06/27/2012 12:58 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2012

Lonesome George: When the Last Is No More

I've always been drawn to tortoises and turtles, ever since I was a little kid, and I remember as a young man learning of and being moved by the story of Lonesome George. First spotted and identified by biologists back in the early 1970s, George was a member of a subspecies of the giant Galapagos tortoises previously thought to be extinct, but he was also the last of his kind. Just a few moments ago I learned that, Sunday, George was found dead in his tortoise corral on the islands by his keeper of more than 40 years.

The loss in biological terms can be measured as small or great, really depending on where you stand. Many efforts to breed him with other similar subspecies have failed, but even had they been successful it's not likely that one male and a couple of closely related females could have ever produced a vibrant, thriving colony of these animals. Extinction was and has now become the inevitable fate of Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni, and his death and their passing will likely have no real or measurable impact on the eventual fate of the rest of the giant tortoises and the rest of that odd and exceptional island ecosystem that helped Darwin come to his conclusions about evolution.

The loss measured in other and nonscientific terms, however, is sad enough to make me want to cry. Laugh if you will, accuse me of excessive sentimentality or anthropomorphism: I really don't care.

How sad and lonely to be the only one of your kind left in the world, alone and last after many successful millennium which left you perfect, perfect except for the inability to survive the fast moving and excessively noisy two-legged animals who arrived in your home, captured and slaughtered all of your completely defenseless family, mostly for food and perhaps some as novelties. How sad to imagine these perfect animals tossed onto their backs in the bottoms of sea-going ships, tossed about without food or water or freedom for months, their legs tied together, dying slowly as tortoises do (doing everything slowly) until slaughtered for the fresh meat they would then provide the sailors.

I like people, I really do. I think we can be among the most inventive, creative and interesting of the animals. But this news makes me wish we'd stayed in the trees, eating bugs and fruit, just one of so many animals and without such power as we unwisely wield over Mother Earth and her creatures.