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"Take the iPads Off the Tortoises:" Petition Stokes Controversy Over Museum Exhibit

A cropped version of an exhibit-promoting photo made available by the Aspen Art Museum.
A cropped version of an exhibit-promoting photo made available by the Aspen Art Museum.
Photo by Billy Farrell/BFAnyc.com

"Moving Ghost Town Tortoises," a new exhibit at the Aspen Art Museum, hasn't even launched yet. It's slated to debut on Saturday amid the unveiling of a new building at the facility. But it's making national and international headlines thanks to a petition claiming animal abuse as a result of the presentation's most unique aspect: iPads strapped to the backs of three African tortoises. Photos, details and more below.

See also: Photos: More of Denver's Best Street Art as Chosen by a Graffiti-Scene Veteran

The Change.org petition, posted by Lisbeth Olsen, features the title "Take the iPads Off the Tortoises." Here's a screen capture of the main image....

"Take the iPads Off the Tortoises:" Petition Stokes Controversy Over Museum Exhibit

...and here's the accompanying text:

Dear Aspen Art Museum --

We, the undersigned, request you end this animal abuse. The Tortoises that you have in your new display in the new Aspen Art Museum have had iPads attached to their shells and must endure the weight of 2 iPads on their back as they walk around in the sun showing slides of old Aspen in the name of art. Since when is animal abuse art? We must all rise and stop this now!! There is no excuse for this!

Please stop this unnecessary exploitation of animals now and do the right thing by getting these iPad of the Tortoises' backs and make sure they are given to a sanctuary where they will never be abused like this again and put pressure on the artist to vow he will never do anything like this to any other animal ever again!

The carapace (The carapace is the dorsal (back) convex part of the shell structure of a turtle, consisting primarily of the animal's ribcage, dermal armor and scutes) is sensitive to the slightest impact. If the carapace or plastron be very gently tapped, the nearest leg is alone withdrawn, a heavier tap causing a withdrawal of its whole body. We have here, therefore, a structure which is a true sensitive surface, and like the soft skin of a frog or of a man, it is brought into relation- ship with the central nervous system. Like the soft skin of other animals it may be mapped out into areas, from which the nerve-fibres passing to the spinal cord are all especially connected with outgoing motor nerves, so that the definite reflex movements of limbs as already described may come about.

The petition had a goal of 1,000 signatures. At this writing, it's collected more than 1,700, boosted no doubt by enormous media interest in the dust-up. A Denver Post piece quickly led to a slew of other press reports from outlets as varied as Time and The Australian . In response, the museum offered the following statement in defense of the exhibit, as penned by spokesperson Sara Fitzmaurice:

The Aspen Art Museum is a contemporary art museum that provides a platform for artists to present their artistic vision with a freedom of expression. That free expression can take many forms, and it is not the Museum's practice to censor artists. Cai Guo-Qiang's installation features three African Sulcata Tortoises which were rescued from a breeder where they were living in an over-crowded enclosure and being over bred. The three are being closely monitored, cared for, checked by a local veterinarian at regular intervals, and are being exhibited in consultation with the Turtle Conservancy. Following the end of the exhibition on October 5, the tortoises will find new homes in conservation and educational facilities selected in collaboration with the Turtle Conservancy.
The Aspen Art Museum as seen in a profile pic on the organization's Facebook page.
The Aspen Art Museum as seen in a profile pic on the organization's Facebook page.

A much more detailed explanation (it's about 900 words in length) is offered on the museum's Facebook page. But the missive failed to connect with a number of commenters. Here are several examples:

The Aspen Art Museum and this so-called-artist should be ashamed of themselves and should be boycotted!!! Disgusting abuse of a noble being!

There are better ways to educate and raise awareness for the tortoises...I fully doubt this was the original intent anyways. It's absurd and demeaning to the animal.

Guiltless explanation, but I say, "So what?" It sends a visual message which is destructive towards tortoises. It's a little like sawing a person in half: it's a trick, sure, but post enough videos, someone will actually it.

SHUT IT DOWN ! YOUR EXCUSES ARE SHODDY AND ANIMALS ARE NOT YOURS TO DECORATE THEIR SENSITIVE SHELLS WITH A HARNESS TO WEAR AN IPAD FOR ENTERTAINMENT! Everyone tweet your displeasure to @tim_cook CEO of Apple that you do not want his products used in this #animalabuse manner!

Oh, please!

Continue to see the complete Aspen Art Museum post about "Moving Ghost Town Tortoises."

 

Aspen Art Museum Facebook post:

"Take the iPads Off the Tortoises:" Petition Stokes Controversy Over Museum Exhibit
Photo by Billy Farrell/BFAnyc.com
The Facts about Cai Guo-Qiang's Moving Ghost Town Tortoises

Cai Guo-Qiang's installation Moving Ghost Town consists of three African Tortoises named Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star, and Whale Wanderer. Friendly, good-natured, and adaptable, the African Tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata) is the third-largest species of tortoise and a popular pet.

Working closely with local veterinarian Dr. Elizabeth Kremzier, DVM, on health concerns, and with the internationally acclaimed Turtle Conservancy on husbandry issues, the Aspen Art Museum arranged for the transport of the tortoises to Aspen and constructed a habitat that promotes and safeguards sustained health and comfort. The ideal temperature for the tortoises is 85 - 105ºF during the day. The tortoise habitat provides a variety of temperatures to give the tortoises the option of where they want to be, including lots of natural sunlight, radiant heating panels, and heated rocks. The tortoises are very strong and active and when the temperature gets too cold for them, they will self-regulate by lying in the sun or on the heating pad in their enclosure. Unfiltered natural sunlight is the ideal scenario for the tortoises and fifteen minutes of natural sunlight is equivalent to more than eight hours of indoor incandescent light. The habitat allows the tortoises plenty of space to roam and explore. African Tortoises eat a diet of vegetables, grasses, and herbaceous plants, and trained museum staff members provide the tortoises with a salad of mixed greens and vegetables every day.

Each of the three tortoises carries an iPad in the installation, showcasing footage of their experience in Colorado. The iPad adds negligible weight for the tortoise to support: their thick, sturdy legs accommodate their own weight and, during mating, upwards of 150 extra pounds. The use of the iPad and its mounting method is a reduced version of the method employed by scientists and researchers who study the animals in the wild. The silicone/epoxy material is noninvasive and removes easily and cleanly without damaging the tortoise's shell. It is common practice to use this particular adhesive to attach research-tracking devices in the wild. It is the most benign method to track animals in the wild. In this instance, it is used to temporarily attach the bolts that hold the mounting system. The mounting system is designed purposely to keep the iPads at a distance from their shell and does not impede their growth.

Dr. Elizabeth Kremzier, DVM: "I have worked with the staff from the Aspen Art Museum since the initial planning phase of the Cai Guo-Qiang project. Without question, the welfare of the tortoises has taken the highest priority in every stage of this exhibition. The environmental and nutritional needs of the animals have been met and are monitored closely. Environmental enrichment has been provided, and every attempt has been made to minimize stress on the animals. In my professional opinion, the tortoises have adapted well to their new habitat, and the iPads have not interfered in any way with their natural behavior."

Weekly visits by the museum's local veterinarian along with constant monitoring by the museum staff will ensure that Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star, and Whale Wanderer remain healthy and comfortable. At the close of the exhibition, they will find new homes in conservation and educational facilities selected in consultation with the Turtle Conservancy.

Turtle Conservancy Founder and President Eric Goode comments: "We at the Turtle Conservancy believe that Cai Guo-Qiang's installation raises public awareness of the fact that African Tortoises (Centrochelys sulcata) are completely inappropriate as pets for most people. Although they are very attractive when small, they grow to a very large size (over two feet long and more than 125 pounds) requiring very large and expensive enclosures. They also live a very long time, at least as long as a human. Once these tortoises are a few years old, they can no longer be cared for by most of those who buy them and become disposable pets. This message is timely as it coincides with the release of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which is sure to increase demand for pet tortoises. We hope that Cai's exhibition will convince people that, in general, turtles and tortoises are very challenging pets that bring great responsibility as they can often outlive their owners."

The African Tortoise is native to the southern edge of the Sahara, from Senegal east through Mali, Niger, Chad, the Sudan, and Ethiopia. The tortoise population is rapidly disappearing, and the animals are endangered in the wild. However, removing turtles and tortoises from the wild has not only endangered the existence of the animals in their native habitat, but has also resulted in overbreeding of African Tortoises in captivity. Contrary to popular belief, breeding tortoises does not help the wild population but actually hurts the species.

The tortoises featured in Moving Ghost Town were rescued from a breeder in Arizona who kept eighteen tortoises in a space smaller than the current AAM habitat and actively promoted their sale. This exhibition helped facilitate the removal of three of these tortoises from the breeder.

The AAM is sensitive to concerns raised regarding the presentation of tortoises within this extraordinary and compelling exhibition. The AAM wishes to point out that as a contemporary art museum, we provide a platform for each exhibiting artist to present their own unique artistic vision and to exercise their freedom of expression. That free expression can, and does, take many forms, and it is not the museum's practice to censor artists.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.


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