For two decades, pit bulls have been public enemy #1 in Denver. But maybe it's time for a recount.

Kevin O'Connell was away on business when he got a call from a Denver animal-control officer: His dog, a Presa Canario, had mauled a Chihuahua. O'Connell, a civil engineer who lives in Thornton, had left his two dogs with a friend who lives in Denver; he gave the officer his friend's address. Then his friend called: She said that animal-control officers had shown up at her house, but instead of impounding the Presa Canario, they'd taken his other dog, Dexter, who'd been in her back yard.

"What?" O'Connell replied. "Why?"

"They say he's a pit bull."

In Denver, the pit bull's criminal status dates back to May 8, 1989, when 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.

Billingsley's neighbor, architect Norman Cabel, heard what he later described to reporters as a "high-pitched wail" and ran out into the alley, where he saw a dog "chewing on" Billingsley's leg. Cabel found a two-by-four nearby and began hitting the animal, but it didn't react. So Cabel ran back into his house, grabbed his 20-gauge shotgun and ran back out. Now the dog was dragging Billingsley by the arm. Cabel's hands were shaking so badly it was difficult to load the shells into the shotgun, but he still shot the dog dead. The pastor suffered more than seventy bites and two broken legs, including a shattered right kneecap, in the attack.

The dog, a five-year-old pit bull named Tate, had escaped from a yard two doors down from Billingsley's home. The day after the attack, Tate's owner, David Martinez, told a reporter that he was baffled by the dog's violent outburst. "We never had any problems with him at home," he said.

This was not Denver's first high-profile pit bull attack. In October 1986, a three-year-old boy had wandered onto a neighbor's property in southwest Denver, where he'd been bitten to death by a pit bull. The next year, Denver City Council had enacted an ordinance ordering that any dog that bit a human be labeled a "dangerous dog," and confined by its owner in a nine-foot pen. After the Billingsley incident, though, animal-control officials warned that this law wasn't strong enough to deal with pit bulls. Sergeant Curtis Bradley, head of the municipal animal-control division, told Denver City Council that 81 people in the city had reported pit bull attacks in 1988, with 35 more in the first four months of 1989.

The mauling of a seven-year-old Miami girl by a pit bull in February 1989 had inspired Dade County, Florida, to pass a measure banning pit bulls entirely. Now councilmembers Ramona Martinez and Mary DeGroot urged Denver to adopt a similar ban. Crafting such an ordinance was a challenge, because what is known conversationally as a "pit bill" isn't so much a specific breed of dog as a general type that could include as many as half a dozen officially recognized breeds. So a proposal was drafted that defined a pit bull as any dog displaying the majority of the physical traits of an American Pit Bull Terrier, an American Staffordshire Terrier or a Staffordshire Bull Terrier — or "any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of the above breeds."

Hundreds of residents packed a public hearing to discuss the measure in July 1989, with some presenting tearful testimony about their beloved dogs and others recounting pit bull attacks in gruesome detail. It was one of the most contentious hearings in council history.

Then-council president Cathy Reynolds still recalls "the hysteria of the moment," she says. "It used to be the whole drug culture was using these dogs. Every hoodie-looking person would be walking around with two pit bulls with chains around their necks. And everybody had an anecdotal story about these mad animals attacking people." She was the only councilmember to vote against the ban, which was signed into law by Mayor Federico Peña that August. "It was so emotional," she adds. "There was no way you could stop it."

A group of animal organizations led by the Colorado Dog Fanciers did their best, filing suit against the city. But in 1992, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that Denver had a rational basis for outlawing pit bulls. The decision focused on the city's argument that the characteristics bred into the animals by dog fighters — characteristics such as strength, tenacity and a certain unpredictability in their signs of aggression — meant that pit bull attacks had the potential to be "more severe and more likely to result in fatalities."

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Jared Jacang Maher