A marathon public hearing Feb. 10 ended with Denver City Council narrowly repealing the 30-year ban on pit bulls by a vote of 7-4.
Those speaking in favor and against were roughly matched during public testimony. City Councilwomen Stacie Gilmore and Candi CdeBaca missed the vote; Gilmore had indicated her dislike for the proposal at the Feb. 3 reading of the proposal, while CdeBaca supported it.
In the final vote, Councilors Kendra Black, Jolon Clark, Chris Herndon, Chris Hinds, Robin Kniech, Amanda Sandoval and Jamie Torres voted in favor of Herndon’s proposal to overturn the ban. Councilors Kevin Flynn, Paul Kashmann, Debbie Ortega and Amanda Sawyer opposed it.
But pit bull owners like Peter Marcus are wary. He noted that Mayor Michael Hancock has long been on the fence about overturning the ban and has veto power. He’s already written a letter to the mayor asking him to sign the measure passed by City Council and is encouraging others to do so, as well.
Proposal to overturn ban from North Denver
Northeast Denver City Councilman Chris Herndon proposed the law that would effectively overturn Denver’s existing pit bull ban, instead creating a licensing system for the breed.
Denver’s Ordinance Section 8-67 was enacted in August 1989 after dogs thought to be pit bulls mauled a minister and killed a young boy in separate attacks. It bans pit bull breeds in Denver, including American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers — and any dog displaying the majority of the physical traits or distinguishing physical characteristics of these breeds as established by the American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club.
The Colorado General Assembly passed a law in 2004 prohibiting breed-specific bands, but Denver sued and a judge overturned the legislation in April 2005, calling it an unconstitutional violation of local control.
How the current ban has worked
Dogs that are reported to the city as illegal pit bulls are impounded at the Denver Animal Shelter for Denver Animal Protection to conduct an official breed evaluation. If the dog is determined not to be a pit bull, it is released to the owner at no charge.
If it is determined to be a pit bull, owners are required to pay for their stay at the shelter and immediately relocate them outside of Denver city and county limits with a city that doesn’t have a similar breed restriction. (Aurora, Commerce City and Lone Tree also have pit bull bans.) Dog owners can also dispute classification of their dog as a pitbull within seven days.
If a pit bull owner is caught with the dog within city and county limits a second time, the dog becomes the property of Denver Animal Protection, which then completes a behavioral and health evaluation to determine whether it can be placed in a partner shelter in another city. Pit bulls that cannot be placed are euthanized.
Thousands of dogs impounded, euthanized
Back in 2009, 20 years into the ban, Westword reported that Denver had impounded 5,286 dogs under the ordinance and estimated 3,497 pit bulls had been euthanized. That was an average of 265 dogs impounded and 175 euthanized per year.
Those numbers have declined over time, likely in part because pit bull owners have relocated themselves or their dogs. In 2019, Denver’s Department of Public Health & Environment (which Denver Animal Control and the Denver Animal Shelter fall under) reports a total of 219 pit bull intakes. Of them, 80 (37%) were returned to the owner, 55 (25%) were transferred to an outside agency (shelter outside of Denver), two remain in Denver’s shelter, nine were dead on arrival, five died in Denver’s custody and 68 (31%) were euthanized.
The ban has been broadly criticized for the sheer number of dogs euthanized as a result, for forcing owners of pit bulls into hiding their dogs or moving out of the city, and for burdening neighboring jurisdictions with trying to adopt out Denver’s rejected pit bulls. Critics say the blanket ban on an entire breed is based on fear and should instead focus on irresponsible owners and dangerous dogs.
What the new proposal does instead
Herndon’s proposal shifts the focus to actions instead of pedigree. It would require pit bull owners to obtain a breed-restricted license, requiring applicants to provide their address, two emergency contacts, a description of the dog, annual fee and proof the dog has been microchipped and has its rabies vaccination. It would allow two pit bulls per household, and require owners to notify the city if they move and if the dog escapes, dies or bites.
Under the proposal, if a registered pit bull has no violations within 36 months,the breed-restricted license could be replaced with a regular dog license that all other dogs in the city are required to have.
Denver Animal Protection would remain the only agency able to provide valid pit bull breed evaluations. Additionally, the proposal would allow Denver Animal Protection to hold, transport and adopt out pit bulls with breed-restricted licenses — greatly reducing, if not eliminating, the shelter’s need to euthanize the dogs.
Ban’s impact on residents
Arvada resident and pit bull owner Peter Marcus said he moved out of Denver in 2007 because of the ban. He said there had been no incident with his pit bull, Ivory, but a neighbor reported her to the city and Denver Animal Control came looking for her.
“I didn’t think the ban was a real thing, honestly,” Marcus said. “I didn’t think the city could actually take and kill my dog even if she hadn’t done anything.”
He said he had to talk to his landlord about breaking his lease early, which fortunately, they let him do, and he relocated just a block away, south of the Denver border into Englewood. When he was looking to buy a house a few years later, “Denver was just off the market for me because of the ban, so I ended up in Arvada, where I now have another pit bull,” he said.
“I have always thought the ban was brutal,” Marcus said, recalling photos Westword published in 2009 of dead pit bulls piled up behind the shelter awaiting removal. “I thought, ‘Jesus, they’re going to kill my dog.’”
Marcus said he was excited about Herndon’s proposal for licensure, and that while it comes too late for him, it will open up opportunities for other people to live in Denver who didn’t have the option to before.
Community Survey and Council Action
Northwest Denver District 1 City Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval sent out a survey to the community, stating “I am interested in understanding how the community feels about the proposed breed-specific legislation updates which would legally allow pit bulls in the City and County of Denver.”
Results of the survey at the end of January showed that more than 61% of 229 respondents strongly supportive or somewhat supportive of Herndon’s proposal, with fewer than 12% opposed or strongly opposed.
During the Feb. 3 City Council meeting, At-Large City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega said she did not do a formal survey, but calls and emails into her office were in support of keeping the ban by a 2-1 margin.
The proposal moved out of committee in January, when it was scheduled for the Feb. 10 public hearing.
Photo courtesy of Peter Marcus