A few minutes after 1 o'clock yesterday, a small Chevrolet whipped around the side of the Baltimore Convention Center and came to a stop.
Two white rabbits and their companion, a dusky-colored mouse, leaped out of the car with sledgehammers in hand and TC proceeded to bludgeon the car to bits during the next half-hour.
The costumed performers were calling attention to the General Motors Corp.'s use of animals in the testing of its products. They were members of the Rockville-based animal rights group known as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, which staged the protest outside the annual International Auto Show to embarrass thecar manufacturer.
About two dozen other PETA members stood outside in the bitter cold carrying placards that read, "Lay off Animals, not People" and, in a variation on a Chevrolet slogan, "The Heartbreak of America."
PETA, which has mounted similar protests in other cities since September, says that General Motors is the only car manufacturer to use animals in crash testing rather than rely exclusively on dummies and computer simulations.
"Despite that, General Motors has one of the worst safety records," said Steven Simmons, a PETA spokesman.
PETA claims that GM has used at least 20,000 animals in experiments at its Michigan laboratory in the last decade, including rabbits, dogs, ferrets, pigs and mice. The animals are used in both crash and toxicology tests, the group says.
The organization claims that many of the animals endure a great deal of pain in the course of the experiments and that many of them die from blows to their chests in simulated car crashes.
Because of the bitter cold yesterday, few car-show patrons paused to watch the laborious destruction of the Chevrolet Spectrum, which wasdonated by one of PETA's members. But a small cluster of police officers stood transfixed for nearly a half-hour before they could decide what to do.
At one point, one of the patrolmen asked Mr. Simmons who had the title of the car.
"The bunny on the top," Mr. Simmons answered, nodding his head toward the man in the rabbit costume who stood on the Chevy's roof, wacking a hole through it.
"The bunny on the top," the patrolman repeated and wandered over to his lieutenant. "He says the bunny on the top has the title," he told the officer.
A few minutes later, with the car battered beyond recognition, the police arrested and handcuffed the three costumed protesters. They were charged with littering and failure to obey a command to stop, and hustled off in an awaiting police van.
The demonstration then spilled into the car show, where three other PETA members handcuffed themselves to the steering wheel of a 1992 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser Station Wagon (sticker price: $25,707). Nearby, other shiny cars spun slowly on turntables, described by slim young women in miniskirts.
PETA members started chanting, "Shame on General Motors." Within moments, a policeman arrived with cable-cutters, and the three PETAmembers were separated from the car and arrested for disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct.
Some onlookers gathered around the remaining PETA members to give them a hearing.
One or two spat obscenities. Most simply ignored them, and turned their attention to the cars and the women in the miniskirts.
A few minutes later, a man appeared and introduced himself as GM spokesman John T. Anderson.
He insisted that GM's animal research was necessary "to save human lives." He said that the vast majority of animals used are rats and mice, and that none is ever in pain. He also said that GM intends "to phase out animal testing."
He noted that apart from the animal rights protests, these have been trying times for GM with its billions of dollars in losses, its plant closings and its layoffs.
"We've had a lot of bad press," he said.
"This is the last thing we need," he added, nodding toward the PETA members.