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Pressure mounts to euthanize Denver's Pit Bull ban

August 18, 2009
By: Jennifer Fiala
For The VIN News Service


There’s a showdown brewing in Denver with its 20-year-old Pit Bull ban at the center, under attack from all sides, even from within the city’s own government as well as critics in veterinary medicine. 

Renewed pressure to kill what some consider America’s harshest breed ban can be contributed to several factors, including new veterinarian-backed dog-bite statistics, lawsuits and political unrest. The impetus to rewrite or repeal the ordinance that’s spelled death for thousands of dogs in Denver also comes from costs tied to enforcing the law and fighting its legal challengers. Such spending — a total that city officials say hasn’t been tallied — attracts scrutiny as Denver faces a $120-million budget deficit. 

Various Pit Bulls restrictions have cropped up in cities from California to Florida in recent years, with supporters arguing that such laws protect residents from dogs that are capable of killing people, especially children. 

But perhaps nowhere in the United States has a breed-specific ordinance been more polarizing than in the Mile High City, where animal control officers reportedly have seized and euthananized nearly 2,000 Pit Bulls — or dogs considered to be Pit Bulls — since the ban’s enactment. 

While Denver city councilwoman Carla Madison says she’s looking to relax the ordinance by providing loopholes for owners, a group of protesters gear up for an Aug. 25 demonstration in front of the Denver City and County Building. 

Their goal: to push for change and fight breed-specific legislation. 

“What I’m looking at doing is putting in place a responsible Pit Bull ownership act,” Madison tells the VIN News Service. “I would just like to see something happen.”

So would veterinarians like Dr. Susan Barden, a Denver practitioner and Veterinary Information Network (VIN) member who notes that with Pit Bulls migrating to the city’s Metro-area communities, there’s been no reported surge in suburban attacks. 

“I was surprised when the city did this,” she says. “I’m a strong advocate for writing laws that hold owners responsible for their animals and don’t ban breeds. 

“There are rare individuals in Denver who still have Pit Bulls or Pit Bull-type dogs, but I never see them in practice.” 

Denver’s resolve to rid the city of Pit Bulls was born in the mid-1980s, following a brutal attack by a Pit Bull on a 54-year-old minister and the fatal mauling of a 3-year-old boy. Despite some resistance, city lawmakers passed an ordinance in 1989, that made it illegal to own, posses, keep, exercise control over, maintain harbor, transport or sell any dog found to posses “the majority of physical traits” associated with Pit Bulls — a brand often applies to the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier as well as American Bulldogs, in some cases. A later amendment to the ordinance implemented a grandfather clause, which allowed some banned dogs to remain in the city if their owners carried additional liability insurance that covered the animals. 

Almost immediately, the legality of Denver’s ordinance came into question with a lawsuit that claimed the ban was too vague, unconstitutional, an abuse of the city’s police power and irrational. After all, categorizing a dog as a Pit Bull is at the city’s discretion. 

For two years, the case traveled through the Denver’s legal system, stopping at the Colorado Supreme Court, where on Nov. 12, 1991, justices ruled in the city’s favor. 

The ordinance held strong for more than a decade before Colorado legislators passed a law in 2004, which prohibited breed-specific restrictions statewide, effectively suspending Denver’s ban. 

The reprieve proved to be short-lived. Almost immediately, officials challenged the new law with Kory Nelson, senior assistant city attorney, leading the fight to keep Denver's ordinance.

Nelson, who could not be reached for comment, has repeatedly asserted his belief that Pit Bull's are dangerous, even comparing them to grenades. In a recent interview with the The Denver Daily News about the effectiveness of the city's ban, he made the following statement

“I don’t know anyone who argues that Pit Bull bans or restrictions are designed to prevent all dog bites. It’s designed to prevent maulings and death attacks by Pit Bulls. ... Once a grenade goes off, the damage is already done."

On April 7, 2005, Denver District Court Judge Martin F. Engelhoff ruled from the bench in the city’s favor, finding that the state could not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that there was no rationale for Denver’s Pit Bull ban, meaning they couldn’t prove that such dogs didn’t have a higher propensity to bite or attack humans. 

It also was verified that Colorado’s constitution supports a municipality’s home-rule rights, upholding Denver’s authority to impose local control on Pit Bulls despite the state's new law deeming otherwise. 

By May 2005, city animal control officials had warned residents that they would seize any Pit Bull found within the city’s limits and started rounding up outlawed animals. While Denver’s animal control authorities did not return VIN News Service interview requests, local media reports state that to date, authorities have euthanized roughly 1,800 dogs branded with the Pit Bull tag. 

It’s an estimate that is corroborated by leaders in veterinary medicine. 

“At one point, they killed around 1,200 in one year,” says Ralph Johnson, executive director of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA). 

Reflecting on the initial Pit Bull seizures, Denver practitioner Barden says: “The sad thing is there was no recourse. We couldn’t help them.”

Those opposed to breed-specific legislation, including the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), have long argued that attacks by Pit Bulls are rare. Furthermore, breed bans are an inappropriate and ineffective approach to protecting public safety, says Dr. Gail Golab, head of AVMA’s Division of Animal Welfare.

That’s now corroborated by recent statistics from the Coalition of Living Safely with Dogs, a group backed by CVMA. 

The coalition supports the view that Pit Bulls are victims of bad public policy based on false stereotypes. In fact, when it comes to the 2,000 dog bites studied in Colorado between July 2007 and June 2008, research shows Pit Bulls are not top attackers. 

That title goes to Labrador Retrievers. 

“It makes sense, seeing how widely represented the breed is,” CVMA head Johnson says. “So without a census of the composition of dog breeds, it’s unfair to any breed to identify it as a dangerous biter until you compare it to the census. 

“To our knowledge, nobody has done that.” 

Not even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has that kind of information. For more than a decade, CDC has reigned as the nation’s premier source for dog bite information, tracking dog bite reports and fatal cases. The agency purports that by age 12, nearly half of all children will have experienced a dog bite, and that dogs bite 4.5 million Americans each year. 

In 2006, more than 31,000 dog-bite victims underwent reconstructive surgery to repair their injuries. Children between ages 5 and 9 are most at risk of being severely injured, CDC contends. 

But it’s the CDC’s study on fatal dog attacks from 1979 to 1998, that points the finger at Pit Bulls and Rottweilers as the breeds most responsible for fatal attacks. 

“That’s what happens when you try to extract breeds and not look at the study as a whole,” contends AVMA’s Golab, who co-authored a related CDC report. “People extracted one sentence and ran with it.” 

What got lost, she says, is the fact that dog bite numbers largely correlate to a breed’s popularity, hence the more dogs of one breed, the more bites attributed to them. 

While that detail has failed to convert backers of Denver’s ordinance, dog owners now suing the city hope to change that. 

Last May, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals breathed new life into Dias v. Denver, a case filed by two Pit Bull owners who were forced to sell their homes and leave the city to avoid losing their dogs, and one owner whose dog was seized by animal control authorities. 

The three-judge appeals panel gave the go-ahead to proceed with the case, following a federal judge’s dismissal of it in March. A trail date has not been set. 

Sonya Dias, the plaintiff for whom the lawsuit is named, describes her dog as lovable with Pit Bull-like characteristics and recalls racing to sell her turn-of-the-century loft in 2005, when Denver’s ban was reenacted. 

“For nine months, I had to get up at 4:30 in the morning to walk him; I had to hide my dog,” she says. “I had a contingency plan for if I ever ran into an animal control officer. 

“In Denver, owning a Pit Bull is about the equivalent of someone running a meth lab. They are quite literally knocking on people’s doors rounding up good family dogs.”

Dias estimates that the lawsuit, funded by donations, has cost more than $100,000 in legal fees to date. The civil rights action calls for an unspecified amount in damages and attorneys fees, including compensation for “emotional distress, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life and other pain and suffering ...” 

“I just can’t believe that in 2009, this is as far as we’ve come; that Denver says this is the best it can do,” Dias says of the ban. “It’s crazy.” 




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