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DENVER — An artist's plan to attach iPads showing movies about ghost towns to the back of tortoises at the Aspen art museum is drawing fire from animal-rights activists.

Cai Guo-Qiang's "Moving Ghost Town" display is set to launch Saturday to mark the opening of the new Aspen Art Museum. According to the museum, the artist attached cameras to three African Sulcata tortoises named Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star and Whale Wanderer, and let them roam around nearby ghost towns. At the museum, that footage will be displayed on the iPads as the tortoises explore "a section of natural turf similar to local grasslands ... (and) forgotten stories of the once-prosperous ghost towns are retold from the tortoises' perspective."

Animal-rights advocates are not amused. They've started an online petition, with more than 850 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon, to force the museum to halt the installation as it moves into the new museum building in the heart of this tiny ski town beloved by investment bankers, rockers and models.

"Since when is animal abuse art? We must all rise and stop this now!! There is no excuse for this," Aspen native Lisbeth Oden wrote in a Change.org petition aimed at canceling the display. "Please stop this unnecessary exploitation of animals now and do the right thing by getting these iPad of (sic) the Tortoises' backs and make sure they are given to a sanctuary where they will never be abused like this again and put pressure on the artist to vow he will never do anything like this to any other animal ever again!"

According to the Aspen Daily News, Oden has done tortoise rehabilitation work in Florida: "I normally don't stick my nose out in public like this — by any sense of the imagination," she told the paper. "But to me this is just flat-out animal abuse."

Sara Fitzmaurice, a spokesperson with the Aspen Art Museum released the following statement.

"The Aspen Art Museum is a contemporary art museum that provides a platform for artists to present their artistic vision with a freedom of expression. That free expression can take many forms, and it is not the Museum's practice to censor artists. Cai Guo-Qiang's installation features three African Sulcata Tortoises which were rescued from a breeder where they were living in an over-crowded enclosure and being over bred. The three are being closely monitored, cared for, checked by a local veterinarian at regular intervals, and are being exhibited in consultation with the Turtle Conservancy. Following the end of the exhibition on October 5, the tortoises will find new homes in conservation and educational facilities selected in collaboration with the Turtle Conservancy."

Museum officials say the tortoises — two sisters and a female cousin — were rescued from a breeder and have been under a veterinarian's supervision the entire time. They say Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star and Whale Wanderer also are being monitored by the internationally recognized Turtle Conservancy.

Local Aspen Veterinarian Dr. Elizabeth Kremzier has monitoring the tortoises.

"I have worked with the staff from the Aspen Art Museum since the initial planning phase of the Cai Guo-Qiang project, Kremzier said in a statement. "Without question, the welfare of the Tortoises has taken the highest priority in every stage of this exhibit. The environmental and nutritional needs of the animals have been met and are monitored closely."

African Sulcata tortoises are among the world's largest tortoises, often weighing well more than 100 pounds when fully grown. The tortoises in the museum exhibit each weigh about 70 pounds. Depending on the model, a full-size iPad weighs about 1.5 pounds.

(Copyright © 2014 USA TODAY)

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