Pit Bulls Rethinking Bans

Cameron Younglove plays with a pit bull terrier named Sooke at his kennels near Eudora, Kan., Sunday, March 9, 2014. For much of the past three decades, pit bulls have been widely regarded as America’s most dangerous dog, but attitudes have softened considerably since then as animal activists and even television shows cast the dogs in a more positive light. 

After more than three decades, pit bulls will be free to stroll the streets of Denver again. 

Ballot Measure 2J, which lift’s the city’s breed ban as of January, had earned 64% of the vote as 10 p.m. Tuesday. The legislation will establish a permitting system for pit bulls, breeds that include the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

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.

Councilman Chris Herndon, who represents parts of northeast Denver, fought and failed earlier this year to repeal the 1989 ordinance after Mayor Michael Hancock vetoed a similar bill. The council was unable to gather the supermajority needed to sidestep his authority.

Supporters of the effort, including numerous veterinary science and animal welfare organizations, say that breed bans unfairly punish pups for their lineage and that pit bulls are no more aggressive than any other dog type. Opponents, including Hancock, argued that permitting the dogs might endanger the community.

Beginning next year, any Denverite with a pit bull must register with Denver Animal Protection to obtain a “breed-restricted permit,” which requires an owner to provide their name and address where the dog will reside, two emergency contacts, an accurate description of the pit bull, an annual fee and proof the dog was microchipped and current on rabies vaccinations.

Residents will be allowed to own up to two pit bulls per home. If no violations for the dog are recorded for three consecutive years, pet owners will be allowed to register their pit bull like any other dog in Denver.

After Hancock announced his decision to veto the bill in February — the first veto in his three-term tenure — he was on the receiving end of countless reactions, both positive and negative, including from Gov. Jared Polis, who two days after the mayor made his decision tweeted a photo of himself cuddled up to a pit bull puppy at the governor’s mansion.

Herndon’s pit bull initiative was the only Denver ballot measure that the Denver Republican Party did not oppose. The GOP instead took a neutral position. The issue of allowing pit bulls was also the only local ballot measure the Democratic Party of Denver chose not to take a position on. 

The bill was referred to voters unanimously by the Denver City Council, although Councilwoman At Large Debbie Ortega had voted against the measure the week before and remains opposed to it out of safety precautions.

Over the past four years, Denver Animal Protection has received about 2,200 calls about suspected pit bulls, agency spokesman Josh Rolfe said earlier this year. 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.

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