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COLUMBIA HEIGHTS

Polar Bears' Plight Doesn't Play With Bomb Squad

A bomb squad officer dismantles a mannequin with a polar bear's head at 14th and Irving streets Northwest.
A bomb squad officer dismantles a mannequin with a polar bear's head at 14th and Irving streets Northwest. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

It was clearly a dangerous situation: Yellow police tape crisscrossed the intersection, innocent civilians were ordered out of harm's way and the Metro station was shut down.

The bomb squad rolled in with their armored vehicle, and out waddled the stiff, spaceman-looking officers ready to protect the capital yesterday morning.

The situation?

A homeless polar bear was rummaging through a trash can.

Or rather, a mannequin dressed to look like a bear.

The display that caused a ruckus near the Columbia Heights Metro station yesterday appeared to be street art.

The tall mannequin beneath the polar bear head wore a tattered flannel shirt and dirty pants. Some onlookers said it was there for several hours, peering into the trash can at 14th and Irving streets Northwest until someone called police at 10 a.m.

"It's a suspicious package," police spokespeople declared.

So in came the bomb squad and all the precautions of a post-Sept. 11 world.

Metro shut the station. Seven shuttle buses were summoned to move 218 people out of the blast zone, said Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. Traffic was diverted; firetrucks and ambulances lined the streets.

Onlookers watched a bomb technician in a blast suit walk slowly toward the bear, then pounce and cut it open. He pulled out wads of newspaper until the big, white head flopped over.

Throughout the day, bloggers speculated on what message that homeless bear had for a world that treated him with such cruelty.

Wooster Collective, a group of street artists, posted two photos of other sightings of the Columbia Heights polar bear. In one, the bear stands in traffic holding an "SOS" sign. In another, a bear matching the height, weight and fur color of Tuesday's dismantled bruin begs for change near a Metro stop, holding up signs such as: "Oil addiction wrecked my life."

Homeless polar bears are a real issue, said Joe Pouliot, director of climate and policy communications for the World Wildlife Fund.

Pouliot said his group had nothing to do with the Columbia Heights bear, but they believe they know what the artist meant.

"Polar bears are losing their homes. They live on Arctic sea ice, and it's melting," Pouliot said. "It's not much of a stretch to say that we face an epidemic of polar bear homelessness."


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