Breed Between the Lines

Madeline is an eight-month-old puppy. She acts like any other eight-month-old puppy, chewing up cell phones and remotes, digging in the garbage and generally acting like she could use a good dose of Ritalin. The problem is, she doesn't look like just any eight-month-old puppy. She looks like she's part pit bull.

I found Madeline on New Year's Day. She was starving and cold, cowering in the doorway of a school near my house in the Cole neighborhood. She was small enough to carry home cradled in my arms, as needy and dependent as a newborn. She looked like a boxer puppy, all squished nose and floppy jowls. I took her to my vet and to the founder of the Maxfund Animal Welfare Center, where I volunteer, and they both identified her as a boxer, maybe mixed with Great Dane, maybe mixed with American bulldog. Whatever she is, they said, she's a mutt.

I never intended to keep her, especially since I already had three cats and had recently adopted a 114-pound Rottweiler named Nina. But when nobody came forward to claim her, I couldn't send her to the shelter, even a no-kill shelter like Maxfund. She'd already bonded with Nina and the cats, so I figured my biggest headache would be maintaining order in a house inhabited by what would one day be almost 200 pounds of dog.

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If I'd only known.

When I walk my dogs near my house, most people assume Madeline is a pit bull. It's a popular breed in heavily minority neighborhoods such as mine, and kids frequently try to buy her. Some want her as a family pet, while others want her as a guard dog or to fight in the pits. Sometimes they ask me what kind of dog she is, and when I reply that she's a boxer mix, the common response is that I'm the "white bitch" who doesn't know she's got a pit bull.

When I walk my dogs in heavily white neighborhoods such as Washington Park, people tend to assume she's a boxer. Parents send their kids over to play with Madeline and tell me she's the cutest, sweetest boxer puppy they've ever seen.

But I don't live in Wash Park. So for the neighbor kids, I explain that pit bulls have been illegal in the City and County of Denver since 1989, and Madeline could be killed simply for looking like a pit bull. By city code, she doesn't have to be an American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier or an American Pit Bull Terrier; she just has to look like one. Last year, Denver's Division of Animal Control impounded 689 pit-bull-looking dogs.

"What our ordinance is based on are the physical characteristics," says Doug Kelley, director of the division. "It's really similar to a wolf hybrid. Some can be 98 percent wolf and look like a Malamute, and others can be just 2 percent wolf and look just like one. All we can do is say what they look like.

"There's actually 35 different physical characteristics we consider," he adds. "The chest, the head, the body, the tail, how the ears are set, how the feet are set, a bunch of different things that are looked at. We look at it in a macro sense and see if all of those characteristics add up. As much as you try, it's always going to be an imperfect process. We train officers and test them and do everything we can, but there's always a bit of subjectivity to the process."

Right now, Madeline's enjoying a reprieve. On April 21, Governor Bill Owens signed Representative Debbie Stafford's bill banning breed-specific laws. On May 13, Denver sued the state over the home-rule issue but decided not to enforce its ordinance while litigation is pending. Pit bulls and pit bull look-alikes are still technically illegal in the city, however.

"My real agitation is that Denver is violating the individual rights of law-abiding citizens based on home-rule authority. I think that's appalling," Stafford said at a dangerous-dog-laws forum last month. "I think Denver made this law with the information they had at the time, but it's 2004, and we have updated information. I think it's reasonable to reassess."

During this legal lull, my boyfriend and I have been the crazy neighbors on the corner, blazing construction lights into the wee hours as we frantically build a new fence. The chain-link barrier that surrounded the house when we bought it last fall was falling down and had holes, which we'd barricade with doors so that the dogs couldn't get out. We'd always planned to construct a new cedar-panel fence with decorative latticework, but that project jumped a few dozen home-improvement priority levels after a neighbor called animal control to complain that Madeline might get out of the yard and attack a child. The animal-control officer wasn't interested in the bear-cub-sized Rottweiler (even though most people are deathly afraid of her), just the 45-pound puppy who's still timid from early abuse and quakes when she's separated from Nina. The officer took one look at Madeline and declared her to be a vicious pit bull. This snap judgment contradicted the call of two veterinarians -- but it could be a death sentence for my dog.

Although the city can't do anything about her right now, if it's successful in fighting the new law, animal control could be on my doorstep to pick up Madeline. A dog that's bitten no one, shows no aggressive tendencies and plays with half the kids on the surrounding blocks. A dog that's been spayed, has her rabies shots, is registered with the city, lives in the house rather than on a chain in the back yard, is socialized to not chase cats (birds are another story) and demurs to most dogs.

But Madeline's personality and training will not be taken into account in determining her fate. "We only consider appearance," Kelley says. "When Denver created the law, they said all three of these types of dogs and anything that looks like them were vicious dogs, so there's an assumption that the dog is vicious."

The city estimates that roughly 4,500 pit bulls and pit-bull mixes are being kept in the city illegally, but the breed accounts for only 1 to 2 percent of the reported bites. German shepherds have topped the list for at least the last three years, followed by chows, labs and Rottweilers -- then pit bulls. "The challenge to get into is that when pit bulls bite, they're often really serious bites," Kelley points out, "although there haven't been any really serious bites or deaths since 1987 or 1988, leading up to the breed-specific legislation."

All dogs bite, of course. The New England Journal of Medicine reported in 1999 that at least one dog from each of the 143 registered breeds had bitten someone that year. But because of the fear surrounding pit bulls -- and the bizarre myths, like the one about their locking jaws -- Madeline has had a rough puppyhood. There's no room for error in her training; whether or not she's a pit, the blame for any incident will always fall on her because of her appearance. She's not allowed to defend herself or her turf, lest someone mistake it for aggression. She's not even allowed to protect her own food bowl. Our polydactyl cat, Seven, embeds his claws in her face and then hangs off of her.

Maybe Madeline's a pit bull, maybe she's a boxer. The only way we'll ever find out -- to the city's satisfaction, at least -- is if we take her to animal control for evaluation, but such tests are on hold until the lawsuit is settled. Whatever she is, Madeline just wishes the damned cat would get off her face.

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