American activists protest Alberta gopher museum

TORRINGTON, Alta. – This is a typical prairie village – a wide main street with angle parking and more than its share of boarded-up buildings that were once thriving businesses.

The residents of this central Alberta town wanted something unique that would entice travellers rushing past on Highway 27 to stop and visit.

“So many of these towns are just going under because there’s nothing to keep people there,” said Phyllis Wilson, who runs a doll museum that draws a steady stream of visitors from May to October.

Overrun with gophers, the local tourism committee proposed a museum that featured the rodents. The twist was that taxidermied gophers would portray people in a specially designed village that resembled Torrington in bygone days. To show people what they had in mind, Wilson designed a yuletide display using four gophers dressed in holiday costumes, including Santa. Many people found it cute and novel.

The museum plans to show vignettes of town life using stuffed gophers dressed in human clothes and there will be a biology lesson about the Richardson’s ground squirrel, its effect on agriculture in the area, as well as a history of the Torrington area.

The village applied for and received a government grant to develop the project which quickly picked up media attention. However the ensuing publicity was not quite what the villagers had in mind.

A CBC-TV news story was seen by the American animal rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Washington, D.C.

In a strongly worded letter to the mayor from Leslie Gerstenfeld, a researcher with PETA, the concept was denounced as cruel and inappropriate because it teaches children to kill animals and use them for entertainment.

The organization demanded the project stop immediately and has threatened to organize a boycott of the museum.

Wilson said PETA should have taken a less threatening stance and asked for information about the project before passing judgment. She says the animal rightists need to do better research about what kind of pests gophers are in a farming community.

“If it was a species that was in jeopardy of being extinct I could see where they would have some problems over it,” said Wilson. “If they’re really doing their job shouldn’t they really know what the situation is rather than assuming the 30 we kill are really going to put them in jeopardy?” she said from her Torrington home.

About 30 gophers will be used for the initial display with expansion plans for 60 to 100 gophers in various poses depicting town and farm life. About 25 volunteers will sew the costumes which are individually fitted to the rodent’s body because of its humped back and concave chest.

While the town has received several letters from PETA condemning the project, the museum plans are on schedule for an opening next spring.

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