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. 

Following what will surely be a heated debate on Monday night, Denver City Council is expected to decide whether to lift its more than 30-year-old ban on pit bulls.

The controversial decision will arrive after a public hearing on the proposal, which is expected to draw numerous people on both sides of the issue.

Opponents of the bill point to the prevalence of pit bull attacks, arguing that the dogs are dangerous by nature and have no place in the city. Animal rights advocates, on the other hand, claim the ban is ineffective, ill-informed and inequitable.

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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. Only 17% of those calls involve dogs that are found to be illegal under the city’s ordinance.

City Councilman Chris Herndon, who is leading the fight to allow pit bulls in Denver again, says his bill is a “compromise,” in that it does not fully repeal the city’s current ban but instead requires pit bull owners to get a license to legally own them.

“They'll just have to give the name of the owner and the address where the dog will reside, two emergency contacts, a description of the pit bull and a recent photograph, proof that the dog is microchipped and current on vaccinations, and pay an annual fee,” Herndon told Westword in an earlier interview. “If 36 months pass and the dog doesn't have any violations of Denver animal ordinances, the dog can transition to the regular license that any Goldendoodle can have now."

Denver’s attempt to end its long-standing pit bull ban comes in the wake of Castle Rock voters in 2018 deciding to end the ban that had been in place for 26 years. It was the first town in the state to do so.

Currently, a handful of other Colorado cities enforce pit bull bans, including Aurora, Lone Tree and Louisville. Many of the bans were put on the books after several highly publicized attacks occurred in the late ‘80s, including a pair of attacks in Denver, one of which resulted in the death of a 3-year-old.

At least four council members have made clear where they stand on the issue.

Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, whose district includes the Montbello and Green Valley Ranch neighborhoods, said she cannot support Herndon’s proposal because her community already struggles to comply with existing laws, including dog registration, microchipping, vaccinations and leashing.

Citywide, Parks and Recreation estimates that Denver'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.

Councilwoman At-Large Deborah Ortega also rejects the bill. She said last week that the input her office is receiving is 2 to 1 in opposition of changing or repealing the ban.

Councilmen Chris Hinds and Jolon Clark have both indicated they will vote in favor of the measure on Monday night.

Other council members, including Amanda Sawyer, still aren’t so sure. Her district, which includes the East Colfax neighborhood, is experiencing similar compliance issues as Gilmore’s.

“No one, as far as we can tell, follows our leash laws,” she said. “How is adding pit bulls in that situation going to make this better?” She also worries that there is no “potential prohibition that would incentivize a pit bull owner to really do the right thing.”

Only complicating matters is that Sawyer's constituents seem to be split. Her office recently conducted a survey on the issue, which drew in more than 630 respondents and resulted in a near-tie, with only seven votes separating the two opinions. It marked the first time one of her office’s survey results had come that close.

Without clear community support for loosening the ban, she wasn’t sure as of Friday that she would vote in favor of Herndon's bill when it comes before the council Monday night.  

“I just don’t know how I could look myself in the mirror if someone were to get killed by a pit bull again,” she said.

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