Obituary: Phoebe the tuatara

We are very sad to inform the Victoria University of Wellington community that Phoebe, our elderly tuatara, has died.

Phoebe the tuatara in her enclosure

Phoebe had a lesion on the top of her pelvis that had failed to heal, and a biopsy of the lesion revealed it to be cancerous.

The size and position of the lesion meant it could not be treated, and in addition, x-rays showed that Phoebe had many old and partially healed fractures on her ribs and hind legs, which would have been sustained when she lived in the wild on North Brother Island.

The vets’ advice was that these old fractures would likely be causing Phoebe discomfort and pain when she moved and breathed.

As a result, and following advice from the vets at Wellington Zoo, the difficult decision was made to euthanise Phoebe.

Phoebe was euthanised at The Nest Te Kōhanga at Wellington Zoo on Monday 3 September, accompanied by her University carers, with representation from Te Ātiawa iwi.

Terese Mcleod, a Victoria alumna who lives and works on Matiu Somes Island with tuatara, worked with Wellington Zoo to incorporate tikanga Māori into the procedure.

She asked Rob Thorne (Ngāti Tumutumu iwi), the recent University artist in residence with the School of Music—Te Kōkī, to provide taonga pūoro (traditional musical instruments). Kawakawa from the University’s Te Herenga Waka Marae and a mini-sized korowai were used to cover Phoebe, and a karakia was recited.

The University has three remaining tuatara.

About Phoebe—written by her carers:Susan Keall, Sushila Pillai and Nicky Nelson

Phoebe was a wild-caught female of unknown age from North Brother Island.  When she was found in 1990, she was emaciated and thought to be very old as her teeth were worn down.  It was expected that she would soon die, so a permit was arranged for her to be brought off the island so that when she died, she would become a museum specimen.

Once in captivity and hand-fed, her condition improved and she lived on at the University, joining the other adult tuatara in the Murphy enclosure when it was opened in 1996.

Unlike her teenage enclosure-mates who were all captive-raised, Phoebe had lots of attitude and was quite capable of telling them (with posturing and other visual cues) to get out of her territory!

In recent years Phoebe’s age began to show, and a few times her carers were called to check if she was still alive. She was lying under a heat lamp looking dead, but actually just soaking it up sleeping! Her sight had faded and for the last few years she has been spatula-fed because she was effectively blind.

Being blind also made her vulnerable to attacks from the other tuatara because she could no longer see the signals they were giving her, and so she has been living separately from them for her own safety.  We had planned to partition her off an area in the new enclosure in Te Toki a Rata, so she could live outdoors again.

We are all privileged to have shared the last 28 years of this venerable old lady’s life. She will be missed.