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August 9, 2002
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THE NATION
Judge Says PETA May Join Party--With a Sad Elephant
* Arts: Activists granted right to be part of the exhibit of animal sculptures in D.C.

 
 
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By JOHANNA NEUMAN, TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON -- Those so-called party animals--the 800-pound sculptures of donkeys and elephants that are spending the summer on the streets of the nation's capital--may soon be joined by a sad circus elephant.

In a victory for the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon on Thursday ordered the District of Columbia Commission on Arts and the Humanities to display PETA's circus animal sculpture--with a tear running down its cheek and a shackle on its leg--in a "prominent location."

The commission says it is reviewing the ruling and may appeal.

The controversy began last year when the Arts Commission, borrowing from Chicago's cows and Baltimore's fish, began to plan an exhibit of public art sculptures. In a bid to increase both tourism and smiles, it briefly considered using the panda as a model for the street art--based on the National Zoo's beloved and much-visited pair.

But eventually the commission settled on the city's political legacy, opting to paint or design 100 elephants (for the Republicans) and 100 donkeys (for the Democrats).

Invitations were distributed to 10,000 artists. A committee chose the finalists.

It being Washington, there were immediate ramifications.

The Green Party sued, arguing that there were more than two parties in the nation's capital, that in fact Green Party candidate Ralph Nader had won 6% of the vote in Washington, and that, at 9%, George W. Bush did not do much better. The courts rejected the argument, but there is a Green Party animal on the streets.

And PETA submitted a design, created by New Yorker magazine artist Harry Bliss, meant to depict the harsh life it said is suffered by circus elephants. The commission, eager to showcase the "whimsical and imaginative side of the nation's capital," rejected it as too negative.

Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, PETA argued that its elephant was rejected not because it contained a message but because the commission did not want its message on the streets.

Judge Leon agreed that the commission had been inconsistent, since some of the other elephants and donkeys had plenty of political content in their art. Among the themes on the streets are animals depicting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the heroes of Sept. 11 and the Florida butterfly ballot.

The court said the panel's "inconsistency was inherently unreasonable and therefore constituted impermissible discrimination in violation of the 1st Amendment."

The D.C. Arts Commission, which plans to auction the party animals in October for future arts projects funding, had left one polyurethane elephant unpainted in anticipation of the court decision. Judge Leon ordered Thursday that it be painted "expeditiously."

PETA, which last year successfully designed some anti-meat-eating cows for New York's public art display, was pleased with the decision.

"Life is no party for animals forced to perform in circuses," said Matthew Penzer, PETA's legal counsel. "With the court's ruling, elephants' cries for justice were heard--and will now be displayed--in Washington."

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