Thousands of pit bulls in metro Denver are getting a reprieve from long-standing laws that target them, and the change of heart toward the dogs is happening with speed.
Last month, voters in Denver decisively lifted the city’s 30-year ban on pit bulls. Castle Rock’s elected leaders did the same two years prior, ending a 26-year prohibition on pit bulls in the Douglas County town.
Commerce City is in the midst of ditching breed-specific legislation after 15 years, with a final vote on the matter set for early January.
Now the spotlight shifts to Aurora, where on Monday two measures lifting the city’s ban on pit bulls will be introduced at City Council — one leaving the decision to the council and the other asking the voters to make the call.
“An animal doesn’t need to be a pit bull to have a violent incident,” said Aurora Councilwoman Allison Hiltz, who is pushing her fellow council members to approve an end to the ban. “To single out a specific breed doesn’t actually address the problem with responsible ownership and what not.”
Hiltz said with Aurora’s recent overhaul of its animal code, which put in place strict dangerous dog measures to address menacing or harmful behaviors by any canine breed, the time has come to scuttle legislation that targets pit bulls. Under Aurora’s classification, that means American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers could live in the city.
For owners whose dogs exhibit dangerous behavior, Aurora now imposes special restrictions — from requiring a dog to wear a muzzle or the owner to buy liability insurance.
“It’s not a breed issue,” Hiltz said. “It’s a people problem so let’s address the people problem.”
That’s how David Edelstein, president of Arvada-based Team Pit-a-Full, sees it. His organization has been pushing for an end to pit bull bans for more than half a decade, saying “they don’t work.” The onus, instead, should be on owners who abuse or don’t properly train their pit bulls, factors that he said most often lead to a dog’s aberrant behavior.
“What you need is to write some genuinely effective legislation that holds the dog owner liable. If your dog runs at large, we’re not going to give you a warning — we’re going to slap you with fines,” he said. “These particular laws that try to single out a breed to tackle a general problem is wrong from the get-go.”
But Mia Johnson, a founder of National Pit Bull Victim Awareness, said the breed has shown its true colors. Her organization’s website compiled media stories about fatal pit bull encounters across North America, concluding that 31 people have been killed this year so far.
Johnson, whose 5-pound dog was eviscerated by a pit bull as she was walking through her Vancouver neighborhood in Canada several years ago, said a pit bull kills someone every nine days on average.
“Pit bulls are lovable and goofy dogs, but they’re unpredictable,” she said. “One of the problems with a pit bull attack is that there is almost no warning.”
The other issue, Johnson said, is that while plenty of other breeds bite, pit bull attacks are much more likely to result in serious injury or death. In statistics compiled by dogsbite.org for the years 2005 to 2019, dogs killed 521 Americans. Pit bulls were responsible for two of every three of those killings — or 346 fatalities.
“The first bite is often fatal,” Johnson said.
Or if not fatal, severely damaging. In 2005, 10-year-old Gregg Jones was mauled by three pit bulls in his Aurora backyard, losing his left arm and sustaining injuries to his face. The attack occurred nine days after the city had passed its prohibition on new pit bulls being brought into Aurora.
Jones told The Associated Press in a 2018 interview that despite the attack he harbored no ill will toward the breed and favored lifting Aurora’s pit bull ban.
“They’re still a normal dog. They’re not vicious,” he said. “It’s just the way that you treat them.”
That’s the conclusion of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which in its position statement on the issue says “heredity, early experience, socialization and training, sex and reproductive status” are far more important in determining a dog’s behavior than its breed.
In the two or so years since Castle Rock lifted its ban and switched to a “behavior focused assessment” of pets, the town’s police department has seen no noticeable increase in dog bites associated with pit bulls, according to a town spokeswoman.
While pit bull biting incidents varied between three and four annually in the three years leading up to the end of the ban, the town recorded two pit bull biting incidents in 2019 and three so far this year. Since 2018, seven dogs identified as dangerous have been removed from Castle Rock. None were pit bulls, the town said.
In Aurora, there are around 400 incidents of dogs biting humans in the city per year. Since 2017, bites from pit bulls made up anywhere from 34 to 69 of all dog bites annually, according to the city.
Despite what the data may show, pit bulls generate strong feelings and emotions. Many of the attacks that have occurred have been gruesome and some twhave involved children. Media attention tends to be intense after a mauling.
Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, who favors lifting the ban, said he’d rather the final decision come from the voters, not the City Council. His alternate measure, set for Monday’s meeting, would refer a question to the November 2021 ballot.
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“For me, it’s a question of process and respecting the voters,” he said. “It’s a moral responsibility to refer it back to the voters as they’ve already voted on the issue.”
It was six years ago that voters in Aurora overwhelmingly — by a 2-to-1 margin — rejected lifting the city’s ban on pit bulls. Coffman said he worded his proposed ballot question in a careful way, inserting guardrails that require owners to take additional steps when registering the breed in the city.
“With these kinds of protections in place, I feel confident we can have the restricted breeds in the city that aren’t more dangerous than the non-restricted breeds,” he said.
Hiltz, the councilwoman, said she respects Coffman’s desire to send the issue to the voters. But she said an end to the pit bull ban has been under discussion for years, with plenty of opportunities for public input during that time.
“We’ve done the public outreach campaign,” she said. “This is three years in the making and I’m ready to move forward on this.”