The tortoise and the caretaker

Meet Joe Hollins, the recently retired veterinarian who cared for a record-breaking 190-year-old tortoise named Jonathan in his remote island home

August 7, 2023
Joe Hollins lying down in grass facing Jonathan the giant tortoise to feed him from a metal bowl with white building in background
Joe Hollins feeding Jonathan the tortoise, who celebrated his 190th birthday in December as the oldest known living land animal. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 4.0]

Once a week, veterinarian Joe Hollins would walk out to a lush pasture on a remote ocean island and, armed with fresh fruits and vegetables, call out to an old friend named Jonathan. At about three times Hollins’ age, Jonathan, a 190-year-old Seychelles giant tortoise, has lost much of his sight and smell — but he can still hear well and easily recognizes the sound of the vet’s voice.

When Jonathan heard his caretaker, he would lift his head and march toward Hollins, anticipating the crunch of cabbage or carrots. “Then I have to touch him and just stroke him to stop him walking,” Hollins says. “Otherwise, he’ll walk over me.” At about 400 pounds, the giant tortoise is certainly heavy enough to do damage.

Despite his heft, “he’s a docile old gentleman. He’s very sweet and charming,” insists Hollins, who recently retired after ten years as the senior veterinary officer on the small South Atlantic island of Saint Helena.

Thought to be the oldest land animal alive today — and the oldest tortoise, terrapin or turtle ever recorded — Jonathan is an icon on Saint Helena, which the rest of world knows mainly as the British territory in the South Atlantic Ocean where Napoleon Bonaparte lived the final years of his life in exile from 1815-1821. Jonathan was probably born just a few years later.  

Hollins began caring for Jonathan, his most famous patient, when he was hired to be the first full-time veterinarian on the island more than a decade ago. At the time, the tortoise was malnourished with a crumbling beak. Hollins nursed him back to health, feeding him by leather-gloved hand. (The vet acknowledges having “lost a couple of nails” from bites but says “it’s my own fault.”)

Currently, Jonathan lives in a closed paddock by the governor’s residence. In his old age, he has slowed down relative to the other three tortoises on the island — though “he’s more lively now at the age of 190 than he was 10 years ago,” says Teeny Lucy, who works for the Saint Helena SPCA in addition to her role as Jonathan’s “alternate feeder.”

This rejuvenation is largely thanks to the feeding schedule Hollins introduced in 2010. Now, Jonathan spends his time idly grazing and munching on the fruits and vegetables his caretakers provide. Hollins suspects the food is Jonathan’s primary motivation when he comes lumbering toward the vet’s voice. “I think it’s quite Pavlovian,” he says, reluctant to project too much emotion on the reptile. Lucy, who also helps care for Jonathan, admits this as well — though she says a bond is there. “There’s all sorts of little idiosyncrasies that you notice when you work closely with an animal on a regular basis,” she says. Jonathan, for example, loves being stroked and tickled under his long, scaly neck.

Whether emotional or instinctual, the connection seems like destiny: Hollins, 65, also shares his first name with the famed tortoise. (Joe is short for Jonathan.) When Jonathan the tortoise gained a spot on Saint Helena’s currency, the vet was thrilled — though not without a small complaint. “They should have done one of the bigger coins, I think, because he’s a giant tortoise and he’s on the smallest coin possible,” Hollins says. “They’ve crammed a giant tortoise onto a five-pence piece.”

Over about two centuries, the giant tortoise has had a “phenomenal” life, Hollins says. “He’s seen empires come and go, kings and queens come and go. He’s seen plagues, Spanish flu, COVID, you name it. Not that he’s really aware of it, but it’s quite extraordinary, the history that has passed by while he’s been there.” To commemorate a momentous 190 years, the government held birthday festivities for Jonathan last December, garnering widespread attention for the reputed reptile and the island where he lives.

And “like all celebrities,” Hollins says, there is a plan already in place, ready for Jonathan’s eventual demise: “Operation Go Slow.” Pragmatically, it includes a pre-written obituary, plans for an official statement and the logistics for how to preserve his shell.

The secret to Jonathan’s longevity may lie in his genes. Unlike most mammals, giant tortoises aren’t prone to the DNA damage that often comes with old age in humans. “There’s some interesting research that these tortoises are almost quasi-immortal,” Hollins says. A 2018 study using the genome of another famous giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands, Lonesome George, identified genes affecting inflammation, DNA repair and cancer development. Hollins has also collected DNA samples from Jonathan that he hopes will eventually be sequenced and studied for potential cancer-preventing properties.

Both the tortoise and his caretaker are transplants on the island — a unique, utopian ecosystem, as Hollins describes it. According to historical records, Jonathan was brought to Saint Helena by the colonial government in 1882, already fully grown. If those records are accurate, his 190-year age is actually a minimum value. He could be closer to 200.

Because the island is so isolated, Hollins has treated all sorts of animals there. He says there’s one way to be a veterinarian on Saint Helena: “You need to be a generalist. The cruel term is ‘jack of all trades and master of none.’ But I try to be a master of quite a few.” A typical day would see Hollins visiting cattle and sheep, holding a clinic for pet owners to bring in their dogs and cats, or working on biosecurity measures to keep foreign diseases out of the island oasis. In a remote place like Saint Helena, he says, there’s value to this breadth.

Originally from Devon, England, Hollins had some other veterinary adventures before coming to Saint Helena. Shortly after graduating from Cambridge, he took positions in Zimbabwe and South Africa, which “gave me a taste for working overseas,” he says. Hollins has since ventured to many current and former British territories, including the Falkland Islands, Tristan da Cunha and Mombasa, Kenya.

The vet has a deep appreciation for all the places he has worked. From practicing biosecurity on the most remote islands in the world, to treating children with insect-borne diseases in a Syrian war zone, Hollins has sought to care for all species. Now, he has chosen to retire on Saint Helena. “He loves the island. And he loves what he’s done for the island,” says Craig Kitching, who took over the position in September.

Like the tortoise, the group of “old school” veterinarians to which Hollins belongs is aging. While he was trained to care for all types of animals, he says fewer and fewer vets today maintain this range of expertise. “They don’t train their vets now to be jack-of-all-trades. They teach them to do the small animals or the large animals,” says Lucy. The shift in veterinary training poses a problem for remote places like Saint Helena, which can’t support separate specialists.

Kitching, however, is also nearing the end of his career. He applied to the position after retiring from his own practice in South Africa and plans to fully retire in six years or so. He and Hollins worry that no veterinarian will be qualified and willing to step in to help sustain the island – and sustain Jonathan, too, if he’s still alive. “This knowledge has to be passed on,” Lucy says.

As for Jonathan, Hollins hopes he’ll make it to 200.

About the Author

Gwendolyn Rak

Gwendolyn Rak recently graduated from Swarthmore College, where she studied astrophysics and history. As an undergraduate, she did x-ray astronomy research, interned for the NASA History Division, and edited Swarthmore’s history journal. While her scientific interests have mostly been among the stars, here on Earth she also enjoys baking, streaming the latest Netflix shows, and going on long walks with her family’s dog.


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