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Meet Pete Souza’s Instagram-Famous Tortoise, Charlotte

Like her owner, the Russian tortoise has become a rockstar of the resistance.
Photograph by Jeff Elkins

Charlotte the tortoise has gone viral. Well, as viral as any Russian tortoise can go. Like her owner, Pete Souza, her path to internet fame began after the 2016 presidential election.

As White House photographer for Barack Obama, Souza remained mostly behind the scenes. But once Donald Trump took over, Souza’s expert-level trolling of the President—primarily in the form of Instagram posts contrasting Trump with Obama—made him a rock star of the #resistance. Charlotte, meanwhile, has tagged along.

On his Facebook page the morning after Trump won, Souza posted a picture of the tortoise poking her head through an opening in the cardboard box where she sleeps. “Charlotte just woke up. Should I tell her?” he wrote. The reaction was enormous.

So Souza kept it up. He started posting Facebook photos and videos of Charlotte doing what a tortoise does—eating, seeking sunlight, pushing through grass. His Facebook friends ate it up as ravenously as Charlotte gobbles organic dandelion leaves.

But her popularity really took off last summer when she started making regular appearances on Souza’s Instagram account—which has 2 million followers—during a family vacation. “We have a cabin in northern Michigan, and Charlotte came up with us in the car,” he says. “I was just taking some photos and videos of Charlotte and posting them. People were quite taken with her.” Fans told Souza she should have her own Instagram. “So I created one.”

Charlotte—or @charlottethetortoise—joined her owner in using the platform to call out Trump and rally his opponents. In one video, she painstakingly pushes through a partially open door onto a deck. The caption: “I persisted; so can you. Don’t give up. Keep fighting!” The post got 16,250 views and 204 comments.

In another post, published during Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, Charlotte takes a jab using a photo of a mound of kale. Her caption: “I like kale. I still like kale. Sometimes I have too much kale.” When one commenter asked the inevitable, “Did you ever have so much kale you blacked out?,” Charlotte responded, “HAVE YOU?”

Does Charlotte care that she now has close to 16,000 of her own followers? “I don’t think she even knows the difference between me and my wife,” says Souza. The couple ended up with the tortoise when their kids—who adopted Charlotte and named her after the spider in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web—left home without her.

When she’s not throwing shade on Instagram, Charlotte passes her time in a large enclosure at home in Arlington, hiding in her box or sunbathing under her heat lamp. Occasionally, she roams freely. “We hope she doesn’t poop on the rug,” says Souza.

He’s not sure how to describe her personality: “I don’t know what’s in her brain. She sometimes looks for splashes of sunlight to soak in the sun; sometimes she’s looking for a place to hide and sleep.”

So she’s not exactly a born entertainer. Nonetheless, Charlotte’s following ticks up daily, to Souza’s amazement. In October, he released a book spawned by his own Instagram account, called Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, which features his photography of Obama juxtaposed with quotes from Trump. At book events, fans ask about Charlotte, so Souza brought her to an appearance this past fall at George Washington University.

But even though she was there in response to popular demand, few seemed to notice as she quietly wandered around onstage, says Souza’s publicist. Eventually, someone helped her off. Perhaps Charlotte is a star better suited to the iPhone screen.

This article appears in the January 2019 issue of Washingtonian.

Debra Bruno

DC writer Debra Bruno last wrote for Washingtonian about fostering rescue animals.