Pit bulls could soon stroll city sidewalks after being outlawed in Denver for more than 30 years.
A bill to loosen Denver’s 1989 pit bull ban was advanced during a City Council safety committee meeting on Wednesday and will be up before the full council for final consideration next month.
“This is something that has been long overdue,” said Councilman Chris Herndon, who represents District 8 and is leading the proposal.
The city’s pit bull ban was first enacted following the 1986 death of 3-year-old Fernando Salazar, who wandered into a Denver neighbor’s yard and was killed by a pit bull, and the 1989 mauling of Rev. Wilbur Billingsley, 59, that left him with more than 70 bites and two broken legs.
Supporters of the bill, including several veterinary and animal welfare organizations, say that the current legislation unfairly punishes pups for their lineage instead of their personal history.
Some proponents during public comment on Wednesday said that, because pit bulls are already living in Denver, they fear the ban has hurt more than it’s helped due to “unintended consequences,” which they say has likely created a population of dogs that are unsocialized and potentially aggressive because they’ve had to stay hidden.
“This is a policy that’s humane and creates a safer community for our citizens,” said Apryl Steele, CEO of Denver’s Dumb Friends League, a full-service animal shelter.
“It is a myth that pit bulls bite more often. It is a myth that pit bulls have physical differences that make them more dangerous,” said Randa MacMillan, a veterinarian in Littleton. “Pit bulls are not de facto aggressive animals.”
If the measure passes, Denver’s breed-specific legislation would not be repealed entirely, but instead replaced by a breed-restricted license that pit bull owners would have to obtain to come into compliance with the revised city ordinance.
No more than two pit bulls will be allowed per household, and owners would be required to call Denver Animal Protection within eight hours of a bite or escape, and within 24 hours of the dog dying or the owner moving.
A fee for the license has yet to be determined.
Of the eight people who shared their opinion during public comment on Wednesday, only one spoke in opposition.
Sheila Mozer of Aurora said her son, who is a pediatrician in Georgia, was “scarred” after recently treating a 4-year-old who was “torn apart” by two pit bulls.
A grandmother of two, she reminded the committee in her closing comments that its “main mission is the safety of your residents.”
Over the past four years, Denver Animal Protection has received about 2,200 calls about suspected pit bulls, agency spokesman Josh Rolfe said. About half of the calls come from three zip codes — 80219, 80239 and 80204 — and are often in low-income neighborhoods.
About 70% of those calls are “unfounded,” Rolfe said, and only 17% of those calls involve dogs that are found to be illegal under the city’s ordinance.
At the top of council members’ concerns was implementation. Specifically, whether the city could effectively enforce the registration requirement and if people would comply, considering most people who own legally accepted dogs currently do not have licenses for their pets.
Denver Parks and Recreation estimates that the city’s dog population is about 158,000. At the start of 2020, only 28,000 of them — or about 18% — were licensed, according to Denver Animal Protection.
“We’re expecting people to follow the rules, and I don’t think people follow the rules that are already established,” Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval said.
Councilwoman Robin Kniech said the key may rest with the community.
“We as a government are never going to be as effective as a partnership where the community of trusted folks are the messengers,” she said.
Kniech suggested a fundraising campaign and volunteer canvassing throughout the city’s pit bull hot spots to help spread the word and promote compliance.
Council President Jolon Clark said that although he did not support the measure four years ago, he called it “a fair compromise” and said he will now “supporting it throughout.”
Councilman Paul Kashmann said this is “a major change that deserves the consideration it’s getting,” while Councilman Kevin Flynn said he would “not vote to repeal the law outright.”
However, Flynn said the proposed ordinance change is “worth a look” and requested a courtesy public hearing either during the bill’s first or final reading by the full council.