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San Diego Botanic Garden’s beloved Giant Galapagos Tortoise, Sam, has passed away

This ‘Gentle Giant,’ who loved being a therapy animal, came to live at the Garden through miraculous circumstances

Lois Dickson and Julian Duval posing with tortoise Sam in 2010
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Sam, the Giant Galapagos Tortoise who came to live at San Diego Botanic Garden through an amazing set of circumstances and served as a therapy animal for many years to people with special needs, died on November 5, 2020. He will be missed by all who had the joy to meet and interact with the garden’s ‘Gentle Giant.’ 

Sam’s story began in 1966, when Julian Duval, SDBG’s President Emeritus, was working as an animal keeper at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. He brought home a baby Galapagos tortoise for his sister Therese, who quickly fell in love with him and named him ‘Sam.’ 

For the next three years, Sam grew from the size of a grapefruit to the size of a bushel basket and enjoyed being with his best friend, Therese. But winters in Chicago are long (and cold) for a chelonian whose native climate is sunny and warm, and Sam was quickly outgrowing the house. So, Julian contacted the International Turtle and Tortoise Society in Los Angeles and Sam found a new home with Lois Dickson in Southern California. 

Mary Therese Duval day before Sam flew to California to live with Lois Dickson 1969
Mary Therese Duval day before Sam flew to California to live with Lois Dickson 1969

For many years, Therese wrote to Lois and her friend Sam, who grew to adulthood and now weighed over 500 pounds. When Lois moved in the early 1980s, sadly both Therese and the Duval family lost touch with them. 

Tortoise Sam eating leaves off of a tree
Sam the tortoise

Years passed. In 2009, Julian was shocked to see a photograph of Lois and Sam on the cover of the San Diego Turtle and Tortoise Society newsletter! After more than 40 years apart, Sam and Julian — who brought him home as a baby tortoise — were miraculously reunited! 

Lois had also saved all 23 letters that Therese had sent her in the 1960s and 1970s which inspired Leslie, Julian’s wife, to write the acclaimed children’s book Too Big To Lose: The True Story of a Young Girl’s Friendship with a Galapagos Tortoise named Sam, which is available at San Diego Botanic Garden’s Gift Shop. All proceeds from the book directly benefit the garden. 

In 2012, when Lois could no longer take care of Sam, he came to live at San Diego Botanic Garden where Julian was serving as President & CEO. Happily, Sam spent the rest of his life at the garden working as a therapy animal for disabled individuals. He was humanely euthanized on November 5 after a prolonged illness that was determined to be a heart condition. 

Lois Dickson and Julian Duval posing with tortoise Sam in 2010
Lois Dickson and Julian Duval with Sam in 2010

“Galapagos tortoises are known to be the longest-lived vertebrate animals and regularly live in excess of 100 years. We had always believed Sam would outlive all of the adults who were involved with him. This, of course did not happen and while we miss him terribly we are confident he enjoyed the life that he had, and it serves to remind us how we should also value and make the most of the time we have,” says SDBG President Emeritus Julian Duval. sdbgarden.org

Featured Photo Lois Dickson and Julian Duval with Sam in 2010
Image Credits Courtesy Photography

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