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A Tortoise at the Oakland Zoo Is Older Than Any Living Human

When most people visit the Oakland Zoo in Oakland, California, they’re probably mostly focused on the big, showy animals. Elephants, lions, chimps, and the like are fun and dramatic. But if you head to the back of the zoo, right by the entrance to the children’s zoo, you’ll find something even more remarkable: the zoo’s Aldabra tortoises. They might not look like much (big, moving rocks would be one way to put it), but they have an amazing secret. One tortoise, named OJ, is over 120 years old. That makes him older than any living human on earth.

A Tortoise Older Than Your Grandparents

According to a zookeeper chat held in March of 2020, OJ came to the zoo in the 1960s. He was already getting on in years at that point. Although his exact age isn’t known, he was born around the late 1890s. Today, he’s about 120 years old. That means he was born before computers, airplanes, or even cars. He’s been calmly munching on lettuce and eating grass through two world wars, both the original 1918 flu pandemic and today’s pandemic, and every other major event of the 20th century, from the moon landing to Watergate.

OJ is named for Officer Jones, a former staff member of the zoo who came to the Oakland Zoo from the zoo in San Francisco, and worked under a secret name so he could help out after his retirement. Today, of course, the name OJ evokes another person whose misdeeds we’re all aware of. But at the time, OJ was named in tribute to the zoo’s helpful staff member.

OJ likes to munch on treats, and to interact with his keepers, who pet his shell as you’d pet a dog. Although he’s definitely getting on in years, he still likely has several solid decades ahead of him, as Aldabra tortoises can live up to 170 years in captivity. Even in the wild, not much can threaten these tortoises, except for humans. According to his keepers, sailors used to pick up the tortoises, using them for meat on long voyages.

Thankfully, OJ doesn’t have to worry about that. At the Oakland Zoo, OJ hangs out with his buddy Ralph, who is a sprightly 90 years old–in the prime of life, if you’re a tortoise.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times.

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