Care2 members, you’ve already helped one tortoise out. Your outrage made the two girls who drenched an innocent tortoise in alcohol only to set him on fire and then stomp the animal to death pay for their crime.
The story of these next tortoises — Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star and Whale Wanderer — who are featured in the Aspen Art Museum is nowhere near as vicious as the cruelty that we’ve already seen. Yet, it does make us reflect about where the line between art and living animal abuse sits; it also adds an interesting layer to the discussion of the ethics of museums using animals.
The Props Are Making Controversy
The Aspen Art Museum is running Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Moving Ghost Town” installation. The artist never expected that the props, rather than the art itself, would make headlines and controversy.
Three tortoises were brought in to carry up to two iPads on their shells. The three African tortoises are free to roam the museum garden while the iPads flash images of Colorado ghost towns.
Aspen Art Museum Defends Itself
The museum defends its use of the animals. The institution claims that the tortoises’ welfare and care have been considered throughout the stages of the exhibit. The museum teamed up with veterinarians and the Turtle Conservancy to ensure that the three tortoises are taken care of.
The museum gives us the facts on their Facebook page. First, they claim that they rescued the tortoises from a bad breeder in Arizona where they were kept in a smaller space than the museum habitat and the irresponsible breeder was constantly trying to sell them.
The habitat is a definite upgrade from what the animals are used to. The habitat can adjust a number of different temperatures. The animals eat a prepared salad of mixed green and veggies everyday prepared by museum staff.
The museum goes on to say that the iPads are “negligible weight” for the animals to support. Their legs are used to supporting much more weight than a couple of iPads, and, during the mating ritual, the shells can support up to 150 pounds of extra weight. The silicon based adhesive is supposed to be similar to the noninvasive material that scientists who study the tortoises in the wild use. The adhesive temporarily attaches the bolts that the hold the mounting device in place. The mounting system was designed “to keep the iPads at a distance from their shell and does not impede their growth.”
It’s not a long-term situation, either. When the exhibition ends, the Turtle Conservancy will assist the museum in finding them new homes in conservation and educational places. The Turtle Conservancy praises the educational component of the exhibit. The conservancy claims that it raises awareness that tortoises are not suitable pets, and that the message is timely with the release of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” blockbuster.
The museum sums up its justification by reminding us that they are a contemporary art museum. As such, they “provide a platform for each exhibiting artist to present their own unique artistic vision and to exercise their freedom of expression. That free expression can, and does, take many forms, and it is not the museum’s practice to censor artists.”
Animal Activists Aren‘t Convinced
In this case, artistic freedom is more important than the animals’ freedom. My arms couldn’t take it when I had to hold an iPad for multiple hours; if I didn’t like it, then why would a tortoise appreciate the extra weight of a couple of iPads? Animal lovers have also pointed out that it’s pretty insulting to compare the weight during a natural mating session to prolonged hours of carrying the weight of two iPads.
As reported in the Los Angeles Times, Susan Tellem from the American Tortoise Rescue explains animals shouldn’t be used in public art or public spectacles.
I really think that with all of the technology that we have today, there are better alternatives to display flashing images of Colorado ghost towns where no tortoise had to be bothered or used. The fatal flaw in the exhibit is that it reduces Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star and Whale Wanderer to props — to objects.
Animals shouldn’t be props for our photos, and they shouldn’t be used as props period. Sure, there are worse ways that these tortoises can be exploited, but it’s still exploitation nonetheless. These three tortoises are alive, sentient and deserve a natural existence. They aren’t ghosts.
Photo Credit: Tristan Ferne