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PETA flaps its legal wings and appeals Denver's ban of McCruelty

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In the days after the Denver Department of Public Works turned down a request by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to place a 250-pound statue of a bloodied and bandaged chicken — "McCruelty," PETA dubbed it — on the 16th Street Mall, saying that it would violate the city's sign ordinance, the department "didn't hear a peep" of protest, says Public Works spokeswoman Ann Williams.

But all that changed this week, when PETA started squawking and flapping its legal wings. "PETA has learned through a request for public information that the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District (BID) granted permission to a private company to display privately owned works of art on the 16th Street Mall without requiring a permit," says PETA's Ashley Gonzalez. "Additionally, Denver Public Works issued permits to numerous commercial sponsors, including Horizon Organic Milk, to place privately owned sculptures in public locations around the city."

Those would be part of the long-delayed Cow Parade that finally moseyed into Denver back in 2006. And now PETA is milking that event, which involved companies sponsoring artfully decorated bovines, for all it's worth. On July 12, PETA sent a letter to the Downtown Denver Partnership, which handles the BID, appealing its initial refusal to process (much less grant) a special-event permit application to display a statue designed by Harry Bliss, an award-winning author and cartoonist for the New Yorker whose creation looks a lot like Foghorn Leghorn (except without a leg).

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PETA, McCruelty, Denver Department of Public Works

"The purpose of the display is to draw public attention to the millions of chickens killed for McDonald's each year and to raise public awareness of the horrors of factory farming and slaughterhouses that are hidden from the public eye," writes lawyer Martina Bernstein. In trying to keep this masterpiece from the public eye — PETA wants to put it right by the McDonald's at the corner of Champa and 16th streets — the Partnership is stomping on the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech, she charges. And if the Partnership does not acquiesce, PETA promises to also go after the city, which held "secret deliberations reminiscent of star chamber proceedings."

Then again, PETA is not known for subtlety in either its legal or marketing campaigns, which have included floating the concept of renaming fish "sea kittens," to make them less appetizing, and painting naked women like animals and parading them in cages. Compared to that, "Ella Phantzperil," another Bliss creation designed to illustrate Ringling Brothers' abuse of elephants, seems downright cuddly. Washington, D.C., officials originally nixed that statue, but PETA sued for the right to show Ella and won; the elephant has since been displayed in Bridgeport, Connecticut (home of Ringling), Kansas City and Atlanta, and is now summering on Coney Island.

Denver will be the first spot to be visited by McCruelty — if the city's objections to the piece don't fly in court, where they are surely headed. (Denver's response is now in the hands of the city attorney's office.) "I'm not sure why we chose Denver," Gonzalez says. "We were looking for different areas, and then we saw the 16th Street Mall. It's a great public area, with lots of foot traffic. It was pretty much an optimal location."

Still, the BID has turned down applications before; Pinche Tacos, for example, had to rename the cart it had contracted to put on the 16th Street Mall this summer after a Spanish-speaking member of a Partnership committee realized that it would be the equivalent of a big "Fuck" in the heart of downtown Denver.

As opposed to a plucky Fuck You. Once again, the chickens are coming home to roost.

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