Tortoise Art Installation Under Fire; Conservationist Defends Exhibit

PHOTO: A tortoise from Cai Guo-Qiang art installation, Moving Ghost Town, is seen in this handout photo from the Aspen Art Institute.

An exhibit that opens today featuring iPads mounted on the backs of three tortoises has been accused of promoting "animal abuse," but a turtle conservationist says the installation could actually protect the slow-footed reptiles.

Artist Cai Guo-Qiang's exhibit at the Aspen Art Museum shows video footage of three local ghost towns on iPads, which were filmed by three African Sulcata tortoises named Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star and Whale Wanderer.

The installation is scheduled for the museum until October 5.

A petition on Change.org asks the museum to take the iPads off the backs of the animals, saying it is "unnecessary exploitation of animals." There were more than 4,390 signatures on the petition as of Saturday.

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The museum said in a statement that it has worked closely with local veterinarian Dr. Elizabeth Kremzier on health concerns and with the Turtle Conservancy on husbandry issues.

The museum says the iPads add "negligible weight for the tortoise," and their legs are strong enough to carry a mate, which can be more than 150 extra pounds.

The tortoises in the exhibit weigh roughly 60 pounds each, and the combined weight of the two iPads and the mounting on their backs is 2.5 pounds, according to Sara Fitzmaurice, spokeswoman for the Aspen Art Museum. She said the iPads are removed at the end of each day, though the mount that is adhered to the shell that holds them stays on. She said there isn’t any concern about them holding the weight until October.

The silicone/epoxy material on the tortoises is "noninvasive and removes easily and cleanly without damaging the tortoise's shell," the museum claims, and it is a "reduced version of the method employed by scientists and researchers who study the 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," the museum claims.

But Lisbeth Oden, the woman who started the Change.org petition, questions whether enduring the weight of a mate for a few hours prepares them for balancing two iPads.

"The point is that they were not given a choice," Oden writes in comments on the petition website. "And even if they were, do any of us speak Tortoise enough to understand what they might choose?"

Oden could not be reached for comment.

Kremzier said in a statement that she has worked with the museum's staff since the initial planning phase of the project.

"Without question, the welfare of the Tortoises has taken the highest priority in every stage of this exhibit," she said. "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 opinion, the tortoises have adapted well to their new habitat, and the iPads have not interfered in any way with their natural behavior."

Turtle Conservancy founder and president Eric Goode said the African tortoises are inappropriate as pets for most people, as they grow to become very large, despite being cute pets early on.

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