Still Alive!
Cover Image for Jonathan


Gabriella Paiella

In 1832, Andrew Jackson was elected to his second term as President of the United States. A cholera epidemic raged through England. Greece was established as a sovereign nation. Battles small and large were won and lost. People fell in and out of love, they died and were born. Some of them we remember (Louisa May Alcott, Édouard Manet), the vast majority we do not (Princess Amalie of Hesse-Darmstadt???). And on the Seychelles Islands, a slice of paradise in the Indian Ocean, a tortoise hatched from his shell.

At 190, that tortoise is now the oldest land animal on earth. He first appears in the historical record in 1882 as fully grown, at which point he would have been at least 50 years old and a colossal 450 pounds. That year, he was taken from his home to the British overseas territory of Saint Helena—an island so remote it’s where Napoleon served out his second exile—as a gift to future governor Sir William Grey-Wilson. When the tortoise reached 100, he was given a human name: Jonathan.

In the past decade, aided by both his remarkable, record-breaking longevity and the unceasing demand for cute animal content, Jonathan has become somewhat of an international celebrity. He receives regular worldwide press coverage. He’s enshrined on the Saint Helena five-pence coin. He even has his own Wikipedia page, titled: “Jonathan (tortoise).”

As with any good celebrity, Jonathan also keeps his own entourage. (Jonathan is the turtle, but not the Turtle.) Dr. Joe Hollins, the Senior Veterinary Officer on Saint Helena, is the closest member of Jonathan’s inner circle. Hollins is a jovial, bespectacled man in his sixties with the exceedingly pleasant air of a nature documentary host or your favorite contestant on The Great British Bake Off.

Hollins met Jonathan back in 2009, when he was a sprightly 177 years old. “Oh God, I love a tortoise,” Hollins tells me. “So when I saw a giant tortoise, I just fell in love with them completely.”

Jonathan also seems to be easy to love. “He’s a lonely, benign old gentleman. Just sort of ‘pipe and slippers,’ you know,” Hollins continues. “Jonathan is just sweet, really.”

Three other tortoises reside at Plantation House, the official residence on Saint Helena, where Jonathan has seen over thirty governors come and go. They include Emma, the female; Frederic, who has some mobility issues; and David, who’s extremely aggressive, at the height of his sexual prowess, and, based on every throwaway fact Hollins tells me about him, kind of a bastard. The other tortoises tend to ignore Jonathan, who’s mostly blind and has no sense of smell. “Jonathan does his own thing. And he’s often out of phase with the other tortoises too,” Hollins says. “He’s in the paddock grazing when the others have gone to bed.”

Still, Jonathan does muster up extra energy for certain activities. For instance, the few times photographers have made the trek to the island and requested to shoot Jonathan. “He was a real sort of tart, actually, in front of the camera,” Hollins says.

He does clearly know his angles: Jonathan looks pretty much identical to when he was a young lad of 75 or 100. Compare recent shots to the first photograph ever taken in 1886 or another one of him meeting the future Queen Elizabeth II in 1947, whom he has since outlived. Jonathan, it must be said, is keeping it tight.

This wasn’t always the case. When Hollins first arrived on Saint Helena, he noticed that Jonathan’s beak was dry and crumbling off. He was having difficulty grasping the vegetation that tortoises graze on and had lost a significant amount of weight. Hollins assumed that the end was nigh. But after supplementing his diet with fresh fruits and vegetables, the keratin in his beak was restored back to premium sharpness and Jonathan was revived. (Jack LaLanne vibes.)

Hollins now visits Jonathan every Sunday to hand feed him. “He loves it. He adores it. He’s quite greedy,” Hollins says. Jonathan is fond of lettuce and cabbage and particularly enjoys fruits, though the sugars in his diet have to be limited. “He loves bananas. They’re sticky, so he gets frustrated because they stick in the roof of his mouth,” Hollins says.

His alternate feeder, local Teeny Lucy, confirms this. “Jonathan loves a banana, usually skin-on. But he tends to bite it with his beak and then squish it all up the sides of his mouth and up his face,” she tells me. “So I have to clean him off with some lettuce or carrot.”

Another burden of celebrity that Jonathan must carry is an inordinate public interest in his sex life. His supposedly powerful libido and possible bisexuality have received TMZ levels of attention and speculation. (This isn’t even the first time humans have been disproportionately invested in tortoise sex: Diego, a giant Hood Island tortoise, was fêted after being enlisted to repopulate his species in 1977 and successfully fucking them back from the brink of extinction over the course of 40 years.)(As he should be.) But as for Jonathan, Hollins says he hasn’t witnessed much sexual activity in recent years and suspects that people have been mixing him up with David, who’s constantly mounting everything.

I imagine that caring for the world’s oldest land animal, one who’s nearly three times his own age, must surface big, existential thoughts about mortality and humankind for Hollins. “I do think we’re the worst species on this planet,” he replies. “We’re basically swarming across it like ants and just dominating and destroying so many habitats. So in that respect, I think, what a shame.”

Jonathan is a rare breed in more ways than one. Very few giant tortoises remain today because, during the age of sail from the 16th to the 19th centuries, we more or less ate them out of existence. The ones that survived tend to live so long because they’re far less susceptible to disease. “Some people say they’re almost eternal, if it wasn’t for the fact that they literally just wear out ultimately,” Hollins says. Accidents can happen, too, such as being flipped over in fights or while attempting to mate. (David almost went out the latter way. “He was found on his back at dusk,” Hollins explains. “By morning, he would’ve been dead. He was very lucky to be found, silly bugger. This is the danger of being horny, you see!”)

This mysterious longevity has long held interest to scientists. Hollins sent a mouth swab of Jonathan's DNA to the Vanderbilt Medical Institute, where a team is trying to understand why these tortoises live so long, in the hope that their unique genetic makeup can help cure cancer. And so the very species that we hunted to near extinction might hold a key to the extended future of ours.

Tortoises have been around in some form for 55 million years, humans for 300,000. In the grand scheme of things, Jonathan is not very old at all. Neither are we. Everything that has occurred within his lifespan—slavery, the horrors of both World Wars—aren’t just remnants of a distant, unenlightened time. Jonathan serves as a living reminder that some of our worst moments were not so long ago.

Of course, Jonathan is unaware of all this. He can’t read or write or articulate something greater about his existence. He doesn’t know he’s the oldest animal on the planet, or that there are hundreds of aggregated news stories about him doing it. But he does savor his weekly lettuce and bananas. He has seen more than 69,350 sunrises and sunsets. Maybe he deserves his 190 years more than we do.

And Jonathan may remember and know more than we assume. His childhood home, for instance. In his native habitat on the Seychelles, giant tortoises spend their days wallowing in mangrove swamps. There are no mangrove swamps anywhere remotely near Saint Helena, but on rainy days, Hollins tells me, Jonathan will still find a puddle to wallow in.

For as long as Jonathan is around, Hollins will care for him. When Jonathan dies, which he eventually will, there is an extensive protocol put in place called Operation Go Slow. His shell will be preserved. The rest of his remains will be buried on the grounds that have served as his home for most of his extraordinarily long life. His obituary is already written. Until then, he’ll keep puttering around, eating his weekly bananas and wallowing in the mud, oblivious to the human drama that surrounds him and will continue after he’s gone.

Gabriella Paiella lives in Brooklyn and works as a staff writer for GQ. She is 157 years younger than Jonathan.

Photo by Teeny Lucy.