Remembering Sam the Galapagos Tortoise:
1963 -2020


Sam, the Giant Galapagos Tortoise, who came to live at the Garden through an amazing set of circumstances and served as a therapy animal for many years to people with special needs, died on Nov. 5, 2020.

President Emeritus Julian Duval brought Sam to the Garden in 2012 after his caretaker (and SDBG supporter for many years), Lois Dickson, could no longer care for him.

Sam’s story began in 1966 when (a then) 19-year-old Julian Duval, working as an animal keeper at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, brought home a baby Galapagos tortoise.

His younger sister, 7-year-old Therese, immediately fell in love with the tortoise and named him Sam. At the time, Sam was about two or three years old and the size of a grapefruit. But Sam grew quickly and by 1969, he was the size of a bushel basket!

Summers were fun for Sam and Therese. Sam loved being outside in the fenced yard and clearly enjoyed being with the Duval family – especially his special friend, Therese. However, winters are long in Chicago, and caring for a giant tortoise in the house was definitely becoming a problem.

When it was clear that Sam needed a loving new home where he could be outdoors year round, Julian contacted the International Turtle and Tortoise Society, based out of Los Angeles. Lois Dickson, who was very experienced in the care of chelonians and had a couple of young Galapagos tortoises of her own, offered to give Sam a home in Thousand Oaks.

So, Sam moved to Southern California. While Therese missed her special friend, she was relieved knowing that Sam had become a favorite for Lois just as he had been for her. Lois and Therese wrote letters back and forth until they lost touch after Lois moved in the early 1980s. The Duval family never thought they would see Sam again.

Years passed. In 2009, Julian was shocked to see a photograph of Lois Dickson, who now lived in Fallbrook, with two giant Galapagos tortoises – one of which was Sam! – on the cover of the San Diego Turtle and Tortoise Society’s newsletter. Julian was happy to reconnect with Sam and Lois and was amazed that both he and Sam had ended up in San Diego, and were reconnecting after more than 40 years apart!

In 2012, Lois needed to move and couldn’t take Sam or Jaws, her other male Galapagos tortoise, both now fully grown and weighing between 500 – 600 pounds, with her. She decided to donate Jaws to the San Diego Zoo, and Sam, who was much more social and loved people, to San Diego Botanic Garden.

Julian, who was SDBG’s President & CEO at the time, had a corral and heated barn built in a non-exhibit area of the Garden for Sam. For the next several years, the Garden’s ‘Gentle Giant’ enjoyed visits with disabled friends, who also benefitted from their time spent with Sam, who would often go into a ‘trance’ when they were petting him!

Sadly, about 2 years ago, Sam started to show signs of illness. He stopped eating and required medical care. Kathy Duval, Julian’s other sister, continued to cared for Sam daily until early November 2020, when his health deteriorated quickly and it was decided to humanely euthanize him. Preliminary test results indicate that Sam’s heart was not properly functioning.

Everyone who knew Sam at the Garden find comfort in knowing that in all stages of his life – both with the Duval’s as well as Lois Dickson – Sam was well and lovingly cared for. He brought joy to all who met him and will be missed here at the Garden.

If you’d like to read Sam’s amazing story, please visit our Gift Shop at the Garden to purchase a copy of ‘Too Big To Lose’ an award-winning children’s book by Leslie Duval. All proceeds of the book benefit San Diego Botanic Garden.