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Unpacking Denver’s Pit Bull Ban and the Push to Repeal It

After a dramatic few weeks in which City Council voted to repeal Denver’s ban on pit bulls and Mayor Michael Hancock vetoed it, the effort officially died on Monday night, when the Council didn’t have the votes to overrule the mayor’s decision. Here, we take a look at the 30-year ban and what might come next.

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Pay attention on any given day around the Mile High City and you’ll notice hints of Denver’s self-proclaimed status as a dog-loving town. Yet the City of Denver—along with four other cities in the state of Colorado—are still unwelcoming to at least one specific type of dog: pit bulls.

Denver’s pit bull ban—an ordinance that has been in place for more than 30 years—almost saw its end earlier this month when Denver City Council passed a proposal to repeal the ban with a 7–4 vote, only to have Mayor Michael Hancock’s veto the legislation just days later. The mayor’s motion elicited its fair share of reactions, including from Gov. Jared Polis, who trolled Hancock by tweeting out a picture of a pit bull puppy visiting him at the Governor’s Mansion just two days later—to which Hancock simply replied “Wow!!” (The two later made up over Twitter, too.)

https://twitter.com/jaredpolis/status/1229228041538134016?s=20

On Monday night, Denver City Council voted on whether to overturn the mayor’s veto, but they couldn’t get the required nine votes (the final vote tally was eight in favor and five opposed)—so the ban is staying in place. In light of this drama, we take a look at the history and implications of the city’s contentious legislation, how we got to this point, and where things might be headed from here.

Where It All Started

Denver’s pit bull ban was first passed in the fall of 1989 after the city saw two gruesome pit bull attacks—one that killed a 3-year-old boy, and another that left a 59-year-old minister with 70 bite wounds and two broken legs. Several other municipalities followed suit, passing similar bans in the coming years, including the cities of Aurora, Commerce City, Louisville, Lone Tree, and Castle Rock—though Castle Rock repealed its ban in 2018 and moved instead to a behavior-based, non-breed-specific law for dangerous animals. Aurora is also looking at the possibility of repealing the city’s ban, with a victim of a past attack even calling for a different approach.

According to the ASPCA, Denver is among one of roughly 700 cities in the nation—including Miami, Florida, and Overland Park, Kansas—that have what’s referred to as breed-specific legislation when it comes local animal ordinances. Aside from the city’s general protocol for pets that exhibit dangerous behavior, a separate clause delineates the punishment for possession of any “potentially dangerous animals,” including those of pit bull breeds, and requires an evaluation of visual characteristics to determine if a dog falls in the pit bull category. Proponents of the repeal argue that there is no evidence to prove the breed-specific bans keep cities safer, and Colorado state director for the Humane Society of the United States, Aubyn Royall, points out the flawed methodology for determining dangerous pets with this type of legislation.

“We just don’t think that the physical appearance of a dog is a basis for determining whether or not that dog is likely to harm someone,” Royall says. “There are a lot of other ways to make that determination based on their temperament, interactions with people and other dogs, those sorts of things—more objective criteria.”

While the new proposal would not have technically removed the pit bull-specific verbiage from the legislation, it would have lifted the hard ban and instead allowed for bully breeds to live in the city, so long as certain registration requirements and behavioral criteria were met (don’t worry, we’ll get to that). Advocates for the change, including president and CEO of the Dumb Friends League Dr. Apryl Steele, who worked with Councilman Chris Herndon to draft the proposal, knew it wasn’t the complete repeal some folks might have hoped for, but were surprised that even the middle-of-the-road approach was not accepted.

Hancock defended his decision to veto, penning a letter to the Council and tweeting out a copy as well. “At the end of the day, I must ask whether passage of this ordinance would make our homes and neighborhoods safer or pose an increased risk to public safety,” Hancock wrote. “I have concluded that it would pose an increased risk.”

The Current Ban

Denver’s current pit bull ban, or Sec. 8-67 under the “dangerous and potentially dangerous animals” section of the city’s animal ordinance, states that the city is authorized to impound any pit bull and “dispose of the pit bull” as they see appropriate (if an owner does not file a written petition within five days of impoundment, “the pit bull shall be destroyed”).

Things quickly become murky from there, as pit bulls are not technically a recognized breed, and the term “pit bull” is often used to describe American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, or mut mixes of any of the above. And while there is currently no scientific evidence of a genetic disposition for violence in pit bulls, inherent fears and misconceptions surrounding the breed have kept breed-specific legislation around—for example, the myth that their jaws lock in place when they bite.

“The sad reality is that there are people who have wonderful, well-socialized family dogs that happen to be pit bulls who live in the city of Denver,” says Maia Brusseau, spokesperson fo the Denver Dumb Friends League (DDFL). “And if they’re found out, they do have a very real chance of losing their pet.”

There’s also currently no data to suggest that breed-specific legislation is effective in protecting communities, even when comparing Denver to other cities around the state. Denver Animal Protection also recently released data for the number of documented dog bites by breed in the city from the past year, which ranked pit bulls as fifth on the list with 38 recorded incidents—falling below Labrador Retrievers with 54 bites, German Shepherds with 49, “unknown” breed with 42, and American Bulldogs with 41. And while some question if these numbers simply reflect the popularity of dog breeds in Denver, it is tough to know for sure, as Hancock noted in his letter to the Council that less than 20 percent of pets in Denver are currently licensed.

“If you say to people: ‘What we see on the list that Denver Animal Protection released, [Labradors] had the most bites in 2019,’ anyone would laugh at you if you suggested that we ban labs from the city of Denver,” Royall says. “We find that a ban on pit bulls is equally as laughable and ridiculous—but the thing about it is that it’s not funny at all because thousands of dogs have been put down since 1989.”

City Council’s Recent Proposal

The Council’s proposal would have altered the city’s current ban and replaced it with a sort of “pit bull probation.” Denver pit bull owners would apply for a “breed-restricted license” with Denver Animal Protection for a three-year period. If no behavioral incidents occurred in those years, the breed-restricted license would be dropped and owners could register their pet like every other dog in the city, and the city’s general “potentially dangerous animal” ordinance would apply if any incident occurred after that period. If there was a violation during the first three years, owners would have been subject to administrative and/or criminal penalties depending on severity. The proposal would also have called for a review of data and impact after the first two years, to be reported back to the City Council for any further recommendations.

While the new rule would have remained a breed-specific ordinance, it’s no secret that pit bulls are already living in Denver, so the main goal was to allow those pet owners to step out of the shadows and encourage responsible pet ownership, according to Royall and Brusseau. The concern is that current pit bull owners might be afraid of having their dog taken from them and are not seeking the help they possibly need—be it veterinary care, behavioral training, etc.

Brusseau acknowledges that some Denverites (either stubbornly or unknowingly) still might ignore the city ordinance, adopt a pit bull, and go elsewhere in the state to adopt—places that might not be vetting the dogs in the same way as shelters like the Dumb Friends League, which evaluates each individual dog to make sure they are healthy, well-behaved, properly socialized, and spayed or neutered, according to Brusseau. And because of the city- and county-wide ban, DDFL also has a much smaller adoption pool to adopt out the pit bull breeds they take in.

“Everybody was just so excited when the Council passed the proposal because we have people—especially the folks that work directly with the animals at our shelter like our adoptions team, our animal care team—who walk through and see the same pit bulls who have been in their kennel for weeks, maybe months,” Brusseau says. She also mentions fear of the ban as possible reason for the large percentage of pit bull breeds consistently at their shelter, noting that of the stray dogs that DFL found and took in between January 2018 and December 2019, roughly 29 percent of the pit bull breeds were claimed by and returned to an owner, compared to 46 percent of all other breeds (there is a five-day holding period where owners are able to come and claim a pet that was lost and retrieved by the DFL. After that, pets are evaluated to become available for adoption.)

Brusseau and Royall both acknowledge the emotional weight of the issue, but stand by their assertion that banning one specific breed does not help protect communities from potentially violent animals. Councilman Herndon has alluded to the possibility of sending the proposal to the public as a ballot initiative for November, and though a ballot measure means plenty of other (often expensive) hurdles to clear, Royall points out that there are a lot of groups in the city who feel passionate enough to fight for the change if it does come to that option.

“If someone knows someone that’s been attacked by a pit bull, they can feel very emotionally attached to that—and that’s completely understandable,” Royall says. “We’re not saying that there are no dangerous pit bulls out there. We’re just saying that there are dangerous dogs out there, and that bans aren’t the right way to handle it.”

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