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Denver's pit-bull ban snares more than pit bulls

He was in our front yard and a little hard to miss. About as inconspicuous as a Hummer in a rose garden. And my wife, Lisa, wanted to rescue him.

Maybe it's because of all the old houses and flimsy fences, maybe it's the proximity to major highways and West Colfax -- but our neighborhood seems to be a favorite haunt of stray dogs. Greyhounds, boxers, border collies, chow mixes of all persuasions: They wander to our door, and Lisa befriends them, feeds them, checks for tags, returns them to the worried-sick (or clueless) owner with a stern lecture, or hauls them to the shelter if necessary. But we had never seen anything like this before.

He was a big boy, a hundred-twenty pounds or so, with a massive pumpkin head, cropped ears and a skull like Gibraltar. A lovely brindle, beady eyes with glints of gold. His balls were intact. His collar, if he ever had one, was not on him anymore.

He was friendly as all get-out. Came right up to us and smeared a thick glaze of drool on my forearm like I was his favorite towel. We didn't know what he was. A bull mastiff mix of some kind, maybe. Too big to be a pit bull, anyway. Lisa decided to call him Knuckles.

We didn't know it yet, but Knuckles was a marked dog. By virtue of his breed, not his behavior, he's on the City of Denver's canine hit list.

If Knuckles knew he was targeted for elimination, he gave no clue. He inhaled a bucket of water, soaking the back deck in the process with the ferocious action of his jowls. He gobbled dog biscuits and expressed a keen interest in meeting our dogs. Bad idea, we figured, since he could easily pin both of them with one of his ham-hock paws tied behind his back.

It was getting late, so we took him to the Denver Dumb Friends League overnight drop-off, leaving a note about where he was found and a donation. Mindful of Denver's infamous pit-bull ban, Lisa asked to be contacted if the DDFL found that he was part pit, so we could relocate him out of the city.

She called the next morning. She was told that Knuckles is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Actually, after studying various photos of different breeds, I think he's more of an American Staffordshire ("amstaff" for short) -- but it doesn't really matter, since both breeds are defined as pit bulls according to the Denver municipal code ban on the breed that went into effect in 2005. And no, we couldn't reclaim him. This means Knuckles would have been euthanized if his owner didn't show up to claim him.

Which, fortunately, he did. Turns out Knuckles, or whatever his rightful name is, has a microchip in his neck. One presumes his owner lives outside the city limits. In any event, he was allowed to take the big fella home, where he can slurp water and snarf biscuits to his heart's content.

Websites devoted to the breed describe the Staffordshire as a loyal, even-keeled breed, devoted to children. (They're also monstrously strong, as I found out when trying to steer Knuckles into his cell for the night; he was doing most of the steering.) Certainly, there's nothing in our encounter with Knuckles to suggest he posed any kind of threat to humans, other than possibly drowning them when he paused to hydrate. But then, how you look at a dog like Knuckles depends on how solidly you embrace the city's much-disputed ban of an entire breed (and related breeds). Lawsuits and the "Denver Kills Dogs" campaign, launched by a California vet, present some compelling, if not entirely conclusive, arguments that the city's euthanizing of hundreds of dogs since the ban went into effect has done little to improve public safety while traumatizing plenty of dog lovers.

Until the city's ban is modified or thrown out, admirers of big, strong, pit bullish breeds have a continuing mess on their hands. So do dog rescuers: Do you take a stray dog to a Denver area shelter, knowing you're risking its elimination? (Yes, I know Max Fund is no-kill -- both our dogs came from there -- but it's not open at night.) Or is time for an underground railroad for Knuckles and other outcasts?


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