Torrington, Alberta (pop. 192) is an idyllic prairie town an hour northeast of Calgary. Surrounded by rolling grassland, it has the typical small town amenities; a nondescript post office, hair salon, restaurant, and general store with one rusty gas pump.
It has also generated a fantastic amount of controversy over the last four years due to the presence of the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum.
About the size of an RV, Torrington Gopher Hole Museum features stuffed gophers (actually, "Richardson's Ground Squirrels) posed to resemble the townspeople. Exhibits include gophers dressed as a priest, bank robber, RCMP officer, duck hunter, firefighter, and beautician, among others. Dressed in elaborate costumes and framed by elaborately painted backdrops, the gophers pose in cabinets, their glassy eyes indifferent to the media attention they provoke and the letters pouring in on their behalf.
All 44 exhibits and their 71 tenants can be viewed in less than 10 minutes. Reading the museum's mountain of correspondence and media clippings can take a lot longer, and is in many senses, the real attraction of the museum.
The story of how a small museum can create such disproportionate attention starts in 1995, when the citizens of Torrington formed a committee to determine how to increase town revenue. The Alberta government, as part of their 20/20 Vision program, was offering grants to small towns to help improve their economies hoping to ensure their existence.
"There was a questionnaire sent to all small towns and villages (in Alberta) wanting to know what you'd be doing by the year 20/20 to attract people to your town," said Dianne Kurta, chairman of the Torrington Tourism Committee and museum curator. "Torrington decided on tourism."
And it couldn't just be any tourism attraction, she adds. It had to be one that would lure people travelling to Drumheller or divert traffic from highway 2.
After several ideas were tossed around, a member of the committee suggested stuffing some of the many gophers that infested the town and putting them on display.
"My honest opinion is that it was the silliest idea I'd ever heard," says Kurta.
Torrington has what Kurta describes as a "gopher problem." The committee decided to take advantage of the problem, warming to the idea and submitting a proposal to the government. After their grant was approved, construction of the museum began in 1995.
That's when the controversy started. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals got wind of the museum proposal and were upset, submitting two letters protesting the planned museum to Torrington Mayor Harold Ehrman.
"We weren't trying to knock the museum," said PETA representative and Wildlife Case Worker Stephanie Boyles. "[We felt] if you were going to use stuffed animals anyway, why not use prefabricated models?"
Boyles said that PETA was not trying to prevent the opening of the museum, but asking them to change their approach.
"Given the alternatives available, I don't know why they went through with it," she said, adding that PETA was only one of several national and international organizations that opposed the museum.
"Couldn't they have done it another way?" asked Boyles. "What difference does it make if they're not actual gophers?"
Boyles pointed out that people do not stuff real cats and place them in their windows on Halloween.
Boyles regrets Torrington went ahead with their original proposal but adds that they are not trying to shut the museum down.
"Unfortunately, these animals have already been killed."
Kurta defends the museum, dismissing PETA's concerns as noble but misguided.
"Basically, [PETA] heard we were getting a grant," said Kurta, "and they were against the idea of killing gophers." Kurta cited the many problems Torrington experiences with gophers.
"We have problems with gopher damage to crops, to fields and damage to cattle," she said, pointing out that gopher holes can cause cattle and horses broken legs. She also added that badgers follow gopher populations and take over their burrows, enlarging them and exacerbating the problem.
The Torrington tourism committee replied to PETA with a postcard reading simply, "get stuffed." PETA claims they never received this postcard, but the international media focused heavily on this postcard as the opening gambit in a war of words that was to continue for the next three years.
Just prior to its opening, PETA distributed a press release describing the contents of the museum.
The Torrington Gopher Hole Museum opened its doors on
June 1, 1996, to an international media frenzy which caught Kurta and the tourism committee off guard.
"We had no idea it would be this big," she said.
The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek were just a few of the thousands of media outlets that ran stories on the controversial new museum. Hundreds of daily papers across Canada and the us ran stories and editorials arguing for and against Torrington's new attraction.
Copies of these stories, plus hundreds of letters of praise, condemnation, and curiosity, are proudly displayed in the museum. Letters arrived from as far away as Japan, Great Britain and Germany.
And the visitors poured in; in 1996, over 9,000 alone, followed by another 15,000 in the last three years. Visitors have come from as far away as Russia and India.
The fact that their small town has created such a furor is staggering to Kurta. She suggests that the museum has PETA to thank.
Boyles doesn't buy this claim.
"We encourage people not to patronize them," she said. She doesn't feel that PETA's objections increased attendance at Torrington, and adds, "From an ethical standpoint, that's irrelevant."
"They don't realize what kind of free advertising they give us," argued Kurta. As for any protesters, Kurta says they have not yet visited the museum. She adds that only one or two people have ever left the museum in disgust.
As to why no one has protested the museum in person or spoken to her directly with their concerns, Kurta returned to her assertion that Torrington has a gopher problem.
"There are animals that need saving," she said. "But the gopher is not one of them."
Boyles disagrees. "It shows a lack of respect to show animals this way. God put them on earth for a purpose."
Unlike other small towns in the area, Torrington is booming, said Kurta, adding that when a house goes up for sale, it usually isn't on the market longer than six months. When asked if this could be attributed to the success of the gopher hole museum, Kurta laughed.
"I think so," she said. "Lots of new families have moved in."
Regardless of whether the museum has boosted the population of Torrington, it has undoubtedly increased its notoriety.
"It's not a very big museum," said Kurta, "but it has a very big name."
This may be the only point on which Kurta and Boyles agree.
Kurta feels that Torrington Gopher Hole museum will be around for a long time and cites attendance figures as proof.
"I think its success is limited," countered Boyles.
Regardless, no side will win the argument this year. Torrington shuts down for the season at the end of September.
Next year the battle will resume in earnest. In the meantime, the gophers who have caused such an uproar will finally get a reprieve from all the attention. The lights will be turned out, the doors will be closed and the prying eyes of the world will have to look elsewhere for gopher-related controversy.