Turtle Conservancy has concerns for museum tortoises at Aspen Art Museum | AspenTimes.com

Turtle Conservancy has concerns for museum tortoises at Aspen Art Museum

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times

The Turtle Conservancy — a group the Aspen Art Museum has been consulting in its handling of its iPad-mounted desert tortoises — said Friday that it has concerns about the animals living in Aspen’s cool climate.

Turtle Conservancy board member Eric Goode also separated the organization from any involvement in the decision to mount iPads on the animals’ shells. 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.

“We had nothing to do with putting iPads on their backs,” Goode said. “This is an art installation, and we had absolutely nothing to do with the art installation. When I heard about that aspect, it raised eyebrows.”

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.”

Museum spokeswoman Sara Fitzmaurice, who was present during the tour, clarified that statement Friday, saying the handling of the tortoises was done in consultation with the Turtle Conservancy as well as local veterinarian Dr. Elizabeth Kremzier, who has been caring for and monitoring the animals.

As an advocate for keeping animals wild, the conservancy’s preference is that animals remain in their native environments. But if tortoises are removed from their habitat, the group offers input on handling. The art museum reached out to the conservancy multiple times over a number of months.

“When a zoo or an individual calls, we give them the best advice we can on how to care for the animals,” Goode said. “The problem is we can’t tell people everything. What we can do is try to share as much helpful information so at least they keep the animals in the best possible environment.”

During the discussions, the conservancy aired its concerns about Aspen’s high-elevation environment and asked the museum to keep the display to midsummer. The tortoises are scheduled to stay in Aspen until Oct. 5, when the exhibit concludes.

“These are cold-blooded animals, (and) their metabolism is based on being able to regulate and heat up during the day, and if they can’t do that, they can’t digest their food properly,” Goode said.

Fitzmaurice said the museum is monitoring temperatures and forecasts closely, and if the conservancy or Kremzier determines that it’s in the tortoises’ best interests to conclude the exhibition early, then the museum will do so promptly.

“The museum is very grateful to the Turtle Conservancy and the vet for providing advice and counsel to the museum and artist throughout this process,” Fitzmaurice said. “And the museum, as it has been since the very beginning, will continue to follow the advice of the Turtle Conservancy and the vet.”

At night, when the museum is closed, the animals are housed in a wooden, insulated enclosure with a radiant-heat panel. The iPads are affixed to the tortoise shells using noninvasive silicone epoxy material, Fitzmaurice said, and there is no drilling involved. She added that this method is a common practice for scientists using devices to track animals in the wild.

The conservancy believes there is a silver lining to the installation if the museum uses it as an educational opportunity. A major problem — especially with Friday’s release of the new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie — is the demand for keeping exotic animals as pets, Goode said.

“What ends up happening is kids buy them, and they don’t realize how big they get,” Goode said. “And they end up disposing of them somehow or giving them away, and they end up becoming what we call disposable pets, which is really sad.”

Fitzmaurice noted that the exhibition has garnered a significant amount of media attention, resulting in exposure to the conservancy’s mission and its educational outreach.

“It’s really important to have a teachable moment with this and not just use the animals as a piece of art,” Goode said. “The animals, to me, are a piece of art on their own.”

Public backlash against the museum’s installation began with an online petition started by Aspen resident Lisbeth Oden, which caught the attention of national media outlets. By Friday, more than 4,000 people had signed the petition.