The Woman Behind the Tortoise
Meet Heather McKinnon, Gus the tortoise’s best bud
January 28, 2022, 1:19 pm ASTLast Updated: January 28, 2022, 1:19 pm
Four stubby legs propel the determined tortoise forward. Five toenails of varying lengths dig into the sand. A human arm reaches in past him to grab a small, half-buried piece of animal bone. The tortoise stands up against the wall of his enclosure, using his back legs for support as his bald, wrinkled head peers up over the barrier. He probably can’t see Heather McKinnon standing in front of the opening. But with his sense of smell, he definitely can tell she is there.
What he can’t sense, though, is the door to his exhibit closing in his face.
“Sorry, Gus,” she says, inserting a key into a lock attached to the door. “We’ll go on your walk soon.”
She jiggles the plexiglass to make sure it is fastened. All the while Gus’s brown, beady eyes bore into her. “Walk away, walk away,” she mutters while tearing herself away from his gaze. It’s time to check on the other animals under her care.
McKinnon has been in charge of live animals at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History for 14 years. The animal care coordinator, she is currently responsible for various snakes, different types of frogs, seven salamanders, an anole lizard, two turtles, a hive of bees, marine life and, most notably, a famous tortoise named Gus. Gus has appeared in the Canadian television series Mr. D and has met countless Halifax-based stars and athletes. His biggest claim to fame, though, is his age. Gus is the oldest recorded gopher tortoise in captivity.
Many arguments have occurred in front of his exhibit. Is Gus a tortoise or a turtle? McKinnon sometimes interrupts these discussions to say “both!” She explains that all tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. The only difference between these reptiles is that tortoises are land animals and cannot swim. Turtles, on the other hand, are built to swim and can live in both environments.
McKinnon started volunteering at the museum in 1999 after graduating with an honour’s degree in biology from Saint Mary’s University. She taught education classes before getting a permanent job. When she first met Gus he had already been the museum’s star attraction for more than 50 years. Asked Gus’s secret to longevity, McKinnon jokes that it’s due to his vegan diet – he is the only animal at the museum who does not consume any meat – daily walks and frequent naps. She also attributes his health to the museum’s care, including trips to the vet twice a year. These check-ups require McKinnon to swaddle Gus in a blanket just like a baby and gently place him in an opened cooler while she drives. This type of container is insulated and keeps him warm.
Gus was hatched 99 years ago in the state of Florida and lived at the Ross Allen Reptile Institute until he was about 20. At that point, he was an adult tortoise. Former Nova Scotia Museum director Don Crowdis happened to be in Silver Springs, just outside Orlando, when the reptile institute was shutting down. Among animals being auctioned off were an Indigo snake, a Caiman alligator and a tortoise. The tortoise was being sold for today’s equivalent of $5. They were all bought by Crowdis and brought back to Halifax.
It is unclear how he transported them (Crowdis passed away in 2011). Somehow he managed to bring these exotic animals over the border, a feat that would be highly illegal today. Government of Florida rule 68A-27.003 states that “no person shall take, attempt to take, pursue, hunt, harass, capture, possess, sell or transport any gopher tortoise.” The law came into effect in 2012.
The Natural History Museum was first established in 1868, and for decades was on Spring Garden Road, in what is now Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Architecture and Planning. The museum and its beloved tortoise moved to Summer Street in 1970. No one knows what happened to the alligator who accompanied Gus to Halifax, but the Indigo snake is preserved in a jar alongside other specimens in the museum’s gallery section.
Gus’s name came from a young volunteer back in the 1950s. Eleven-year-old John Augustus Gilhen, smitten with the tortoise, devoted a lot of his time to working with Gus. When he turned 17 Gilhen got a permanent job at the museum, tending to the animals. Now retired, Gilhen still comes in to see his old friend once in a while.
Heather McKinnon is not only tasked with animal care but is also in charge of collecting specimens for the displays. Most of the animals in the museum are native to the region. McKinnon fondly remembers turning over rocks as a kid to see what was underneath. Now, she says, she is paid to do that.
One of the animals she has caught for display is a Maritime garter snake named Scar (a noticeable dark spot on her back indicates an old injury). She is believed to be the oldest of the four snakes in her tank.
The nature lab holds non-native animals as well as local ones. Some animals were brought in by the public. Four Cuban tree frogs can be found in the lab. One was found in a Home Depot and the others in the luggage area of the Halifax airport.
In a part of the museum currently closed to guests a sign on a door reads, “Please do not tap on glass. It scares the animals.” The word “animals” has been scratched out and replaced by “naturalists,” ie. the staff who care for the animals.
Once 3:30 p.m. hits, McKinnon makes her way back to the front of the museum, to Gus’s sandbox. She reaches in to place a colourful sign against a hollowed-out log. The sign tells visitors that Gus is on his walk and where to find him. Some days, he is more content to nap in his enclosure than to go on a walk, but not today. Gus eagerly tries to climb out as his door is opened.
“Hey, guy! Oh my god, you’re ready to go!,” McKinnon says, as she wraps her hands around his 10-pound body and lifts him out of his enclosure. Her hands are on either side of his shell. She carries him when he needs to be transported quickly but these interactions are always brief because, like most tortoises, Gus does not like to be carried. Even though Gus is on what staff at the museum would call “the small side of normal,” he is still a sizable creature to carry around.
One of McKinnon’s duties is to train staff how to carry Gus. She also trains security guards how to pick him up properly in case he needs to be moved off site. Gus is the only specimen in the museum that is to be evacuated in an emergency.
Picking up the tortoise involves placing your hands on either side of the shell. McKinnon warns every new staff member that if you put a finger too close to his armpit, Gus will trap your finger against his shell and squeeze. It hurts – and could cause the regal reptile to be dropped. This is a situation everyone wants to avoid.
McKinnon brings Gus to the gallery section of the museum while a couple of visitors follow behind. This section is a wide-open space, primarily due to a change of exhibits. Big changes are coming to the museum. The Age of the Mastodon exhibit will open Feb. 26. These giant prehistoric creatures used to be native to Nova Scotia and locally found remains are currently being restored. In the meantime, this space only holds a couple of art pieces and a display of quartz.
Lined along the back wall are many jars of preserved animals. One jar contains hammerhead shark foetuses and the next holds the body of the Indigo snake. The rest are filled with other long-dead specimens floating in liquid.
McKinnon places Gus down gently and sits beside him on the floor, opening a green-lidded Tupperware container. It is filled with lettuce, berries and Gus’ favourite food: bananas. Or, they used to be. Gus happily crunches on lettuce, to the delight of the adults around him, who are busy snapping pictures on their phones.
Gus then started towards a spot where he always causes mischief. Gopher tortoises love to burrow, but since there was no place Gus could hide along the carpet, he decided to dig in the corner of the gallery. The distant sound of nails roughly scratching on plasterboard was wilfully ignored by McKinnon as she starts answering guests’ questions about Gus.
The naughtiest thing Gus has done was biting McKinnon when she was feeding him. It wasn’t on purpose, and he doesn’t have teeth, but he has a beak and, according to McKinnon, Gus gives the best bite out of all the animals in the museum.
The bite happened when McKinnon was lying on the gallery floor while feeding Gus and answering guests’ questions at the same time. Multitasking proved hazardous. She was funnelling peeled, thinly cut apple pieces into Gus’s mouth with about 20 people surrounding them, and for a split-second McKinnon did not look at her fingers. Chomp, chomp, chomp, finger. He clamped down on her index finger, right where the nail meets the flesh. Although it was a painful bite, McKinnon had to keep her cool in front of the guests. And while it did not hurt for long, it did draw blood.
Almost all the staff have been nipped by Gus. The tortoise experiences his world through his mouth, just as an infant would place items in the mouth to better understand them. It could explain why he likes chewing on staff’s shoelaces and on the museum walls. He is trying to make sense of his environment.
McKinnon remembers another time when she had to put on a face for museum visitors. Thankfully, throughout decades of meeting guests Gus has not been hurt. He did, though, have a close call. McKinnon was taking Gus for a walk and a little girl was petting his shell. Her two-year-old little brother suddenly got up and started running. When he passed Gus he accidentally tripped and landed right where Gus’s head was last seen. McKinnon held back a heart attack while only letting out a playful “uh-oh!” The kid got up and McKinnon checked the museum’s star attraction. Gus had brought his head in so fast that he saved himself from injury.
McKinnon continued to tell that story for years. One day after she finished explaining the close call to a group of guests, a woman said, “my son almost killed Gus!” The mother of the little boy, then 7, had come back to the museum for another visit. The boy is now around 12, and is able to tell the story of his close call with the star tortoise for himself.
Gus seems to have a lot of tricks up his shell. When asked if he has ever had a mate, McKinnon replies, “there have been rumours.” When asked who the most famous person Gus has met is, museum staff threw out some local names: “Sidney Crosby, Gordie Howe, Elliot Page.” Then stories of other celebrities start being shared. “Kate Beckinsale visited the museum once! She talked about our poop display on Jay Leno!” It was claimed that Gus also met actors William H. Macy from the TV show Shameless and Suraj Sharma from the movie Life of Pi.
When asked who is Gus’s favourite staff member, everyone said McKinnon. Well, everyone except McKinnon. She says that Gus does not have a favourite, but that she gets Gus to eat more than anyone else. It is no contest, though, that Gus is McKinnon’s favourite museum resident. She describes him as a cute but grumpy old man.
McKinnon’s favourite thing to do with Gus is to take him outside during warm weather. The rule of thumb is if it is hot enough to go outside in just a T-shirt, then it is warm enough to have Gus outside. His enclosure stays at 20-30 degrees Celsius.
McKinnon says outside walks with Gus are a good excuse to just sit on the grass outside and relax. Despite her hectic schedule as animal care coordinator, mother and wife, her friendship with Gus has taught her to slow down.
Gus’ 100th birthday celebration will be held on August 11, 2022. The day of his birthday celebration has moved around. Most of the time, it is on a nice summer day that can be spent outside. Gus’s actual birthdate is unknown, as he did not have a birth certificate or any other documents. McKinnon and other experts at the museum are confident that his actual age is a year within his estimated age. He could be 98, 99 or even 100 but no lower and no higher.
One thing at the museum is timeless. That’s the welcoming sight of Gus relaxing in his sandbox, bringing joy to the generations of people who come to visit.
Editor's Note: An abridged form of this story first appeared in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on January 24, 2022.