Heather McKinnon Ramshaw tends to be museum favorite, Gusra, the gopher tortoise

By Haylea Dilnot-Reid

Four stocky feet propel the determined turtle forward. Five different lengths of toenails carve into the sand. The turtle stands up against the wall of the fence and uses its hind legs as a support while its bald, wrinkled head looks through the barrier. He probably won’t see Heather McKinnon Ramshaw in front of her. But with his sense of smell, he can definitely say he’s there.

“I’m sorry, Gus,” he says, inserting a key into the door. – We’ll be walking soon.

McKinnon Ramshaw has been the Animal Care Coordinator at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History for 14 years. He is responsible for various snakes, an array of frogs, seven salamanders, an anole lizard, two turtles, a beehive, sea creatures and, most importantly, a famous turtle named Gus. He appeared on the Canadian television series Mr. D and met countless Halifax stars and athletes. However, his greatest need for fame is his age. Gus is the oldest captive gopher turtle.

There was a lot of discussion going on before his exhibition. Gus turtle or turtle? McKinnon Ramshaw sometimes interrupts “both!” He explains that every turtle is a turtle, but not every turtle is a turtle. The only difference between these reptiles is that turtles are terrestrial animals and cannot swim. In contrast, turtles are prepared for swimming and can live in both environments.

McKinnon Ramshaw began volunteering at the museum in 1999 after earning an honors degree in biology from Saint Mary’s University. When he first met Gus, he had been a star at the museum for more than 50 years. McKinnon Ramshaw, who asks for the secret of Gus ’long life, jokes that this is due to the vegan’s diet – he is the only animal in the museum who doesn’t eat meat – due to daily walks and frequent naps. He also attributes his health to the care of the museum, including bi-annual veterinary visits. For these checks, McKinnon Ramshaw must diaper Gust into a blanket like a baby and carefully place it in an open refrigerator while driving. The insulated container keeps you warm.

He was born in Florida

Gus originated in Florida 99 years ago and lived at the Ross Allen Reptile Institute near Orlando until he was about 20 years old. Don Crowdis, a former director of the Nova Scotia Museum, was accidentally in the area when the reptile institute was closed. Among the animals auctioned were an indigo snake, a caiman alligator and a turtle. The turtle was sold for $ 5 today. Crowdis bought them all and took them back to Halifax.

It is not clear how he transported them (Crowdis died in 2011), but it would be highly illegal today. Florida Law 68A-27.003 states that “no one may catch, attempt to catch, hunt, harass, harass, capture, possess, sell or transport a gopher turtle”. The law came into force in 2012.

The Natural History Museum was established in 1868 and has been on Spring Garden Road for decades, now at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Architecture and Design. The museum and beloved tortoise moved to Summer Street in 1970. No one knows what happened to the alligator who escorted Gust to Halifax, but the indigo snake is kept in a jar.

Gus got his name from a young volunteer back in the 1950s. Eleven-year-old John Augustus Gilhen, who was hit by a tortoise, devoted a lot of time to working with Gus. When he turned 17, Gilhen got a job in animal care. Already retired, Gilhen sometimes still comes in to his old friend.

Gus, the gopher turtle, hangs at the feet of Heather McKinnon Ramshaw in front of the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History. – You agreed

Gus takes it

McKinnon Ramshaw is not only responsible for caring for the animals, but also collecting samples for shows. He fondly recalls when he turned rocks as a child to see what was beneath him. Now he says that’s why they pay.

Some animals were brought in by the public. Four Cuban tree frogs live in the laboratory. One was found at a Home Depot and the others at the trunk of Halifax Airport.

One afternoon at 3:30, Ramshaw hits McKinnon in front of the museum and goes to Gus’ sandpit. He reaches in to place a colored board next to a carved log. The sign indicates to visitors that Gus is walking and where to find him. Sometimes he is more content to take a nap in his house than to walk, but not today. As his door opens, Gus enthusiastically tries to climb out.

“Hello dude! Oh my God, you’re ready!” Says McKinnon Ramshaw as he wraps his arms around his 10-pound body and highlights it. His hands are on either side of the shell. He takes it when needed, but these interactions are short because most like a turtle, Gus doesn’t like to be carried.

One of McKinnon Ramshaw’s duties is to teach staff to transport Gus. He also trains security guards on how to pick them up properly – in any case. Gus is the only specimen in the museum who was evacuated in an emergency.

Gus’ 100th birthday

McKinnon Ramshaw takes Gust into the museum’s gallery section as some visitors follow him. Carefully lay it down, sit down next to it on the floor, and open a Tupperware container with a green lid. It includes salad, berries and Gus ’favorite dish is bananas. Or they were long ago. Gus happily crunches his salad, much to the delight of visitors taking photos on their phones.

Gus then heads for a place where he always makes a mischief. Gopher turtles love to dig, but since Gus can’t hide on the carpet, he likes to dig in the corner of the gallery. As McKinnon Ramshaw begins to answer questions about Gus, the distant sound of scraping drywall nails is deliberately ignored.

The most naughty thing Gus did was bite McKinnon Ramshaw when he fed it. Not intentionally, and he has no teeth, but he has a beak, and McKinnon says Ramhaw. Gus bites the best of the museum’s animals.

This happened when Gust was feeding and answering guests ’questions at the same time. Multitasking proved to be dangerous. He pressed a peeled, thinly cut apple into Gus’s mouth with about 20 people and turned his gaze away from his hand for a split second. Chomp, chomp, chomp, finger. He squeezed his index finger, right where the nail meets the meat. Although it was painful, McKinnon Ramshaw had to keep his cold blood in front of the crowd. Although it didn’t hurt for long, he sucked blood.

Gus pinched almost all the staff. A turtle experiences its world through its mouth, just as an infant places objects in its mouth to better understand them. This may explain why he likes to chew on the shoelaces of the staff and the walls of the museum. He tries to interpret his environment.

Gus has a lot of tricks. Asked if he had ever had a partner, McKinnon Ramshaw replies, “There were rumors.” When asked about Gus ’most famous person, museum staff threw out the names:“ Sidney Crosby, Gordie Howe, Elliot Page ”. Other celebrities ’stories are also shared. “Kate Beckinsale once visited the museum. Jay Lenon talked about our poop show! However, it is undeniable that Gus McKinnon is Ramshaw’s favorite museum resident. He describes him as a cute but grumpy old man.

His favorite thing with Gus is to take him outside in warm weather. If it’s hot enough to just go out in a T-shirt, Gus is hot enough. McKinnon Ramshaw says walks outside with Gus are a good excuse to sit on the grass and relax. Despite his hectic schedule as an animal care coordinator, mother and wife, his friendship with Gus taught him to slow down.

Gus celebrates his 100th birthday on August 11, 2022. His actual date of birth is unknown as he did not have a birth certificate. McKinnon Ramshaw and other museum experts are confident that his actual age is within a year of his estimated age. It can be 98, 99 or 100, but not lower or higher.

One thing in the museum is timeless. It’s a welcome sight as Gus rests in his sandpit and delights generations of admirers.

Haylea Dilnot-Reid is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of King’s College.

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