Yes, you are looking at an African sulcata tortoise with an iPad mounted on its back. But is it art?

The Aspen Art Museum in Colorado certainly seems to think so. It's turned the reptiles into lumbering works of art as part of an exhibit that aims to tell the "forgotten stories" of the area's "once prosperous ghost towns" – the iPads attached to the tortoises' shells display "video footage of three local ghost towns" (apparently filmed by the turtles themselves).

But what's art to some is just plain old animal abuse to others. Concerned about the tortoises' welfare, members of the public have launched an online petition to shut down the exhibit, calling on the museum to stop the "unnecessary exploitation of the animals". 

The 'Moving Ghost Town' exhibit is the work of New York-based artist Cai Guo-Qiang, and has been planned to coincide with the opening of the museum's new premises this weekend. The three tortoises – a.k.a Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star and Whale Wanderer – will be tasked with milling about with iPads on show for the museum's visitors.

"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," says the museum's website. "The three are being closely monitored, cared for [and] checked by a local veterinarian at regular intervals, and are being exhibited in consultation with the Turtle Conservancy."

But despite these assurances, criticism has been mounting, and the museum has since released a more detailed statement to defend the exhibit, outlining the measures it's taken to ensure the reptiles are well looked after. It says Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star and Whale Wanderer are getting all the right nutrition, along with some environmental enrichment and care to reduce stress. 

The Turtle Conservancy's founder Eric Goode has also argued that the rescued turtles are doing some good for their own kind. "We at the Turtle Conservancy believe that Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation raises public awareness of the fact that African tortoises ... are completely inappropriate as pets for most people ... This message is timely as it coincides with the release of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which is sure to increase demand for pet tortoises."

At the time of posting, the petition to shut down the exhibit had 1,689 signatures. 

H/t Denver Post

Top header image: Derrick Coetzee, Flickr