Friday, December 17, 2004

A 250-pound panda statue stolen months ago off a D.C. street was found dumped in a creek 20 miles away, officials said yesterday.

A group of volunteers cleaning up Pohick Creek in Lorton made the discovery last Saturday.

“We had thought it could be valuable to somebody who would like to have it back, and we vaguely remembered the publicity around the PandaMania,” said Joe Chudzik with the Mason Neck Citizens Association, who found the statue titled “Climbing Pandas.”

It was one of 150 colorfully painted pandas displayed throughout the District last summer as part of the PandaMania project.

The hefty statue — along with its 650-pound base — vanished July 23 from a street corner just north of downtown, across from a busy hotel. Police have yet to find the thief.

“We’re more than happy and pleased, and it’s a wonderful holiday treat to learn that something you thought was lost was found,” said Anthony Gittens, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which sponsored PandaMania.

“We haven’t seen it yet. We’re going to go out and see it very soon and then see if it’s repairable. And then we’ll put it on display once again,” said Mr. Gittens, suggesting City Hall might make a good new home for the panda.

Damage to the statue’s legs was clearly visible in photographs. It was found lying on its back, partially in the creek, surrounded by leaves and branches.

Mary Mulrenan, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Police Department, said the statue will stay at a police station until the commission can pick it up.

The rest of the pandas were auctioned off in October to raise money for grants for performing and visual arts programs throughout the District. The project was inspired by Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, the wildly popular pandas who have lived at the National Zoo since 2000.

The commission offered a $1,000 reward for the statue’s recovery and it plans to make good on it. Mr. Chudzik has asked that it be split evenly between the Mason Neck Citizens Association and the Mason Neck Lions Club, both of which were cleaning the stream that day.

It isn’t every day that you find a huge panda sculpture dumped, but Mr. Chudzik seemed fairly nonchalant. Perhaps that’s because of some of the other things he’s come across during earlier clean ups.

“We found a portable outhouse, a children’s wading pool, unusual stuff,” he said.

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