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150-Year-Old Galapagos Tortoise Dies At San Diego Zoo

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're going to slow down for a moment to remember Speed. Speed is the name of a rare giant Galapagos tortoise who lived at the San Diego Zoo for more than 80 years.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

That means about half of his life, give or take. Speed died on Friday. He was thought to be about 150 years old.

TOMMY OWENS: To be honest, 150 is a modest estimate of his age. We believe it could be anywhere from 150 to 200 years old.

CORNISH: Tommy Owens cared for Speed as a lead keeper in the San Diego Zoo's reptile department.

BLOCK: Speed came to the zoo in 1933. By then, he already weighed 475 pounds. He was given his ironic name by the sailors who brought him to the U.S. Owens explains, at that time, the Galapagos Islands were not yet protected.

OWENS: Galapagos tortoises were being taken off the islands in huge numbers by whaling vessels for food. Several island forms have already gone extinct.

CORNISH: Tortoises brought to the U.S. and other countries were bred to preserve the species. Speed's group sired more than 90 offspring.

BLOCK: Speed the tortoise had a lot of health problems in recent years, including arthritis. The zoo decided to euthanize him because he was suffering so much.

CORNISH: Zookeeper Tommy Owens says Speed's life served a noble purpose.

OWENS: He lived an extraordinary life. And what he did at the zoo was make people passionate about conservation for giant tortoises because little kids visited the zoo when Speed was here, starting in the '30s. And as they aged, they brought their kids to see Speed, and then their kids came to see Speed. So we're talking generation after generation have seen this tortoise, and they've become very impassioned by being able to see this same tortoise. So what that does is you create young biologists and young conservationists. And I think that's amazing that he was able to do that in his many years here and affect so many people.

CORNISH: San Diego zookeeper Tommy Owens, talking about the late Speed, the Galapagos tortoise. He died Friday. He was at least 150 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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