Ban Has Denver Pit Bulls Marked for Death

For Sonya Dias, when the choice came down to leaving the city she loved and the Victorian home she had painstakingly restored or giving up her dog, there was no contest.

Her house is on the market and her bags are packed, because Denver says she cannot keep her beloved pet, a pit bull named Gryffindor. After several high-profile pit bull attacks, the city enacted a law banning the breed, but Dias insists concern about her pet is unwarranted.

"He's just a big old dork, a slobbering lummox of a dog," Dias said. "I don't see how he's a danger to anybody."

Because of Denver's 1989 ban on pit bulls, Gryffindor would have likely been collected by animal control officers and killed. The city has been enforcing the law with a vengeance since May 9, when the state Supreme Court allowed the ordinance to stand despite a state law barring breed-specific bans.

Already, the city has rounded up at least 380 pit bulls and killed at least 260 of them, according to documents that opponents of the ban obtained under a Freedom of Information request.

"Some of the family dogs they had in the back yard and they [animal control officers] climbed over the fence and nabbed them," said Dias, who works as a loan officer at a mortgage company. "Some they came and people didn't know they didn't have to let animal control into the house without a warrant."

At first, Dias decided to become a criminal to keep her dog. She hid Gryffindor, hoping to be able to keep both her home and her best friend. But that didn't last.

"I am not cut out for a life on the lam," she said. "I put my house on the market, found a beautiful sanctuary [for Gryffindor] and now my cousin has him outside the city limits."

Horrifying Attacks Spurred Ban

Judging from Dias' description, Gryffindor may not be the dog that the city's ban was written for, but his breed meant he would have fallen victim to it had he remained in Denver.

The law was written in 1989, after two horrific pit bull attacks in Denver, 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.

Until May 9, though, the ban had been in limbo because of a state law signed by Gov. Bill Owens that, in addition to making owners liable for injuries the first time a dog bites, also prohibited cities and counties from outlawing specific breeds. That law was passed following the fatal mauling of an Elbert County woman by three pit bulls.

The city sued the state in May 2004, arguing the law violated Denver's home rule, and in April a judge ruled for Denver, allowing the ban to be enforced.

City officials say that the 16 years since the ban was first passed have not diminished the need for it.

"The urban environment of Denver is a heck of a lot different than the outback of Australia," Assistant City Attorney Kory Nelson said after the court ruled in the city's favor. "These dogs pose such a risk should they attack. We think as a community we shouldn't have them."

Dogs or 'Land Sharks'?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pit bulls and rottweilers account for more fatal attacks on humans than any other dogs, though other breeds account for more non-fatal attacks.

"Yes, there will be some who think these dogs are cute, but I'm also concerned by what has happened in Denver and elsewhere when pit bulls have mauled or killed people," Denver city councilman Charlie Brown said. "My feeling is pit bulls are prisoners of their genetic code. They're bred to ignore pain and they never give up. That's good for soldiers, but not for dogs in urban areas. Some people call them land sharks."

Brown and staff members of several others on the city council said that while pit bull owners themselves might be upset about the ban and the killing of pit bulls, the city at large does not seem to be. Brown said his office has received more than 2,000 e-mails about the issue, but all but about 10 have come from people outside Colorado, and of those from within the state, about a third supported the ban.

"I don't think the council needs to go to a chiropractor to find its backbone," he said. "The council is resolved to keep the ban."

Other places in the country that have breed-specific legislation -- either outright bans of certain breeds or specific requirements for owners of certain breeds -- include Iowa and Ohio; the cities of Boston; Cincinnati; Providence, R.I.; and Muskegon, Mich.; as well as Miami-Dade County, Fla.; Prince Georges County, Md.; and more than a dozen cities in Washington state.

San Francisco and Washington, D.C., also have been considering a ban on pit bulls.

Giving Good Dogs a Bad Name?

But pit bull supporters say the bans are just a knee-jerk reaction to gruesome but uncommon incidents. They argue that the problem is largely that pit bulls have become the favorites of dog fighters, and that drug dealers and gang members seek them out for their powerful jaws and their protective natures.

Dog fighters and criminals have bred them and trained them to bring out viciousness in them, pit bull supporters say, but they say that is not an inherent characteristic. They point out that in decades past, other dogs have had the reputation pit bulls currently bear.

There was a time when the breed of dogs considered most vicious were German shepherds or Doberman pinschers, and the popular image of pit bull-type dogs came from Petey, the dog who hung out with Spanky, Buckwheat and the other Little Rascals.

The bans' opponents say wiping out pit bulls will not put an end to dog attacks, but will just make those who want vicious dogs find another breed to abuse.

"I just can't believe this is the best thing they could think of for dealing with dangerous dogs," Dias said. "The symptom keeps changing. Do they really think the drug dealers won't just find another dog -- rottweilers or Labrador retrievers?"

'Get the Drug Dealers'

Another problem is that pit bull is not a breed; it is a collective term applied to several breeds and other dogs mixed with those breeds who share a similar look -- a compact, muscular form, a proportionally large head and powerful jaws.

Dias and other opponents also object to the way the ban is being implemented, because it has targeted dog owners who have registered their dogs, as opposed to criminals who have not. That may be one reason why, they say, the city has only taken a few hundred out of the estimated 4,500 Denver pit bulls into custody.

"I am so angry with the way animal control is handling this," said Rita Anderson, a Boulder resident who has become involved in a kind of covert project to get pit bulls out of Denver to safety. "The first people who were targeted were the law-abiding people who registered their dogs. I think it is disgusting and appalling that those are the first people who were targeted. You need to get the drug dealers, the backyard dog fighters."

Dias and Anderson have been helping others in the Denver area to get their dogs out, either before or after they were picked up by animal control. Dogs that are picked up can get a reprieve if their owners can come to get them with someone who lives outside the city and swears to take the dog.

The efforts to save the outlawed dogs have been assisted by a rescue operation, Mariah's Promise, which has so far taken in 60 fugitive pit bulls from Denver, some of them awaiting a time when their owners have new homes outside the city, and others looking for new owners.

"I don't have a limit," said Toni Phillips, who runs Mariah's Promise, in Divide, Colo. "I'm trying to stagger dogs to come in and trying to get some adopted, and I'm trying to move non-pit bull dogs to other shelters."

She said so far it has been about "50-50," between dogs going back to their owners and those being adopted.

"I have people who are saying 'I can't move out, we just closed on a house,' or they have children," she said. "Some people just can't up and move."

Fleeing the Ban

One couple who could was Stephanie Scott and her boyfriend, who, when they learned in April that Denver would begin enforcing the ban on May 9, immediately began looking for a new home. After a good deal of research, she said they bought a house in Aurora and moved there about a month ago.

Though they could not get out of the lease on their Denver home and thus are paying both rent and a mortgage, they don't regret the expense.

"Absolutely not. I wouldn't have it any other way," Scott said.

The only problem is that now Aurora is considering a pit bull ban of its own.

Scott was one of more than 200 people who rallied outside Aurora city hall on Monday opposing the ban, and she has been writing city council members, trying to convince them that a Denver-style law is not the way to deal with the dangerous dog problem.

Her own dog, Reily, could be a poster dog for why people have demonized pit bulls, and why people love them. The dog is at once a victim of violence by other pit bulls, and, as Scott says, "an ambassador for the breed," because of her sweet, loving nature.

She found her five years ago at a city animal control shelter, after the dog had been confiscated along with five others from a fighting operation.

"She was a bait dog because she wouldn't fight, she was all covered with scars," Scott said. "People ask me all the time, 'what did you do to your dog?' and I have to explain."

She had to feed her by hand for months to build up her trust, and she also had to work to get her family to trust the new pup.

"The reaction from my parents was, 'Oh my God, you've brought a pit bull in the house,' " she said."Now they say, 'If you can't keep her, give her to us.' And there are now three pit bulls in our family."