So. Farewell then, Harriet the Tortoise

Harriet the Tortoise has died at the age of 175.

During the recent celebrations for her 175th birthday, her keepers at the Australian zoo put her longevity down to a “stress free life.” However, existence was not always easy. After being brought over from the Galapagos (perhaps by Darwin?) she was unfortunately designated male, and had to spend a hundred and twenty five years being treated as such.

The ignominy of this administrative error must have been especially acute for Harriet, because Tortoises are a sign of the feminine in some cultures. A colleague of mine has an ambition to visit the Yunnan province in China, to search for the feminine symbols carved onto tortoise shells (with, she writes, “the express blessing of the tortoise, of course”).

12 Replies to “So. Farewell then, Harriet the Tortoise”

  1. So she had to spend 125 years being “treated as” a male.

    I wonder what that consisted of, beyond perhaps being expected to prefer female company, to males for breeding purposes.

    What other aspects of being treated as a male could be ignominious, or make life difficult for a female, I wonder?

  2. It can be difficult to sex a tortoise – even those that are relatively easy to identify (testudo greaca and testudo hermanni, for example) can be difficult for a couple of years or so until they mature into young adults. One of mine was presented to me as a female – er, he most certainly is not. So, I’m not surprised Harriet was misidentified. But, as Clarice points out, providing there was good eating to be had, Harriet was unlikely to have been inconvenienced by it.

    175, that’s a good age.

  3. Yes. I think Rob’s post makes an implicit reference to the notion that males and females are or should be treated differently, in particular in ways which would be ignominious for the recipient in the case of a mistaken gender identity/assignment.

    I’m not convinced that this is so – certainly not in Harriet’s case, and not, I believe in the human arena either. For a female to be treated “as a male”, would not, I believe, be ignominious, except to the extent that a) treatment of males was ignominious per se, or b) said female held males in low esteem. The same would be true in the reverse case.

    To the extent that a) and b) are believed to be true in the world at large in relation to females, I can well understand why a male might find the very idea of being treated “as a female” ignominious. To betray such a belief entails either position a) or b) above, surely?

    If Harriet’s gender was not apparent from her physiology, it might have been apparent from her behaviour, which it was not – so where’s the ignominy then? Perhaps males and females are not so different after all.

  4. If anything, I think the post betrays an extreme anthropomorphism. Or is that just me?

    The implication was indeed: b), that poor Harriet was treated like a fucking yahoo idot male tortoise for five quarters of a century, and not with the due deference and reverence she – as a female tortoise – deserved.

  5. Yes, my comment was premised upon exactly the possibility that you were anthropomorphising her, but I didn’t like to say it outright.

    I don’t know very much about tortoises, but why do you call male tortoises “fucking yahoo idiot”s? Clearly they don’t behave any more badly than females, otherwise her gender would have been suspected sooner. If you are anthropomorphising, then presumably your view of tortoises is derived from that of humans. Why do you think males are “fucking yahoo idiots”? It seems a bit harsh, but I’d be interested in your reasons.

    But the question is are male tortoises treated in a way which would be bad for female ones? If so, how? And why does a female tortoise deserve deference and reverence beyond what a male tortoise deserves? If this too is an anthropomorphism, then I would ask the same question in regard to human females. What seems strange to me is how many men interpret women wanting to be treated with *the same* deference and reverence as men, as women wanting to be treated with *more* deference and reverence than men. Clearly that would not be equitable, would it?

  6. Jeez, do I have to spell it out? Everyone knows male tortoises are a bunch of sleezy chavs. If you’ve ever encountered a bunch of male tortoises on a dark beach, late at night, you’ll know what I mean. Meanwhile female tortoises are the epitome of sophistication and charm. I would have thought that was obvious from the photo above.

    True, in recent years, these unfortunate sterotypes have abated slightly, with some male tortoises recognising that their behaviour is unacceptable, and even a few female tortoises indulging in an unfortunate laddette culture. So your claims for equality are well placed. But remember, at 175 years, Harriet was from another, more conservative era, where parity between the tortoise sexes was not a given.

  7. Well, I have to confess I’ve lived a sheltered life, so no, I’ve never encountered a bunch of male tortoises on a dark beach. Even if their behaviour is sleezy or chav, what I would still like to know is how does that translate into their treatment in captivity?

  8. A male tortoise’s chat up line usually starts with head butting the object of his affection. This is rapidly followed by biting her on the leg – particularly if she attempts to escape. Then he mounts her. The ritual is somewhat noisy.

  9. Very interesting. People must have thought it odd that Harriet never did this to a female when given the opportunity. What is the female’s chat-up line?

  10. mmm… I wonder if, in fact, it was renegade male tortoises that trashed the Blue Peter Garden many moons ago rather than Les Ferdinand…

  11. It’s a bit post hoc to elbow in now – but maybe the indignity of being considered a male trotoise when you’re not – the supposition of that choice rather than the other one, as between a shell and a hard place, or the lesser of two evils – has a bit of a link with the “he” pronoun and its fucking annoying history as being considered “generic”, as in Adam looks like god, Eve just looks weird.
    Or maybe it’s just that being considered ballsy for over one hundred years plays havoc with a girl’s self-image.
    yrs
    a spare rib

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