In Denver, Animal Control decides which dogs are pit bulls. But what happens if they're wrong?
For three months, Dexter was considered guilty of being a pit bull. Like hundred of dogs every year, Dexter had been seized on suspicion of being a pit bull by Denver Animal Care & Control officers, then impounded at the Denver animal shelter — where three "Pit Bull Evaluation Team" employees determined that he had enough pit bull blood to qualify as illegal under the city's controversial, twenty-year-old pit bull ban. Dexter would probably have been put down if his owner, Kevin O'Connell of Thornton, hadn't paid over $500 to bail him out and hadn't signed an affidavit swearing that the dog would never again come within Denver city limits ("In the Dog House," September 23, 2009). But O'Connell didn't stop there. While many pit bull owners either abandon their pets to Denver's euthanasia room or take their pets away and abandon the city altogether, O'Connell decided to fight. He asked that a hearing officer evaluate the work of the pit bull evaluators — a step provided for in the language of the ban.
Last week, after numerous delays, Denver hearing officer Ann Cisneros ruled that all three of the city's evaluators had been incorrect in labeling Dexter a pit bull.
"I think I want to take him downtown and buy him a beer," O'Connell says. And if he does bring Dexter downtown, you can bet that he'll also bring a copy of the letter that officially removed the pit bull label from the four-year-old mutt he adopted in Texas.
At the five-hour-long October 2 hearing, O'Connell's lawyers presented testimony from judges affiliated with the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club, who had each conducted extensive examinations of Dexter and found the dog to be mostly boxer. According to the decision report, UKC judge Sonja J. Ostrom found that Dexter is not "a majority of any types of Pit Bull Terriers, specifically due to his longer muzzle, length, and curvature of skull, long and narrow neck, shape of eyes and overall body size. His bone, body, feet and tail set are not of pit bull type either." Retired AKC judge Helen Lee James took note of Dexter's "vertical wrinkles, black mask" and general shape, and determined that "the dog was too big, too long and lacked the bone for size and chest width of a pit bull."
The evidence presented by the city was far less persuasive — and less professional. No one from the Denver City Attorney's Office, which is charged with enforcing the ban, even showed up to present its witnesses. Eugene Lopez, one of the animal-control officers who'd examined Dexter, refused to answer any inquiries about where he'd worked before being hired by the city. Despite being a member of the specially trained pit bull review crew, Lopez told Cisneros that "he did not know whether the evaluations he performed in being trained as a member of the pit bull evaluation team were accurate and he similarly does not know whether his evaluation of Dexter is accurate," according to Cisneros's letter describing her ruling. Another animal-control officer, Richard Mouton, testified that while he knows a pit bull when he sees one, "he cannot recite the characteristics of the breed off the top of his head"; instead, he said, he keeps the standards on a cheat sheet attached to his clipboard while he does evaluations. Mouton admitted to Cisneros that he didn't "have a specific memory" of reviewing Dexter.
In her ruling, Cisneros found that while Dexter may have some pit bull traits, there was no evidence that he is a majority pit bull, as all three Denver evaluators had claimed.
The Denver shelter's evaluators follow a specific process in determining if a dog is a pit bull, and the "administrative hearings process is designed to allow owners to appeal our assessment," city spokeswoman Meghan Hughes said in an e-mail responding to Westword's request for comment on the O'Connell hearing. "And the process worked."
But O'Connell's attorney, Jennifer Reba Edwards of the Wheat Ridge-based Animal Law Center, believes that the process did more than work for Dexter and his owner. She says the case could impact Denver's ability to maintain the breed ban.
"What it means is that these three supposed experts trained by animal control are, in fact, not experts," says Edwards. "If they don't have expert opinions as to what kind of dogs these are, it proves how vague and arbitrary it is and how people's due process rights are violated over and over again."
Under the city ordinance passed in 1989, a dog that exhibits more than 50 percent of the characteristics of one of three pit bull breeds is considered a pit bull and banned in Denver. In making their determinations, animal-control employees fill out a one-page form on which they circle broad categories such as "Hair length: Long, Medium, Short" and "Skin pliability: Loose, Not Loose." But Linda Hart, a longtime dog exhibitor and anti-breed-ban advocate who testified on Dexter's behalf at the hearing, says the form is too vague and open-ended to rely upon when determining breed, particularly since nearly all of the dogs that arrive at the city shelter as suspected pit bulls are mixes of some sort. "You mix breeds and you're going to end up with God only knows what kind of conglomeration," she explains. "I bet I could bring twenty dogs into a room and have some of their, quote, experts and even me trying to identify it. I can say it has pit bull in it, but I can't say if it's predominantly pit bull. It is not possible to do."
The difficulty of this task makes Edwards wonder how many other times the city has been wrong. An estimated 3,492 dogs that have been identified as pit bulls by Denver officials have been killed since the ban went into effect. "There could be thousands of people out there who can call into question if their family pet was killed for absolutely no reason," Edwards says. "How many of them were never actually pit bulls?"
After a one-year moratorium while it fought off a legal challenge, Denver again began enforcing the ban in 2005. City records show that in 2005 and 2006 alone, a total of 1,454 suspected pit bulls were put down, leading to large pile-ups of dead dogs — which a source familiar with the shelter claims to have documented in photographs. Those images, first posted at westword.com last week, have animal lovers across the nation complaining about the city's heartless policy.
But the policy may not just be heartless; it may also be toothless. Though many municipalities have used Denver as a model for their own breed bans, others, such as Fort Collins, are rejecting breed-specific laws in favor of measures that focus on dangerous dogs and their owners. As part of a 2008 consultation study of Denver's animal-control division, the Humane Society of the United States recommended that the city drop the breed ban — and start the process by conducting a complete analysis of the ban's costs (both in legal bills and personnel), processes and success rates. No such review has been done.
But there are signs that Denver could be wavering in its commitment to the twenty-year-old ban. The Animal Care & Control Advisory Committee, a group of animal-welfare experts, veterinarians and city officials created in the wake of the HSUS report, has been exploring an exemption to the ban that would allow limited pit bull ownership in the city with strict registration requirements, an option that Denver City Councilwoman Carla Madison hopes to draft into law. At their October 6 meeting, the committee asked Linda Hart to draw from her experience creating animal legislation for cities such as Englewood and draft an ordinance that would beef up Denver's weak "dangerous dog" law.
And in the meantime, Edwards says that her firm isn't done with Dexter just yet. "Our client had to pay impoundment fees for ten days, attorney fees, and the money for experts," she notes, "so we're going to try to recoup all that, and it could conceivably be another day in court for that."
Maybe someone from the city attorney's office will even be there this time.
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