8-23-19 column mug.jpg

Diego the lusty tortoise would be a terrible name for a children’s book but it aptly describes the more than 100-year-old creature that went above and beyond the call of duty to save his species.

As reported by media outlets all over the world that can’t resist a sexy tortoise story, Diego was part of a captive breeding program for Espanola tortoises conducted by the Galapagos National Park Directorate and Galapagos Conservancy after the species nearly went extinct. Thanks to Diego, who was flown in from the San Diego Zoo in 1976, and a couple of his pals, the number grew from just 15 tortoises to what Smithsonian Magazine described as a stable population of 2,000.

“Diego, who is over 100 years old, will return to his home island almost eight decades after being extracted from it,” the Galapagos Conservancy said in a Jan. 10 news release. “In recent years, Diego has become a symbol of the Galapagos conservation, as approximately 40% of the tortoises repatriated to Española Island are estimated to be his descendants.”

While Diego’s prolific career was covered by major media players like NBC, CNN, The Washington Post and maybe even the Weekly Reader (“Connect the dots to see Diego!”), only one enterprising journalist landed an exclusive interview with the man of the hour (which, coincidentally, is how long it takes Diego to walk across the enclosure to introduce himself to a lady tortoise).

That enterprising journalist was me. Did I really jump on a plane, fly 12 hours, disembark and establish communication with a 100-year-old tortious that miraculously gained the power of speech and can converse in English? For the moment, let’s forget about impeachment hearings, Australian bushfires and Iranian missiles launches and pretend I did.

Me: Diego, first let me congratulate you on your well-deserved retirement after such a long and productive career.

Diego: Thanks, Scott. They say if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life. I say if your work is love then you really need to stay hydrated throughout the day. It’s not as catchy but it’s true.

Me: According to reports, you fathered close to 900 children and saved your species. That’s got to be rewarding.

Diego: They’re a great bunch of kids. I keep a photo of each one in my wallet. I would show you but the wallet weighs 80 pounds so I don’t carry it around much. Seriously, though, I really couldn’t have done it without their moms. I guess that goes without saying. But I do want to give a shout out to a great bunch of gals. They really brought me out of my shell. That’s an old tortoise joke we tell around the island.

Me: What do you plan to do now that you’re retired?

Diego: That’s a tough one, ya know? I mean, I’ve been here since 1976. There I was at the zoo enjoying Bicentennial celebrations and some guy in a pith helmet comes in and says, “How would you like to go back to Ecuador?” and I say, “Ecua who?” and then, boom, I’m on a plane. And then boom, boom, boom, and it’s 2020. I guess I haven’t really thought about it. Maybe I’ll write a children’s book.

Me: Do you have any interest in dating now that you’re going to be a free tortoise?

Diego: Oh, it’s a jungle out there. Literally. I’m afraid they’re going to dump me in the jungle. Don’t let them dump me in the jungle, Scott. Why not Palm Springs? Palm Springs is nice this time of year.

Me: Diego, in closing, let me thank you for your efforts to reestablish your species, thank you for your years of hard work and thank you for granting me this exclusive interview. If there’s anything I can ever do for you, let me know.

Diego: Now that you mention it, you can come back on Father’s Day and help me open the cards.

Scott Hollifield is editor/GM of The McDowell News in Marion and a humor columnist. Contact him at rhollifield@mcdowellnews.com.