How Denver's Pit Bull Ban Led to a Woman's Nightmare

Would this labrador/pit bull mix run afoul of Denver's pit bull ban? Maybe....
Would this labrador/pit bull mix run afoul of Denver's pit bull ban? Maybe.... Photo by Taylor Deas-Melesh on Unsplash
Among the many municipal items on the Denver ballot this November is a measure that would effectively end the Mile High City's three-decade-old prohibition of pit bulls.

But while proponents of the concept typically focus their arguments on the general ineffectiveness of breed-specific legislation and how the proposal will not only allow pit-bull owners to emerge from the shadows but give authorities better ways to enhance safety, Teresa (she requests to use only her first name) has another reason why the ban should go. She says a former domestic partner reported that she was illegally sheltering a pit bull that was actually registered as an approved breed — but because of the Denver law's vague language, she was terrified that the dog would be taken away from her anyway.

"It's something I still worry about," Teresa says. "I'm praying that November will end my fear of that happening."

Earlier this year, when Denver City Council passed a proposal by member Chris Herndon to create special, provisional licenses for three breeds (American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier), the ban seemed on its way to extinction. But Mayor Michael Hancock, under heavy pressure from interest groups in the community, vetoed the measure — and the council fell one vote shy of overriding him.

The issue didn't go away, however. In August, councilmembers unanimously agreed to place the measure on the November 3 ballot, thereby giving Denver residents the power to decide for themselves whether they buy Herndon's argument in favor of the plan. "We know these breeds are in our community — and because they're banned, there's a higher possibility that the owner won't seek out professional guidance or even proper pet care," Herndon told us earlier this year. "And right now, we don't know where these dogs are. If the ordinance passes, we will, and that will make our community safer."

Replace Denver BSL is the organization that led the fight in support of Herndon's proposition the first time around, and Teresa signed up to volunteer on behalf of the cause in part because of her personal experience with ways in which the statute can be abused.

The section of Denver municipal code that deals with pit bulls is hefty, running nearly 1,900 words in length — and that doesn't count the passage concerning definitions, which reads in part:
Pit bull shall mean any dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one (1) or more of the above breeds, or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing characteristics which substantially conform to the standards established by the American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club for any of the above breeds. 
Phrases such as "displaying the majority of physical traits" and "substantially conform to the standards...for any of the above breeds" strike Teresa as incredibly subjective — and that left her in a vulnerable place after she obtained a new puppy a few years ago. When the American Bulldog/pit mix was five months old, she recalls, her roommate revealed to her that "an animal control officer had knocked on the door and left cards. The officer said because they supposedly couldn't tell what its breed was until it was about ten months old, I was advised to get my paperwork in order. That way, it would be completely legitimate and they would leave me alone — but they didn't want to get any more calls."

Turns out the complaint in question had come from her former partner, as their two-year relationship was deteriorating. She overheard him making a phone call to authorities in which he claimed to be a neighbor and said she had an illicit pit bull.

With that in mind, Teresa registered the puppy as an American Bulldog, and fortunately, it wasn't seized, impounded and euthanized, as has happened to thousands of other dogs since the law went into effect — but she says this attempted misuse of the provision wasn't an isolated incident. She recently saw a string on Nextdoor about a neighbor who reported a dog she disliked as a pit bull. "It turned out to be a poodle," Teresa says. "The animal control officers laughed and walked away, but they still had to investigate it, which is a gross waste of resources."

Teresa is optimistic that a majority of Denver voters will choose to do away with the law. "The mainstream media will always find ways to instill fear about this," she acknowledges, "but there's so much overwhelming support."

And not always for the obvious reasons.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts