Pit bulls: Denver's decision to allow their use as service dogs won't stop lawsuit, attorney says

Denver's quiet policy change to allow pit bulls to be used as service dogs might seem to end a class-action lawsuit demanding just such a change.

But no: Jennifer Edwards, the Animal Law Center attorney behind the court action, says the fight will go on due to several factors, including a policy that strikes her as allowing spying on pit bull owners.

Denver made no public announcement about the switch, based on an order by Doug Kelley, director of the city's Animal Care and Control division. His move marks the first time officials have blinked in the twenty-plus years since its pit bull ban was put in place. So how did Edwards find out about it?

"We filed our amended complaint on March 25," she notes, "and this apparently happened on April 5. Then, last week, they filed their motion to dismiss, and we started working on our response Thursday -- and while drafting it, we realized they'd made a policy and procedure change.

"We were taken by surprise," she concedes. "We'd heard nothing from the media about it, nothing from City Council, nothing from the City Attorney's office."

Edwards can only speculate why the city didn't trumpet the service-dog exception. "I think they should be proud they're taking a step in the right direction," she maintains. "If they saw the writing on the wall as a result of the lawsuit, and they realized they needed to make a change, they should admit it."

Nonetheless, Edwards believes there are plenty of outstanding issues raised in the lawsuit that haven't been addressed by Kelley's maneuver. After all, she argues, the plaintiffs, who weren't allowed to use pit bulls as service animals, suffered damages due to Denver's longstanding policy, and they deserve compensation. Also, "this only addresses Animal Control. It doesn't address the police department or any other agency. They haven't changed the law, they just changed the policy -- and we seek an injunction to change their policy and procedure permanently. This needs to be an umbrella law that covers all of Denver."

And then there's the language of the policy itself, which requires authorities to "verify or disaffirm an owner, keeper, or possessor's claim that their pit bull is qualified as a service animal." Animal Control can do so via an investigation into the dog's past behavior, its ability to "tolerate strange sights, sounds, odors," as well as if it can "ignore food on the floor or dropped in the dog's vicinity while working outside the home."

A 2006 photo of pit bulls killed under Denver's ban of the breed.
A 2006 photo of pit bulls killed under Denver's ban of the breed.

Edwards's take? "It almost seems to initiate some kind of spy activity," she says. "They're drawing some very subjective conclusions about whether or not the animal is socialized. And I'm not sure animal-control officers, who've proven time and again they can't even identify the breed of a dog 100 percent of the time, are qualified to determine if a dog is actually a service dog. They don't have the training, education or experience to determine that, and I don't think it falls under the guidelines of ADA" -- the Americans With Disabilities Act, which allows any breed to be used as a service dog, in contradiction to Denver's previous rules and regs.

In Edwards's view, the new approach, which only applies to pit bulls, also "encroaches on the privacy of the owners. I don't know how animal control officers could get this information other than by spying on people or secretly throwing food in front of their service animals."

What's next? Edwards says her team has until Wednesday to answer the city's motion to dismiss the lawsuit, "but we may seek a little bit of additional time, now that we know about this policy change." In the coming weeks, though, "we'll respond to the motion -- and then it's up to the courts."

Page down to read the policy-change document.


Pit Bulls as Service Dogs: Denver Policy Change

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