Tortoises removed from art museum

by Curtis Wackerle

Three African sulcata tortoises that were part of a controversial exhibit at the Aspen Art Museum have been relocated to a warmer climate more than a month ahead of schedule, after the veterinarian in charge of their care determined that weather conditions are too cold and wet to ensure their well-being.

The three tortoises have been held in an 800-square-foot pen on the new museum building’s roof deck with iPads mounted on their shells, with footage of local ghost towns playing on the screens.

Animal rights activists have called the exhibit inhumane and unethical, and more than 18,000 people have signed petitions calling on the museum to remove the tablets from the tortoises’ shells.

“Just because we can, it doesn’t mean we should,” Lisbeth Odén, who started a petition calling for the iPads to be removed, told the Aspen Daily News last week. “That’s life: knowing the difference between right and wrong.”

The exhibit, “Moving Ghost Town” by Cai Guo-Qiang, was scheduled to run through Oct. 5. However, after the weekend’s cool, wet weather, when temperatures bottomed out at 44 degrees in town on Sunday morning after staying in the 50s all day Saturday, local veterinarian Dr. Liz Kremzier determined the tortoises needed new homes. The forecast for the first part of the week promises more of the same.

According to museum spokesman Jeff Murcko, the three tortoises — named Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star and Whale Wanderer — were driven to a shelter in a warmer climate by two museum staffers on Monday.

Murcko would not disclose the name or location of the shelter, saying the operators of the facility have requested anonymity. However, the Turtle Conservancy, which advocates for the reptiles, has approved the facility, Murcko said.

 Aspen Daily News file photo
One of three tortoises that carried iPads on their backs as part of an exhibit have been removed from the Aspen Art Museum due to cold temperatures at night.

The tortoises came from a breeder in Arizona where conditions of overcrowding were present, according to museum officials. The animals are often purchased as pets by people who do not understand what they have gotten themselves into.

Murcko offered no comment when presented with the observation that cool, wet weather is normal in Aspen in the fall, and was asked why the museum scheduled the exhibit to run through early October in the first place.

He said he had not received any reports about the tortoises’ behavior over the weekend. They have an enclosed shelter in their pen with a radiant heating pad where they spend the nights and take cover from the cold. However, the animals, native to the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, are best suited for temperatures in the 80- to 100-degree range, according to museum literature.

Dr. Kremzier examined the tortoises and gave them a clean bill of health before they were transported, Murcko said.

According to a museum statement (see letters to the editor, page 8), the museum’s leadership is “extremely sensitive to the perspectives raised by some about the inclusion” of live animals in an art exhibit.

“We want to again make it very clear that we would never harm or abuse animals, or place any living thing in danger or harm’s way,” the statement says.

The museum also cited other examples of modern art involving live animals including Joseph Beuys’ “I Like America and America Likes Me” (1974), in which the artist caged himself with a live coyote, and Darren Bader’s presentation of live cats as sculptures in his recent “Darren Bader: Images at MoMA PS1”, (2012).

“The AAM firmly believes in our institutional role of providing a wide platform for artists to realize their creative vision. Moving Ghost Town is no exception. We stand by the artist to ensure that vision is honored, and we are glad that this exhibition has generated such meaningful dialogue and educational awareness,” the statement says.

The exhibition will continue, sans tortoises, through Oct. 5, with the tablets and their footage of ghost towns presented in a different way on the roof deck of the museum.