Petition aims to lift breed ban
Denver, Colo. -- A New Jersey DVM hopes a petition threatening Denver's image as a tourist attraction will encourage city council to overturn its 15-year ban on Pit Bulls.
DENVER, COLO. — A New Jersey DVM hopes a petition threatening Denver's image as a tourist attraction will encourage city council to overturn its 15-year ban on Pit Bulls.
Dr. Todd Wolf, a small animal practitioner and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals investigator, created an online petition several months ago seeking 2,000 signatures supporting the repeal of Denver's Pit Bull Ordinance. The law prohibits city residents from owning, possessing, harboring or selling Pit Bulls, according to the city Web site.
Unlocking support: Dr. Todd Wolf works on a petition to lift Denver's breed ban, but city officials counter the effort will be in vain. (Photo: Christopher Barth)
Planning to appeal to the city's need for tourist funds, Wolf says the petition will be submitted when all the signatures are gathered. To date, it has been signed by about 1,545 people.
"I plan on mailing it to the city officials of Denver explaining that Denver is a tourist city. These are people from all over the world, potential tourists, who are not going to be visiting their city because of this ridiculous and cruel law," says Wolf, a former Pit Bull owner.
The American Veterinary Medical Association also is against the ordinance, says Dr. Gail Golab, AVMA associate director of the Animal Welfare Division.
"The AVMA has pretty consistently been opposed to breed-specific initiatives. If you ban one breed, you haven't solved the problem of irresponsible owners," Golab says.
Denver City Council created the ordinance in 1989 in response to city outcries after more than 20 reported Pit Bull attacks in five years, including the death of a 3-year-old boy and mauling of a local priest. The ordinance was briefly repealed in 2004 by Gov. Bill Owens but reinstated in May 2005. Since the ban's reinforcement, Wolf says more than 1,000 Pit Bulls have been euthanized.
Despite opposition, Denver Assistant City Attorney David Broadwell says Wolf's petition will not influence council members to change the ordinance.
"The Denver City Council is fully aware that there is opposition both locally and nationally, and they have very consciously decided to keep the ordinance intact. The ordinance was passed a number of years ago, and it has been legally challenged. Yet, throughout all of this, the Denver City Council has steadfastly stood by the ordinance," Broadwell says. "It would be in their authority at any time to repeal it, and they have chosen not to."
Only a formal initiative petition from Denver citizens against the ordinance can truly lead to the ban's overturn, Broadwell says.
But the ban does not always lead to euthanasia. The city does house Pit Bulls removed from homes and only when the dog has been abandoned or belongs to a repeat ordinance offender will it be euthanized.
"Who is to blame for the dog's destruction at that point? I say the owners," says Denver Assistant City Attorney Kory Nelson.
Pit Bulls: the legal history
Denver defines a Pit Bull as any dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, an American Staffordshire Terrier, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or displays the majority of physical traits of any of these breeds.
Why the Pit Bull?
"Somehow over the years, the world 'Pit Bull' became associated with a mythical breed of vicious super-dog which does not exist," Wolf says. "Statistically, Pit Bulls are no more vicious than any other dog."
The city supported Wolf's assessment during legal appeals of the ordinance and secured favorable rulings from the court not by showing Pit Bulls as more dangerous, likely to attack, or vicious, but because they proved if Pit Bulls do attack, they are much more likely to cause serious harm or death, Nelson explains.
The reason for the attacks is not because Pit Bulls historically were bred to be fighting dogs or have an excess of aggression, but because, Wolf says, they became the dog of choice for irresponsible pet owners often described as having criminal records and living in low-income neighborhoods. These are the type of owners who are usually responsible when a pet attacks, Wolf alleges. And Denver's ban punishes not only these owners, but also responsible owners who properly care for and confine their pets.
"There is always a certain kind of person that wants a dog for the wrong reason. Pit Bulls are very smart dogs, and they do very well with training. But, they can be taught to do just about anything," says Adam Goldfarb, issues specialist with the Humane Society of the United States.
Irresponsible dog owners will take to another breed of dog if one kind is prohibited, Golab adds.
Looking the wrong way: Wolf argues the ban fails to address the true cause of dog attacks, owner behavior, and only succeeds in exterminating the Pit Bull breed. (Photo: Christopher Barth)
Despite ownership behavior arguments, the ban has been effective, Nelson says, because "We haven't had a death since the ban has been enacted."
Only during the yearlong hold on the ordinance enforcement following the governor's action were two serious attacks reported, one on a local artist walking his dog and another on a police officer searching for a homicide suspect. Both victims survived but suffered serious injury.
Regardless, Wolf remains adamant that "breed bans are not effective. Any person who works on an everyday basis with dogs knows you cannot protect the public by singling out and exterminating one breed of dog."
The city tries to enforce stringent animal laws and punishments for owners whose pets attack or injure others as a way to encourage increased owner responsibility. However, this method is ineffective because of the typical characteristics of owners who have pets that attack, Nelson says.
"The more irresponsible the owner is the more likely they are to ignore the threat of civil liability, and the more likely their Pit Bull will attack someone, and they will not have any resources to pay restitution. Civil action is useless if it doesn't do the victim any good," Nelson says.
Yet the ban is not addressing the root cause of attacks, opponents say.
"Both owner education and public education is likely to be much more effective than a breed-specific initiative," Golab says.
Ideally the city would like to enforce stricter leash laws, licensing, spay and neuter, liability insurance requirements and inspections to ensure proper animal confinement and demeanor, Nelson says.
"But does anyone have the resources to do this? Experts say a ban is not the best, perfect solution, but it may be the most practical solution given," Nelson argues.