Citing free expression, Aspen Art Museum representatives responded Wednesday to a group claiming the organization’s use of iPad-mounted desert tortoises in its opening festivities equates to animal abuse.
Included in the unveiling of the art museum’s new $45 million building on Hyman Avenue are three African sulcata tortoises that carry iPads displaying footage of area ghost towns. The installation “Moving Ghost Town” was created by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang.
By 7 p.m. Wednesday, more than 1,200 people had signed a Change.org petition started by Aspen resident Lisbeth Oden.
“Please stop this unnecessary exploitation of animals now and do the right thing by getting these iPad (off) the Tortoises’ backs,” Oden’s petition reads.
Museum spokeswoman Sara Fitzmaurice said in a statement that “free expression can take many forms, and it is not the museum’s practice to censor artists.”
“The three (tortoises) are being closely monitored, cared for, checked by a local veterinarian at regular intervals, and are being exhibited in consultation with the Turtle Conservancy,” she added.
Local veterinarian Dr. Elizabeth Kremzier, who is caring for and monitoring the tortoises, said in a statement that the welfare of the tortoises has “taken the highest priority in every stage of the exhibit.” She added that environmental and nutritional needs have been met and stress has been minimized.
“In my opinion, the tortoises have adapted well to their new habitat, and the iPads have not interfered in any way with their natural behavior,” she said.
Oden’s petition has gained the attention of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose representative Sarah Preston wrote to Oden, “We are currently looking into this, and in the meantime, we encourage you to voice your concerns to the museum as well.”
“Nauseating,” “repulsive,” “tasteless,” “abusive,” “lame” and “cruel” were some of the words online petitioners used to describe the tortoise display, and the authors hailed from as far away as Hawaii, Arizona, Texas, Virginia and Ontario.
“When I read about this, I couldn’t believe it!” Bland Nesbit, of Aspen, wrote. “Is it necessary to abuse animals just to try to appear oh-so-creative? They should free those turtles right away.”
The New York-based Turtle Conservancy said Guo-Qiang’s installation raises public awareness that African-spurred tortoises are inappropriate as pets. Although attractive when small, they grow up to be very large, requiring large and expensive enclosures, the conservancy said. With the August release of a new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie, the conservancy claimed that demand for pet tortoises will increase.
“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 conservancy said in a statement.
During a July 30 tour of the new museum with The Aspen Times, museum CEO and Director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson said, “We collaborated with the Turtle Conservancy, so they have supervised every decision we’ve made overall, so we have the seal of approval from the most rigid organization.”
Following the end of the exhibition Oct. 5, the tortoises will be moved to new homes in conservation and educational facilities selected by the conservancy and the museum.
Staff writer Andrew Travers contributed to this report.