And then there’s gus

Halifax’s best-known tortoise turns 100

By Melanie Mosher
Photography by Bruce Murray/VisionFire

The parties are over, but it’s not too late to celebrate Gus. 

Gus is a 100-year-old Gopher Tortoise that lives at the Museum of Natural History. He celebrated his birthday with no less than six parties over three days this past August. Children of all ages took part in the festivities. Parents who saw Gus when they were kids returned with their own children, bridging the gap between generations of explorers. You can meet the iconic reptile at the museum, where he’s been for 70 years.

Alex Baker, one of the museum’s staff, is a naturalist interpreter. Readily available to answer questions, Baker also keeps busy hosting daily activities, including animal feedings and solar system tours. 

“My favourite part of the museum, aside from having the opportunity to work with Gus, is probably the Science on a Sphere gallery,” says Baker. “It’s a remarkable educational tool that we are fortunate to have. It has given me the opportunity to improve my public speaking skills considerably, while also giving me opportunities to learn about subjects I might not have otherwise.” 

With both permanent and visiting exhibits, there is always something new to discover. The collections include archeology, ethnology, mammals and marine life.

About Gus

Gus arrived from Florida in 1942. He was purchased for $5 by Don Crowdis, who was the director of the museum at that time. Back then, it was common practice to purchase artifacts and exhibits for patrons to view. 

Gus excites new visitors and starts conversations — about animals, conservation, nature and our role as humans amongst it all. Some people come specifically to see the hard-shelled vegan. For others, it’s a lucky coincidence. Gus brings a smile to all who meet him.  

“I love when we do a ‘full clean’ of his enclosure,” says Baker. “We regularly scoop his terrarium just like you would a cat’s litter box, but we also, occasionally, completely replace all the substrate and add new sand. Afterward, when he is returned to his house, Gus patrols all around it and sniffs the sand so he can become familiar with the scent of his new home. It’s very cute.”

Beyond Gus

Daily activities at the museum mean there is never a dull moment. The Science on a Sphere display provides a unique way to view the solar system, airplane traffic and earthquakes. Other displays depict the life of bees and their importance to the food chain. Marine life artifacts and Sable Island exhibits allow you to travel across oceans without ever stepping off land. The Age of the Mastodon display shows giants that once walked the lands of our province are not forgotten and have lessons to teach.

The museum offers families a chance to explore the natural wonders of Nova Scotia and beyond. You can hear sounds of the forest, see amazing Mi’kmaq artifacts, watch live demonstrations, let your imagination soar through space, or meander at a leisurely pace, all while learning about our natural and cultural history. 

More about Gus

Most days, Gus leaves his enclosure for an afternoon walk, happily strolling in the yard on summer days, or checking out
the galleries when it’s raining. 

“I love watching him dig in the museum’s garden,”
says Baker. “He regularly digs in the soft soil for recreation,
and he sometimes kicks the dirt back several feet! He is a
very efficient digger.” 

In 2022, the thought of purchasing a wild animal and removing it from its natural habitat is questionable. For Gus, that day in 1942 changed his future, and extended it. He is the oldest known gopher tortoise and the staff are grateful for him. 

“I am part of a legacy here at the museum,” says Baker.
“Lots of people have looked after Gus over the years, and it is truly humbling to meet folks who were walking and looking after Gus long before I was alive!” 

For Nova Scotians, celebrating Gus’s 100th birthday was a way of honouring him and his great service as an ambassador for learning and caring for wildlife. Happy birthday, Gus. And thank you to him and the Museum of Natural History.  

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