Harriet the Giant Galapagos Land Tortoise was a national treasure, an international conservation icon, a beloved member of the Australia Zoo family and perhaps even a contributor to modern science. Her remarkable history has been a point of fascination and extensive research for many years, and generations of Australians have known and loved this extraordinary old lady.
Harriet passed away peacefully at Australia Zoo on 23 June 2006, leaving behind countless admirers and an impressive and unforgettable life story.
The Darwin Connection
Harriet was collected from the Galapagos Islands in 1835 by Charles Darwin when she was just the size of a dinner plate. This means that she probably hatched somewhere around the year 1830. Her body shape also tells us that it is likely she originated from the island of Santa Cruz.
After a short (and very cold) time in England with the British naturalist and author of The Origin of Species, Harriet was brought down under by Darwin's friend John Wickham to enjoy a warmer climate in Australia.
A Beloved Queenslander
John Wickham arrived in Brisbane, Australia with Harriet in 1842. For more than 100 years Harriet called the Brisbane Botanical Gardens home and it was here in the early 1900s that she was given the name Harry, in honour of Harry Oakman, the groundskeeper of the time. She was eventually transferred to Fleay's Fauna Sanctuary on the Gold Coast and as it turns out, it was owner David Fleay who discovered that Harry was, in fact, a Harriet.
A celebrated writer and active conservationist, Mr Fleay was a dear friend to Harriet and played a significant part in raising her public profile. This beautiful old tortoise has been admired by Queenslanders, Australians and people all around the world for many, many years, and even before her arrival at Australia Zoo and her association with Steve Irwin, Harriet had her fair share of time in the spotlight.
Living it up at Australia Zoo
Harriet lived out the last two decades of her life in the lap of luxury at her Australia Zoo home in Beerwah on the Sunshine Coast, under the watchful and loving care of Steve and Terri Irwin. The Irwin family acquired Harriet for what was then the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park in 1987, and it was love at first sight! Steve and his entire family have enjoyed a wonderful friendship with Harriet throughout the years, and she was always thought of as an honorary grandmother. A firm favourite with staff and guests as well, Harriet spent her days at Australia Zoo receiving attention and affection from people of all ages, and enjoying a diet of an assortment of fresh vegetables, greens and - her favourite - hibiscus flowers.
Harriet's enclosure was a spacious and comfortable home, complete with a cave to sleep in (heated in winter!), a nest of leaves, a lovely mud wallow, plenty of sunshine and shade, pleasant neighbours and LOTS of visitors! Harriet preferred human company over that of other tortoises, and was always happy to see familiar faces popping into her home to say hello and give her neck a nice scratch. She was an affectionate, gentle and placid creature, and no one could say this old broad didn't have a personality. What a star! Our HarrietLIVE talks at 10:00 each morning would always draw a big crowd of people eager to learn more about this amazing tortoise.
Celebrating 175 Years
DNA testing told us definitively that Harriet was at least one generation older than any existing tortoise in Australia. This, coupled with the researching of historical records, is how we traced back her story through time; but how could we really tell which day was her birthday? With a little bit of knowledge on the reproductive habits of giant land tortoises on the Galapagos Islands we were able deduce that most tortoises hatch in November, so we picked a date smack-bang in the middle to celebrate her birthday; November 15th.
These H-U-G-E celebrations were always a popular and exciting time to be at the Zoo - people would come from all over Australia and from overseas to pay tribute to the oldest living animal in the world. It was Harriet's intriguing history that usually drew people to her initially, but in the end it was her charming personality and affectionate nature that won hearts.
Each birthday party at the Zoo included a massive tortoise-shaped birthday cake, singing, games, free face-painting and amusement park rides (not so much for Harriet as for the kids) and loads of special entertainment and guests. In 2005 we celebrated Harriet's incredible 175-year milestone, and among the thousands of party guests there were also plenty of TV, radio and print journalists eager to record the historical event. Harriet received presents, birthday cards and good wishes from all over the globe, as well as extensive international press coverage.
But most importantly, her family and friends were there to share her special day, and to shower Harriet with her favourite treats of all - red hibiscus flowers!
Harriet was arguably a bigger star than even Steve Irwin himself! A popular icon of longevity, modern science and wildlife conservation, Harriet could draw a crowd like no other tortoise on Earth. But more importantly, Harriet was the kind of extraordinary creature that was always making headlines - on television and in newspapers internationally, and of course right here on our very own website! Harriet was often the star of our own Australia Zoo gossip articles and Animal Diaries. (Well, as you can tell, we have always been quite partial to her!)
Check out some of the interesting, astounding, quirky, exciting and funny stories Harriet has starred in! We reckon you could be entertained by this fantastic old lady for hours...
In the News
- Rock of Ages
- Harriet Marks 166 Years
- It's party time for park's grand old lady
- The longest-lived species
- Grand old lady of Australia Zoo
- Life moves at tortoise pace when you're 172
- Special birthday girl turns 172
- Harriet star at Australia Zoo
- Harriet's 92 million minutes of fame
- Generations come and go as Harriet waddles on
- She shall celebrate, whatever her origin
- Grand old lady of the Zoo to celebrate her 175th
- Harriet takes everything in her stride
- Look who's 175
- The tortoise and the lair
- Crikey! We've reached 1000!
- We're going wild with our promotions
- Harriet, you can't go forward without...
- Harriet's massive milestone!
- Who is Mr X?
- Harriet, The Giant Galapagos Tortoise
- Happy 175th Birthday, Harriet!
- What better way to spend a hot summer's...
Harriet the Giant Galapagos Land Tortoise was a friend to all at Australia Zoo, a cherished member of the Sunshine Coast community, a respected long-time Queenslander and a treasure of the international conservation world. With a face that everyone fell head over heels for, a pair of bright eyes that had seen more than we will ever know and the most affectionate and gentle nature, Harriet stole hearts every day.