so to speak, that makes Harriet such a drawcard to the Australia Zoo - home base for the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin - for tourists around the world.
After all, she's been around since the old sailing ships were chopped up for firewood and man put his feet on the moon and a robot on Mars.
Cameras clicked, videos recorded and children who were dwarfed by the 23-stone giant Galapagos tortoise (geochelone nigra porteri) stared wide eyed as she enjoyed her 'constitutional' around her pen yesterday, although it was questionable whether she was even keeping up with the growth of the grass under her feet.
Even so, Harriet has found the secret of long, long life which so many humans aspire to. But surely it's not just eggplant?
'No, it's probably lifestyle and genes,' said her keeper, Richard Jackson. 'She's not under any pressure, she goes at her own steady pace - no jerky movements - doesn't burn up any energy at all and is loved by everybody. She's in absolutely perfect health and we reckon she's good to reach 200.
'Don't let those watery eyes fool you into thinking she's sad. All those tears are a natural protection from her place of origin, where there was a lot of volcanic ash flying around. And don't worry about her missing teeth - she never had any in the first place. She has a hidden beak to much up her food.'
And of course, there are no concerns about keeping a roof over her head. Harriet carries her home with her - that huge, solar-powered heat-retaining shell which takes up half her weight - wherever she wanders, although she does also have a heated cave for cold winter nights. We don't know if she dreams, but there would be a lot of life to look back over if she did...
She'd see the 20-year-old English scientist Charles Darwin sailing in to her island of Santa Cruz in 1831 on board his ship HMS Beagle a year after she had been hatched and she'd recall how, four years later, she and two other tortoises, named Tom and Dick found themselves on board the Beagle heading for England as subjects for scientific research.
While Darwin was impressing the world with his theory of evolution, he wasn't too hot on the sexing of tortoises, it seemed, and believing Harriet was a male, named her Harry. Anyway, the three names had a nice ring about them.
Harriet's capture probably saved her from a terrible fate, for the Galapagos island tortoises were targeted by merchant sailors who collected them for food on their journeys. Tortoises could live for a year without food of their own, which did away with the need for sailors to preserve meat.
At the time of 'Harry's' voyage back to England, Queen Victoria was just a teenager and King George IV had been succeeded to the throne by William IV, a man who himself enjoyed life a tortoise's pace, indulging in quiet conversation and peaceful walks. Morse, meanwhile, was still working on his electric telegraph.
The cold weather of England left the three tortoises rather shell-shocked and the lack of sunshine reduced them to virtual hibernation.
Even Darwin could not fail to have noticed that much more exposure to English weather would end evolution for his tortoises there and then. By chance, John Wickham, a first lieutenant on HMS Beagle with Darwin, was offered a job as police magistrate in Australia and he offered to take Tom, Dick and Harry with him to save them from certain death in a British blizzard.
So back across the world they sailed, arriving in Brisbane in 1842, a year before Charles Dickens' novel, a Christmas Carol was published.
The three herbivores lived for a time at Old Government House in Brisbane before being moved in 1860, strapped down on the back of a horse and cart, to the Botanic Gardens.
There, despite Australia's Gold Rush still keeping thousands in the goldfields, they became creatures of intense curiosity, with people travelling from around the country to gaze at them, sketch them and sit their children on their backs for a free but rather slow walk around the park.
Five years later, when 'Harry' reached the age of 35, the world was shocked at the news of the assassination of American President Abraham Lincoln. Historic events were being created around the tortoise and its two friends as it contentedly munched its greens in the gardens.
Three years on, the last boatload of convicts from Britain arrived in Australia, another historical marker, but there were many more to come in the life of the fascinating creature from the Galapagos Islands.
Around the time that 'Harry' reached his 50th birthday in 1880 jailers were leading notorious outlaw Ned Kelly to the gallows in the Old Melbourne Jail. And could the tortoise hear the cheers in the nearby streets two years later, in 1882, when Australia beat England at cricket on home soil for the first time, giving birth to the Ashes?
Old age finally caught up with Dick and he died under a palm tree one sunny afternoon in the late 1880s, leaving 'Harry' and Tom, now the equivalent of pensioners, to become part of the celebrations in 1901 when their adopted country became unified and the Australian flag fluttered for the first time.
They lived on through the two wars until Tom passed away in 1949.
Alone and probably fretting over the death of the long-term mate, 'Harry' was still wandering through the gardens at the age of 123 in 1953 when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in Westminster Abbey.
'His' back daubed with paint by soldiers and sailors who had written their names to mark their visit to the gardens, Harry remained in the best of health until it was decided he should be moved on to a fauna reserve on the Gold Coast, south of Brisbane.
There, in 1960, a visiting director from Hawaii's Honolulu Zoo made a discovery that startled the tortoise's keepers. Harry was a 'she'.
And so, Harriet was born - or rather, started life officially as a female after 130 years.
The clues were there, though, long before. When a keeper put a female in with 'Harry' years before there was a tremendous fight in the night and the next morning the new arrival was found on her back, swinging her legs helplessly in the air. Harriet, not at all happy to be sharing her space with another female, had delivered the reptile equivalent of eye-scratching.
Australia's stars - Dame Edna Everage and Kylie Minogue - were created and born when Harriet reached her 126th and 138th birthdays.
There were the 2000 Olympics, the attacks on America a year later, the exploration of space....Harriet has lived through the best and the worst of our times. And still she plods on, walking into history daily.
She has made it into the Guiness Book of World Records sharing the honours with a - now deceased - Madagascar radiated tortoise called Tui Malila, presented to the Tongan royal family by Captain James Cook in the late 1700s, and which was around 190 when it died.
But of course Harriet is still alive and, sort of, kicking and even her keepers are in awe.
'Just think about it,' says Mr Jackson as he prepared for Harriet's birthday party next week. 'One hundred and seventy years ago she was on a boat heading for England, a long time before cars, phones or tv. What she must have seen, what she could tell us if only she could.'
Among those dropping into the Australia Zoo yesterday to give Harriet an early happy birthday greeting was three-year-old Samantha Clancy, who patted her on the head and gave her a slice of eggplant.
'It's incredible to think that when my daughter is 28 years old, Harriet will be 200,' said Samantha's mother, Mrs Erica Clancy. 'It's quite mind blowing that anything could live that long.'
In recognition of this amazing creature's life, her story has now been preserved in the pages of a children's book, Darwin's Tortoise, which will be launched when Harriet celebrates her birthday on Tuesday. 'It's aimed at the children's market, but I think that adults will find her story equally appealing,' says author Robin Stewart.
As for Darwin, perhaps he had already guessed that his 'Harry' was destined for a very long life when he said: '...whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.'

Friday, June 23, 2006

My new website is up and running!

Well, it has been a lot of work and I have spent many hours in front of the computer building up the site. Oh, by the way, it is I now have over 3000 photos on the site and they are all fully captioned so searches are easy. Give it a try! Hey, you can even buy prints and keep food on my plate!!