Are pit bulls so potentially and uniquely lethal that they deserve to be singled out by Denver, which prohibits three breeds associated with such dogs, and only such dogs? This question looms large in advance of a Denver City Council meeting today, February 24, when a majority of the panel will attempt to override Mayor Michael Hancock's veto of a proposal that would effectively end the ban.
Two shocking Denver incidents helped spur the current law's enactment: the 1986 death of three-year-old Fernando Salazar, who was killed by a neighbor's pit bull, and a mauling described in writer Jared Jacang Maher's definitive history of the Denver pit bull ban, published in 2009, its twentieth anniversary. On May 8, 1989, he recounted, "Wilbur Billingsley headed to the store to pick up some items for his wife. He'd only gotten as far as the alley behind his home in Denver's San Rafael neighborhood when a dog attacked him. Billingsley, a 58-year-old evangelical pastor, fell to the ground, and the dog started ripping into his legs." The pastor was bitten more than seventy times and suffered two broken legs and a shattered right kneecap in the assault by a five-year-old pit bull named Tate; Billingsley died in 1992.
In remarks immediately following his veto, released at 5 p.m. Friday, February 14 (a time traditionally used to bury controversial news), Hancock recalled what happened to Salazar and Billingsley. The references made sense, since there have been no similar incidents involving pit bulls since the ban became official. Supporters of the status quo see this as evidence that that the law has worked, even though Hancock admits that only 20 percent of dogs in Denver are licensed, and the other 80 percent include plenty of pit bulls.
In fact, fatal dog attacks have been exceedingly rare in Denver and Colorado as a whole since 1989, and even in areas where pit bulls are legal, many, if not most, of these tragedies involve other breeds, including rottweilers, malamutes, a wolf hybrid and a German shepherd. But the actual number of attacks is disputed.
An advocacy group that strongly supports a measure for breed-restrictive licensing of pits originally proposed by District 8's Chris Herndon, Replace Denver BSL (the letters stand for "breed-specific legislation"), created a briefing book for councilmembers filled with research intended to undermine Denver's rationale for the regulation. One passage sourced from a 2013 report by the National Canine Research Council states: "In the last 34 years, there have been only 9 dog bite-related fatalities in Colorado. Only one fatality occurred in Denver, 7 years after the ban, and is attributed to a dog breed not subject to the ban."
We checked these figures with Kirk Bol, manager of the vital statistics program for the Colorado Department of Health and Public Environment, and he came up with a different total.
"Based on Colorado's death certificate data, I can confirm we have records for eleven deaths occurring in Colorado since 1989 attributable to dog bites or their effect, whether acute trauma or subsequent infection," notes Bol. "I expect that the difference in this number and what you heard from Replace Denver BSL is the difference between those who die specifically from the trauma/injuries associated with the bite vs. downstream effects (confirmed by reviewing these individual records)."
He adds: "Given the confidentiality provisions governing death certificate data, we are not permitted to provide or confirm information reported about individual deaths. At any rate, in reviewing these, we only rarely see the specific breed of dog specified on the death certificate, and so are unable to produce reliable aggregate statistics by dog breed."
Bol says he's not aware of "a 'definitive' source of detailed dog bite information for Colorado or the U.S. — fatal or otherwise — though there are several national organizations that attempt to track through using a variety of information sources."
The online resource that offers the widest variety of information on this topic is DogsBite.org, which most pit bull lovers see as having a strong bias against the breed; the site is festooned with horror stories about the canines, presented in ways that seem intended to startle and disturb. Moreover, its information is largely based on media reports that tend to defer for breed identification to law enforcement, whose officers may or may not have expertise in this area.
Nonetheless, the DogsBite.org archive of 597 fatal pit bull attacks in the United States going all the way back to 1833 (really) includes only three from Colorado. The first victim was Salazar. The second was forty-year-old Jennifer Brooke, an Elbert County resident who was killed after being set upon by three pit bulls owned by neighbor Jackie McCuen, who subsequently pleaded guilty to being the owner of a dangerous dog causing death and was sentenced to six years in prison. The third was Conifer's Susan Shawl, age sixty, who died after an attack by two pits owned by her adult son, Richard.
Over the same span, we found reports regarding rottweilers' involvement in at least two lethal Colorado attacks, and possibly a third. In Northglenn in 1994, Kayla Marie Lee, five, was killed by her family's 120-pound rottweiler, Goliath, which was subsequently euthanized. Four years later, in southwest Denver, Austin Cussins, who was just weeks from celebrating his first birthday, died after a terrible encounter with the family dog, characterized as a rottweiler mix. And in April 1995, two-year-old Lindsay Shanaman was killed by a dog alternately classified as a "GSD/Rott X" and a "mastiff-German shepherd mix."
Other breeds were also responsible for lethal attacks. In December 1996, Black Forest's Debbie Edmonds, 39, was killed by two wolf hybrids for which she was caring. In May 2005, Kate-Lynn Logel, a seven-year-old living in Fruita, perished after one of two malamutes obtained for free via a classified ad bit her neck so fiercely that it broke. The one dog-bite-related fatality report in Denver since 2010 involved a German shepherd.
These aren't the only types of dogs with a history of bites serious enough to prompt calls to Colorado authorities. Statistics from Denver and other local jurisdictions are regularly topped by Labrador retrievers, German shepherds and American bulldogs. "Which Dogs Bite? A Case-Control Study of Risk Factors," by Kenneth A. Gershman, Jeffrey J. Sacks and John C. Wright, a 1994 study based on 1991 Denver County data, offered a slew of factors beyond breed that need to be weighed when trying to determine "a dog's propensity to bite." For instance, "male dogs are 6.2 times more likely to bite than female dogs, sexually intact dogs are 2.6 times more likely to bite than neutered dogs, and chained dogs are 2.8 times more likely to bite than unchained dogs."
Shira Hereld, co-founder of Replace Denver BSL, adds this thought via email: "From 2017 Centers for Disease Control stats, there were forty dog bite-related fatalities, but there were 1,688 child abuse/neglect fatalities and 64,795 poisoning fatalities. If we're focusing on creating legislation that will improve safety, we should focus on the most likely issue related to dog ownership, which is severe bites. And the same  National Canine Research Council report states that BSL does not impact or improve likelihood of severe bites — that, in fact, Denver has experienced higher hospitalization rates from dog bites in the years since the ban, suggesting residents are actually getting bitten more severely post-ban."
The Denver City Council meeting to address the mayor's veto will get under way at 5:30 p.m. in room 451 of the City & County Building, 1437 Bannock Street. The council release about the meeting includes this advisory: "Public comment was heard on the legislation on Monday, February 10. There will not be any additional opportunity for public comment on February 24."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.