Reptile Gardens’ tortoise Methuselah dies


Reptile Gardens’ tortoise Methuselah dies

Posted 12 July 2011, by Hannah Baker, Rapid City Journal,

This is a photo of Reptile Garden's Johnny Brockelsby riding Methuselah in about 1954. (Courtesy Photo)

After 57 years of providing piggyback rides and being in hundreds of thousands of pictures at Reptile Gardens in Rapid City, the 500-pound tortoise Methuselah died Sunday at the age of 130.

Those who knew the giant tortoise, which was born in 1881, mourned his death on Monday.

“I’ve known Methuselah since I was around 3 years old, so losing him is like losing an old, good friend,” said John Brockelsby, director of public relations at Reptile Gardens. “I had a lot of daily contact with him so having to say goodbye was very sad.”

Brockelsby said about 10 days prior to Methuselah’s death they began to notice that he was moving slower than usual and was quite lethargic, even by tortoise standards.

Brockelsby said he knew the lack of activity was likely a sign that it was Methuselah’s time to go was nearing.

“When he started not wanting to come out of the building during the day, we knew that he was probably getting ready to pass on,” he said. “We just tried to make him as comfortable as possible and when he was ready, he went very peacefully.”

The rare tortoise was brought in 1954 from the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador to Reptile Gardens. While on the endangered species list since 1970, the Galapagos tortoise is making a comeback due to conservation efforts enacted by the Ecuadorian government.

But Methuselah’s longevity set him apart from most other giant tortoises, according to Brockelsby.

“There are giant tortoises at zoos and whatnot, but having one that was as old as Methuselah was very rare,” he said.

Methuselah, which means “very old man” in biblical terms, certainly lived up to his name. The giant tortoise had just celebrated his 130th birthday in June and was not only old by human standards but for giant tortoises, which typically have a lifespan of about 100 years.

Brockelsby said he has many of his own childhood memories of riding Methuselah, an act repeated by thousands of children over the years before officials at Reptile Gardens prohibited the rides.

“My favorite memories are when I rode him as a child and when I would scratch his neck and under his chin,” he said. “Also feeding him watermelon – his favorite – was always a lot of fun because if there was ever a chance to see pleasure on a tortoise’s face, it was then. He just loved it.”

Although Reptile Gardens stopped offering tortoise rides 10 to 15 years ago, more recent fans of Methuselah have their own pleasant memories of him.

“I remember having a lot of fun seeing him whenever I came to Reptile Gardens as a kid,” Michael Heen of Williston, N.D., said Monday while visiting the park with his family. “It’s sad that he’s gone now.”

Raleigh Maxson, 15, an employee at Reptile Gardens, said he remembers seeing Methuselah for the first time when he was 8 and thinking he was the most amazing animal he had ever seen.

Maxson also said he was one of the reasons he wanted to work for Reptile Gardens.

“When I woke up Monday morning, I was very sad to see that Methuselah had died,” he said. “I think that many people will miss Methuselah. He has been an icon for the Black Hills for over 50 years and thousands of people have seen him.”

Several other visitors at Reptile Gardens were shocked and saddened to hear the news that Methuselah had passed away.

“I remember petting him as a kid for the first time when I was around 5,” said Moriah VanDam, 14, of Bismarck, N.D. “It’s a bummer we missed him this year.”

If Reptile Gardens were to replace Methuselah with another giant tortoise, it would cost about $85,000 compared to the $4,000 that was spent to acquire him almost 60 years ago, according to Reptile Gardens.

However, Reptile Gardens still has two other giant tortoises – Quazi and Tank – that are only 50 to 60 years old. There are no plans to replace Methuselah.

“As of right now, we don’t plan to replace Methuselah because we have the other two and just because, even if you had the money to get one, they are really hard to get your hands on,” Brockelsby said. “The other two are just as gentle and friendly as Methuselah was so we’re hoping they’ll carry us through the next generation.”

Methuselah will not be entirely gone, however. Reptile Gardens plans to put his shell on display for future visitors to see and admire.

“We haven’t decided exactly how we’ll pay tribute to him, but we are keeping his shell to have on display so viewers later on can still have a chance to see just how big he was,” Brockelsby said.

Although Reptile Gardens still has many other endangered species and animal exhibits for visitors, Jennifer Thompson, a caretaker to the tortoises, said Methuselah’s absence will be felt among visitors.

“A lot of people always come out and say ‘where’s Methuselah, where’s Methuselah’ so I think it will take a long time before people stop asking where he is and wanting to see him,” she said. “He tolerated the kids so well and he will be greatly missed.”

Brockelsby said Reptile Gardens will hold a ceremony or event to remember Methuselah in the near future, but details are not available yet. Until then, the employees there will privately mourn one of the tourist attraction’s stars.

“I knew this day would come, but somehow I just kept hoping that we would keep celebrating his birthdays every year,” he said.

Contact Hannah Baker at 394-8419 or

Copyright 2011 Rapid City Journal.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Bernard Nadel on October 8, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Perhaps watermelon,(Methuselah’s) favorite, is a longezvity food.


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