TORRINGTON, Alberta (AP) _ Counting 177 inhabitants, this small dot on a secondary highway crossing the vast Canadian prairie was about as inconspicuous as a town can get. Until the gopher museum.
To the consternation of some and the delight of many, the museum has provoked hundreds of letters of outrage from around the world, a few of them obscene and pointedly illustrated.
That’s because the Gopher Hole Museum is no sober natural history collection but rather a whimsical portrayal of daily life in tranquil, tiny Torrington _ using dead, stuffed gophers decked out in cute little costumes.
Animal-rights activists are aghast.
In 31 displays, 54 gophers play hockey and Little League baseball, get a hair-do, preach a sermon, flyfish, shoot pool in the local tavern (little claws wrapped accurately around tiny cues) _ even rob a bank, with the teller told, ``Put your paws up.″
Some of the props, such as itsy-bitsy binoculars, were culled from Barbie doll sets. Admission is U.S. $1.50.
Getting goofy about gophers isn’t new to Torrington. Motorists passing through on the two-lane might glimpse a statue of Clem T. Gofur, the town’s bucktoothed mascot, clad in real farmer’s overalls, at the entrance to the town’s campground.
Although the museum’s grand opening is Saturday, it has been the target of a yearlong campaign orchestrated by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a Washington, D.C.-based group with supporters worldwide.
In a section of its newsletter called ``Purrs and Grrrs,″ PETA growled at Torrington for its ``gruesome plan″ and accurately quoted Mayor Harold Ehrman as saying animal-rights activists could ``go stuff themselves.″
PETA printed Ehrman’s office address, and spare-the-gopher letters started flooding in.
For awhile, Ehrman answered every complaint with a form-letter explaining that gophers were neither endangered nor endearing. Alberta farmers kill thousands of the squirrel-sized rodents every year because their holes and tunnel complexes make plowing difficult and can snap the legs of cattle and swallow up tractors when they cave in.
The mayor had to give up his replies when postage costs mounted. Still, townspeople say PETA has done them a favor.
``They’ve given us thousands of dollars of free publicity,″ said Diane Kurta, head of Torrington’s tourism committee, as she displayed boxes of letters.
Most are from the United States. Others came from Japan, England, Germany and elsewhere.
``Stuff this, Howie,″ wrote a Key West, Fla., doctor who got the mayor’s first name wrong and drew a red-ink sketch of a hand making an obscene gesture.
One of the displays pokes fun at the PETA feud. A gopher dressed as the mayor and a bearded gopher-activist from ``GAGS″ _ Gophers Against Getting Stuffed _ engage in a tug-of-war, pulling on the legs of a hapless third gopher.
In some displays, a cartoon-style caption perches above the tableau. One gopher pushing back from a meal at the local restaurant, for instance, declares, ``Boy, am I stuffed.″
The museum had its genesis several years ago when provincial officials offered proceeds from Alberta’s lottery to small towns that created tourism projects.
When a Torrington woman first suggested a museum ``peopled″ by gophers, friends snickered.
``You have to admit, the idea is silly,″ Mrs. Kurta said. ``We all know our $9,000 would be better off for hospitals or education. But if they’re going to give it to us to stuff gophers, well, that’s not our problem.″
The project gradually gained support, even from townspeople who initially resisted, Mrs. Kurta said.
Gopher-stuffing began last August, using carcasses snared by local farmers. A nearby taxidermist stuffed the first batch. The rest were done by a Torrington man, Norman Oster, who took a taxidermy course and now sells his creations at the museum gift shop _ 300 American dollars will buy a gopher farmer with his plow.
Townspeople pitched in, renovating a two-room former grain office, making costumes and painting the displays. Many now hope the attention will draw new residents and help the local elementary school avoid closure.
In general, rodents lead a perilous existence in Alberta. The province has proclaimed itself ``rat-free″ since a 1950s extermination blitz and funds a rat patrol to guard its border with Saskatchewan.
One legislator, Roy Brassard, raised a ruckus in April by suggesting the province wipe out gophers as well. Torrington residents found the idea laughable, not in sympathy with gophers but because it seemed impossible.
Gophers have inhabited Alberta for at least 12,000 years, flourishing despite annual onslaughts of gunfire, poison, flooding and smoke.
``The activists should come out here and see what the gophers really do,″ said Sheila Schimke, an assistant at the town office. ``They’re pests, not pets.″