Thousands sign on to close tortoise exhibit |

Thousands sign on to close tortoise exhibit

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times

More than 12,000 people have signed a petition demanding the Aspen Art Museum end its controversial art installation that features desert tortoises with iPads mounted to their shells.

The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity delivered the petition Tuesday, condemning Cai Guo-Qiang’s art installation “Moving Ghost Town,” which includes three African sulcata tortoises that display footage of area ghost towns on dual iPads.

“The Aspen Art Museum should know better,” Kieran Suckling, executive director at the center, said in a statement. “This is less provocative than it is just plain exploitative and cruel. It crosses the line and needs to be stopped.”

In previous statements defending Guo-Qiang’s installation, the art museum has cited free expression, contending that “it is not the museum’s practice to censor artists.”

Addressing concerns about the iPads as well as the impact Aspen’s cool climate has on the cold-blooded animals, the museum has pointed to its consultation with local veterinarian Dr. Elizabeth Kremzier and the New York-based Turtle Conservancy. The conservancy has since disconnected itself from any involvement with the iPads, though board member Eric Goode said the organization has offered advice on how to handle the exotic animals.

At night, when the museum is closed, the tortoises — which are scheduled to stay in Aspen through Oct. 5 — are housed in a wooden, insulated enclosure with a radiant-heat panel. The iPads are affixed to their shells using noninvasive silicone epoxy material without any drilling involved.

Public backlash against the installation began with an online petition started by Aspen resident Lisbeth Oden, which caught the attention of national media outlets. By Tuesday, more than 6,300 people had signed on.

New York businessman and Turtle Conservancy benefactor Andy Sabin has also cried afoul. Sabin, who refers to himself as the “Salamander Commander,” recently purchased ads in The Aspen Times asking the public to stop supporting and attending the museum until the iPads are removed.

“Cold blooded does not mean I do not feel pain or fear,” the ad reads. “I am a life, and my life is precious … I am a turtle.”

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the African tortoises are designated as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They also are listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

“The treatment of these tortoises in Aspen is being driven by the same kind of thoughtless self-interest that drives wildlife exploitation around the world and ultimately pushes many animals toward extinction,” Suckling said.