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The Verge Review of Animals: the tortoise

The Verge Review of Animals: the tortoise


No, it could not beat a hare

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Animals Celebrate Christmas At Taronga Zoo
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This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we've written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

For a brief moment in March, a tortoise captured the hearts and imaginations of hundreds of New Yorkers, most of them unemployed. I was among those who applied for the rare opportunity to get paid to walk a 17-pound tortoise around Central Park. Utterly crushed when I — someone who has zero pet-sitting experience — did not receive the job, I tasked myself with learning more about this creature, hoping to be better-prepared should I one day have a similar opportunity. It soon became clear that I had dodged a bullet. The tortoise has few redeeming qualities and is one of the dullest creatures in the entire animal kingdom. If the tortoise were a color, it would be beige. If it were a food, it would be gruel.

First, a note on terminology: while usage seems to vary, "turtle" generally refers to the animals that live in the water, while we call the poor beings trapped on land the "tortoise." In other words, the adorable sea creatures majestically gliding through the ocean are turtles. The thing that moves around 0.28 miles per hour on dry land is a tortoise.

It would be negligent not to admit that tortoises have played a role in the history of science. The Roman military formation called the "testudo" — Latin for "tortoise" — was supposedly inspired by this well-protected animal. Soldiers stand with their shields in front and with their backs facing inward to effectively create a metal box. The great Julius Caesar himself wrote about testudo formation. Keep in mind, though, that Caesar was murdered and the Romans had a rather spectacular decline.

More recently, tortoises were the first vertebrates to reach the Moon, a year before Neil Armstrong’s crew. In September of 1968, Soviet scientists sent two tortoises out on a shuttle called Zond 5. These unnamed creatures lost about 10 percent of their body weight but were otherwise fine when they came back. However, I hasten to remind the reader that the Soviet Union — like the Roman Empire — no longer exists. Coincidence?

Speaking of no longer being around, the extinct Galapagos tortoise has the honor of being the test subject that scientists are trying to bring back to life with a special breeding program. But whether accolades in this case belong to the dead animals or the brilliant, living researchers working with cutting-edge techniques is anyone’s guess.

In all these instances, the glory of the tortoise was fully dependent on the ingenuity of humans. On its own merit, tortoises are notable for three extremely boring things: living for a long time, moving really slowly, and being constantly used as heavy-handed symbolism in stories.

Tortoises can live up to 255 years, so the animal I sought to walk may be crawling around Central Park long after I have breathed my last. Their lives are long, and yet their brains are so small that one researcher said they "appear to be scarcely necessary to their existence."

The Annual Weigh In For Animals At London Zoo
Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Their lives are so long, and yet tortoises do little more than eat and stop traffic because they take so long to cross the road. They do not have flashy feathers, make melodic sounds, or poison you. They are not cuddly and do not even inspire disgust. Their lives are so long that sometimes they become the last of their subspecies, forcing the Ecuadorean government to offer a $10,000 reward in a futile bid to find them a mate. We’re sorry, Lonesome George.

Let us now turn to the problem of tortoise symbolism. There is a tortoise in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. Anyone who read the play’s CliffsNotes can recite that the tortoise reminds us that some things last a long time, even if they don’t last forever. This is exactly what therapists tell their patients not to fixate on, because the fear that depression will last a long time usually worsens depression.

"In no scenario does the tortoise win, other than in the time it is alive on this earth."

Separately, several cosmology myths feature a World Turtle (though according to the terminology above it might actually be a tortoise) that props up the earth on its shell. This raises the question of what the turtle itself is standing on. Answer: "It’s turtles all the way down." The World Turtle does not exist, and this answer does not make sense. Even in the realm of fiction, the tortoise fails to delight.

Most important, Aesop’s annoying morality tale about the tortoise and the hare is a filthy lie. First, the very setup of a slow-and-steady tortoise versus a fast-and-scattered hare is a false dichotomy. And when it comes to the realism of this story, I believe that the comment made by Edmond Theodore Roo as he did calculations on this question is the most succinct summary of this dilemma: "In no scenario does the tortoise win, other than in the time it is alive on this earth."

He was talking about the race with the hare, but I believe that in all scenarios, ever, the tortoise does not come out ahead.


Verge Score: 3


Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Inspired Roman military

  • Went to space before us

  • Might come back after extinction

Bad Stuff

  • So boring

  • Annoying symbolism

  • I didn't get to walk one