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It's the Pits

May 9 is D-day for me and my dog Madeline, whom I rescued from the streets on New Year's Day 2004. For the last year, we've lived in peace -- which means not having to look over our shoulders every time a Denver Animal Control officer drives by. But that changes on Monday morning, when the city begins enforcing its sixteen-year-old pit-bull ban ("Breed Between the Lines," June 10, 2004).

I don't know that Madeline is a pit bull. I call her my little street urchin because there's really no way to know her genetic makeup. According to my vet, she's a boxer, probably mixed with American bulldog and maybe some bird dog -- she does a full-on point. Some people think she resembles a pit bull, but while she has a square-ish head, she's too tall and lanky to be pure pit. She does, however, have the purebred's personality, as defined by the United Kennel Club: "The essential characteristics of the American Pit Bull Terrier are strength, confidence and zest for life. This breed is eager to please and brimming over with enthusiasm. APBTs make excellent family companions and have always been noted for their love of children. The APBT is not the best choice for a guard dog since they are extremely friendly, even with strangers."

Madeline's temperament won't matter to the city's Division of Animal Control, though. All that matters is the city ordinance that bans "American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of the above breeds."

Denver stopped enforcing that ban last spring, after the Colorado Legislature passed a bill that prohibited cities from having breed-specific laws. The City of Denver subsequently sued the State of Colorado, with Assistant City Attorney Kory Nelson arguing that as a home-rule city, Denver has the right to make decisions on matters of purely local concern. Denver District Court Judge Martin Egelhoff agreed and also noted that the state had presented no new evidence indicating that such a ban was irrational -- as the state was required to do before the judge would consider overturning a 1991 Colorado Supreme Court ruling that upheld the ban. After Egelhoff handed down his decision on April 7 -- and the state decided not to appeal it -- Doug Kelley, Animal Control director, gave Denver residents until May 9 to get their pit bulls and pit-bull look-alikes out of the city. He sent letters to 150 homes of known pit-bull owners, alerting them to the deadline -- but says his officers won't be going on a door-do-door dog hunt.

"We have a training right now and are getting everyone certified internally, based on recognition and knowledge of the physical characteristics of the three breeds," Kelley explains. "If they then deem a dog to be a pit bull, the owners are given an opportunity to find a place outside the City and County of Denver. As long as we can get those dogs out of the city, then the dogs will be released in almost every situation." But if those dogs are again found within city limits, they will be euthanized.

This leaves me in a quandary. I'm almost positive that Madeline would pass Animal Control's purely physical screening test -- but if she didn't, I'd have to find a home for her outside the city. That, or live in constant fear of her capture, with no more trips to the dog park and no more evening walks -- at the very least.

The Denver City Council is ready to just let this dog lie.

"I don't think there's going to be any discussion about the ban, per se," says Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez, who chairs the Human Capital Agenda committee, which oversees the Division of Animal Control. "I do think that we are going to talk about making sure that the broad, dangerous-dog ordinance is sufficient. But there's not a will on city council to lift the ban on pit bulls.

"There's been a real big boom in pit bulls in my district," adds Rodriguez, whose first job at age eleven was cleaning cages at a vet's office. "My neighbors tried to sell me one, and I said, 'That's a pit bull.' They said, 'Just say it's a shar-pei, and people won't know the difference.' We had a dog festival last year in my district, and we promoted vaccinations and gave away some, so I'm really interested in promoting good care for your pets. Well, a guy brought a pit bull on a leash, and she wasn't socialized, and everybody was afraid of the dog, and she kept lunging at the dogs. They really are in this neighborhood to scare people and create an aura of fear."

Madeline and I know plenty about fear.

 
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