Tortoises Take Up Residence at the Zoo

On June 7, 1973, two Galapagos tortoises became the first residents of the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, slated to open the following year.

The huge reptiles, native to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, were purchased by the North Carolina Zoological Society from Evelia Burr of Concord, whose late husband had hatched them from eggs. The pair, considered endangered species, cost $5,000.

Zebra, giraffes and ostriches at North Carolina Zoo. Image from the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill.The public was enlisted to help find monikers for them in a “Name the Tortoises Contest.” More than 2,000 entries were submitted, and a Raleigh woman had the winning suggestion with the names Tort and Retort. The 400-pound tortoises, both in their 20s, were housed in a temporary enclosure until permanent quarters could be built.

The idea for the North Carolina Zoo was first proposed by the Raleigh Jaycees in 1967. The Jaycees and other community leaders led a statewide fundraising campaign to convince North Carolinians of the need for a zoo, and a site in Randolph County was selected. The zoo opened temporary exhibits in 1974 before moving into its permanent home in 1979.

The largest “natural habitat” zoos in the world, the North Carolina Zoo remains popular today, attracting more than 800,000 visitors annually.

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