For two decades, pit bulls have been public enemy #1 in Denver. But maybe it's time for a recount. | News | Denver | Denver Westword | The Leading Independent News Source in Denver, Colorado

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...
Share this:

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."

This ruling encouraged other municipalities to enact laws of their own regulating or prohibiting the possession of certain breeds, almost always in the wake of a headline-grabbing dog mauling. A website that maintains a state-by-state directory of such laws lists 415 cities and counties that today have some type of prohibition aimed at a specific breed of dog. But while a wide variety of breeds are involved in dog attacks, the vast majority of these laws — which range from requiring owners to carry insurance to mandates that dogs attend obedience training — target pit bulls.

Still, Denver's ban remains the toughest in the nation, and the city also has a reputation as the country's toughest enforcer. Proponents of such laws use Denver as the model for how a city can protect citizens from vicious pit bull attacks. But for animal-welfare groups, veterinary associations and many dog lovers, Denver is the prime example of everything that is inhumane, unjust and backward about trying to solve a problem as complex as aggressive dog behavior by simply criminalizing an entire breed type.

After all, they ask, is there any evidence that Denver's pit bull ban has worked? After twenty years, several expensive court challenges (one ongoing), hundreds of thousands in enforcement costs, an estimated 3,497 pit bulls put to death and over 5,000 dog owners ticketed, are Denver residents any safer from dog bites and attacks than people living in cities without pit bull bans?

Denver Animal Care and Control head Doug Kelley has testified in support of the ban in the past. But in recent years, his assessment has grown more measured. "Has it worked? I'm not sure if we can answer that question," he says. "What we do know is that, since the ordinance was put into effect, we haven't had a severe mauling or fatality from a pit bull in Denver."

Asked about the success of the ordinance, Mayor John Hickenlooper also points out that the city hasn't seen a serious mauling or death involving a banned breed since 1989. "Whether the ban works depends on what side of the argument you're on," he notes in an e-mailed statement.

There have been fatal dog attacks in Denver, though: In June 1998, eleven-month-old Austin Cussins was bitten to death at his grandmother's house in the Harvey Park neighborhood by the family dog, which reports identified as a Rottweiler mix. Meanwhile, many Colorado cities — Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Grand Junction — have never seen a fatal attack by a dog of any breed.

Denver has never done an audit of the pit bull ban, never conducted a study of how effective it has been, never established a commission to determine whether one of Denver's most controversial policies is actually accomplishing what it was created to do. But evidence from other sources suggests that after two decades of classifying pit bulls as public enemy number one, it could be time for Denver to redo its math.

Kevin O'Connell decided to cut his business trip short and return to Denver. When he finally reached someone at the shelter, he learned that Dexter had to undergo an evaluation to determine if he was a pit bull. Dexter wasn't a pit bull, O'Connell insisted; he was a four-year-old mutt adopted from Texas. But under Denver law, that didn't matter: Since Dexter had been picked up as a pit bull, he couldn't be released until after an evaluation.

"Then the guy on the phone told me I could pick him up if I just said he was a pit bull," O'Connell recalls. "But I didn't want to say he was a pit bull, because he's not." While Dexter might be safe in Thornton, which has no ban on pit bulls, O'Connell's job takes him to different cities. And with all of the new breed bans being enacted, some of them inspired by Denver's law, "I knew that if he gets labeled a pit bull now, I'm screwed," O'Connell says.

After ten days, O'Connell was finally allowed to collect Dexter. The dog looked sickly, and his owner suspected kennel cough. But there was a more worrisome diagnosis: Evaluators had determined that Dexter had enough pit bull characteristics to qualify as a banned breed, and O'Connell was given a summons to appear in Denver County Court. Before he could even take his dog home, the animal-control officer told him, he'd have to sign a form in front of a notary stating that he intended to remove the "pit bull" from Denver city limits. O'Connell drove to a notary's office and returned to the shelter with the form, only to learn that as a pit bull, Dexter would need to be muzzled from the door of the facility to his car.

"So I had to drive again to PetSmart to get a damn muzzle," O'Connell says. "But he's never needed a muzzle before, so I didn't know what size he wore. So I had to buy three."

On August 25, a hundred demonstrators gathered in front of the Denver City and County Building to demand that the city repeal its ban on pit bulls. The protesters, who'd been notified of the action through online forum boards and e-mail lists, carried signs decrying "breed profiling" and "dog racism." Some wore T-shirts printed with photos of children hugging pit bulls, while others carried dog collars to symbolize all the pit bulls that have been "exterminated" at the Denver shelter since the ban was enacted. The crowd ranged from twenty-somethings from Colorado Springs to grandfatherly fellows from Grand Junction; very few of them were from Denver. But then, most pit bull lovers have either moved out of this city or kept their pet preferences very quiet, making sure their dogs stay indoors or only taking them for walks at night.

"It's one of the oldest and one of the worst," Paula Terifaj says of Denver's ban. "It's failed." A veterinarian from California who helped organize the protest, she makes no effort to hide her disgust with the city. Terifaj helps run the website, which has posted billboards across town in hopes of shaming officials into loosening their strict enforcement of the ordinance, if not dropping the ban altogether.

But the lack of local voices is a major hurdle for breed-ban opponents. When Denver's ordinance was passed twenty years ago, any pit bulls already living in the city were grandfathered in, as long as their owners registered the dogs and had them tattooed with registration numbers; obtained $100,000 in liability insurance; installed eight-foot-high fences around their property and posted them with signs reading "PIT BULL DOG"; and muzzled their dogs when off the property. (If any of these grandfathered-in dogs had puppies, the law stated that they had to be removed from the city or "relinquished to the Animal Shelter for destruction.") Some 300 pit bulls were registered and allowed to remain in Denver, but by 2003, all of these dogs had died, closing the door on any legal reason for a pit bull to set paw in Denver.

Except for this original grandfather clause, under the ordinance owners whose dogs are found to be pit bulls have three choices: They can let their pets be euthanized by the city, they can send their dogs outside of the city — or they can leave Denver with their dogs. The ordinance even bars non-profit animal shelters such as MaxFund and the Denver Dumb Friend's League from accepting or adopting out pit bulls. Since 1992, the city has impounded 5,286 pit bulls.

Heidi Tufto was walking her pit bull in a park in west Denver in 2002 when a police van pulled up. Officers held her at gunpoint while animal control chased down her dog, she remembers: "There was this old Polish lady who saw the whole thing happen, and she was screaming at them, 'Gestapo! Gestapo!' in her thick accent. Which almost made me want to laugh because it was all so crazy. But at the same time, it was terrifying. They called my dog vicious because it was freaking out. But any dog would freak out in that situation." After securing her dog's release, Tufto, an Army staff sergeant, flew it out of state on a military transport, and she soon moved out of Denver herself. "I couldn't stay; it's like a police state," she says. Today she lives in Byers and is an outspoken activist against Denver's ban.

No matter where a pit bull caused trouble, each episode tightened enforcement in Denver. In 2003, a 41-year-old woman tending to her friend's horses on a farm in Elbert County was mauled to death by three roving pit bulls. The terrifying attack was covered extensively by the national media. Kelley says that calls to animal control of possible pit bulls in Denver jumped 50 percent. Then-state representative Debbie Stafford pushed through legislation to strengthen Colorado's dangerous-dog laws. "The initial intent was to make sure that pet owners are held legally responsible on first bite," says Stafford. But in the process of speaking with animal experts, she and her co-sponsor added a provision that would prevent local governments from having breed-specific regulations. Governor Bill Owens quickly signed the bill into law.

But Denver filed suit just as quickly, with city council instructing the city attorney's office to sue the state on the grounds that the Colorado constitution protects the ability of a home-rule municipality to create and maintain its own laws. Although a Denver District Court judge agreed with Denver on the home-rule issue, he allowed the Colorado Attorney General's Office to pursue its argument that, in the fourteen years since the Colorado Dog Fanciers decision, new research on dog bites and attacks could be presented as proof that pit bull bans are irrational.

Assistant City Attorney Kory Nelson argued Denver's case, saying the ban was justified not necessarily because evidence showed that pit bulls bite more frequently, but because the history and physiological traits of the breed make pit bulls more likely to cause severe injury and death if they do bite, comparing pit bull attacks to shark bites.

In April 2005, the judge ruled that the state had failed to prove that Denver had no rational basis for prohibiting pit bulls. The ban would stay.

Denver had suspended enforcement of the ordinance while it took the fight to court, and during the year it took for the lawsuit to play out, hundreds of pit bulls were brought back into Denver. Now officials sent letters to known pit bull owners, informing them that enforcement would begin again in two months. The day after that deadline, animal control vans with police backup spread across the city, rounding up dozens of the dogs. Others were dropped off at the shelter by owners who didn't want to run afoul of the law. In 2005 and 2006, more than 1,900 pit bulls were impounded in the city animal shelter, and 1,453 of them were put down.

Since that 2005 decision, Nelson has traveled the country, speaking to public-policy groups about the ordinance, and has even fired off unsolicited letters to cities considering breed bans, pitching himself as a national expert on the legalities of breed bans. He declined to be interviewed by Westword for this story, since his current job duties are unrelated to the pit bull ban. "I have no authority from my superiors to speak to you about it," he wrote.

Nelson isn't part of the city's team fighting the latest breed-ban suit. In 2007, Sonya Dias and three other pit bull owners who'd moved out of the city because of the ban filed a class-action lawsuit against Denver on the grounds that the ordinance violated their constitutional rights. In May, the case was accepted by the federal appeals court.

Other Colorado cities with breed bans include Castle Rock, Commerce City, Fort Lupton, La Junta, Lone Tree, Louisville and Wellington. Aurora passed a ban in 2005 that prohibits not just pit bulls but eight other breeds, including Presa Canarios and bull mastiffs. Nancy Sheffield, Director of Aurora's Neighborhood Services department says that city's ban has reduced the number of stray and abused dogs coming into the shelter, and also lowered the number of dog bites from restricted breeds. "It's worked," she says. "It accomplished what we set out to do."

Denver officials, too, stand by their ban. While out-of-state activists have tried to influence local politicians for years, signing petitions and even encouraging a boycott of the city, many officials regard their campaign as little more than boring background noise. "A lot of it comes from California, sometimes even from other countries," says Charlie Brown, Denver City Council's most vocal supporter of the pit bull ban. Brown estimates that he's received upwards of forty pro-pit bull letters so far this year, and more frequent e-mails. "The tone is never pleasant," he notes. "They're threatening, 'We're never going to come to your city.' That's fine; they can vote with their feet. My local constituents support this. I'll bet if you put this on the ballot, it would pass overwhelmingly to continue the ban."

When she ran for the District 5 council seat in 2006, Carla Madison supported the ban. "I would see how gangbangers had abused pit bulls," she remembers. "I thought it was a way to protect dogs from bad owners." But she changed her mind after learning about dangerous-dog laws that punish owners for their pets' bad behavior rather than targeting a specific breed. Ideally, Madison says, she'd push for complete repeal of the current ban on pit bulls. But since she doesn't think a repeal is feasible in the current political climate — none of her colleagues have signed on to ban the ban — she's instead crafting a proposal that would allow pit bulls in Denver under regulations similar to those that applied to dogs grandfathered in back in 1989. Under Madison's proposed ordinance, pit bull owners would also have to obtain $1 million in insurance and take their dogs to obedience classes.

Brown, who's said that the pit bull's "genetic code" makes it more likely to attack, doesn't like Madison's proposal one bit. "The word 'obedience' and pit bulls — to me, there's a disconnect there," he says. "If I took my young dog to obedience school and saw a pit bull, I'd turn and walk out."

If owners are willing to jump through such hoops, Madison argues, it's unlikely they'd be negligent. "Essentially, it would still be illegal to have a pit bull in Denver unless you have a permit," she points out.

But what, exactly, is a pit bull?

Aaron McSpadden is one of six full-time evaluators charged with determining whether a dog qualifies as a pit bull under the city's ordinance. "We're basically examining the dog, nose to toes," he says. He spent four years as an animal-control officer for Denver before deciding to opt into a certification program that would train him for this job.

It's rare in Denver for animal-control officers to spot possible pit bulls running around loose. Most of the time, the division receives calls from residents about a pit bull in a neighbor's yard and an officer is dispatched. "Then they get over there and it's a Boston Terrier," says Doug Kelley. But if the officer believes that probable cause exists that the animal is a pit bull, they cite the owner and impound the dog into a section of the shelter called "pit bull row." Here, each dog must be reviewed by three evaluators, all working separately; this process can take up to three days.

"We have a checklist that we go down and look at each characteristic of the dog," McSpadden explains. The checklist includes the dog's overall size, its weight, the muzzle width, the broadness of the chest, the tail and the size and shape of the paw. "We are looking at the overall breed of the dog," he says.

According to McSpadden, pit bulls belong to the "bully breed" that include not just the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, but large, powerful working dogs like Cane Corsos and Presa Canarios, as well as smaller and stouter American Bulldogs and even the diminutive French Bulldogs. Originally these bully-breed dogs were used in bull-baiting fights in England in the 1800s; when that sport was banned, promoters had the dogs fight each other instead. Some breeds evolved into what today are considered pit bulls. Yet most of the dogs that arrive at the Denver shelter are mixes of some type; they rarely fit the purebred definitions of the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club.

So a dog could look like a pit bull but actually be a mix with a bulldog.

"I'll look and see maybe a mastiff/Lab mix. Or it's a Fila, but it's got some characteristics of a Corso," McSpadden says. So he'll fill out the checklist and then make a determination whether the dog has the majority of the characteristics of a pit bull. Two other evaluators will do the same, then submit their reports to the shelter's "pit bull desk." If two out of three evaluations conclude that the dog's not a pit bull, the owner gets the dog back after paying a five-dollar-per-day boarding fee. If the majority of the evaluators think it is a pit bull, in order to get the dog back, the owner must pay a $45-per-day impoundment fee, a $5-per-day-impoundment fee, a $25 microchip fee, the fine for the illegal-breed citation, and provide a legally binding statement that the dog will be relocated outside city limits within a certain time period. If a dog identified as a pit bull is picked up in Denver for a second time, an owner loses all rights.

It costs the city $90 a week to house a single dog; it costs $21.50 to euthanize a dog. Since the ban was enacted, the city has euthanized an estimated 3,497 pit bulls.

An owner can dispute the city's designation of a dog as a pit bull by requesting an administrative hearing, during which the owner can present evidence on the dog's lineage and the city explains its own evaluation.

The evaluation checklist involves only physical characteristics, not behavior, and the evaluation does not consider anything related to an animal's temperament. The dog might be jumpy and aggressive, or it might be mellow and sweet. It might have bitten people before, or it might be a well-trained family pet that has never released an angry bark. Does that matter?

"Yes and no," McSpadden says. "What I see is there are responsibilities that come with every type of dog. If you have a bully breed, they have a lot of energy, they're very strong and very powerful. You have to be able to control the dog, secure the dog, know its quirks. It's like how you can go into a gun store and you can buy a handgun or a rifle after a ten-day waiting period, but you can't buy a bazooka. Why? Because the bazooka is designed to destroy and has the potential to inflict a lot more damage. That's how I think about it with the breed ban."

Firearms killed over 30,000 people in the United States in 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, dogs kill 23 people per year. Of those, six are killed by pit bulls. As a health hazard, pit bulls rate below bees, lightning and mooses in the number of deaths for which they're responsible. But they're also by far the greatest cause of fatal animal maulings in this country. According to a 2000 CDC study, pit bull-type dogs were involved in 76 deadly attacks between 1979 and 1998; Rottweilers came in second, at fifty.

Still, is this because the dogs are inherently vicious — or because their owners are? In her book The Pit Bull Placebo, New Jersey-based writer Karen Delise notes that killings by breed are clustered in certain time periods. In the late 1990s, many fatalities were attributed to Rottweilers; most pit bull attacks occurred in the mid-to-late 1980s. Go back to the 1970s, though, and Doberman Pinschers were the most likely killers.

According to Daniel Estep, an applied animal behaviorist in Denver who often provides expert testimony in dog-bite cases, this reflects that certain breeds shift in and out of "what's popular among irresponsible people at any one time."

In her book, Delise tracks how different breeds have been fetishized during different eras by people interested in projecting an image of masculinity and toughness. People who choose dogs for these reasons alone are not typically the most responsible pet owners, she points out, and are likely to inculcate their dogs with aggressive behavior.

Nearly every major animal-welfare group, from the Humane Society of the United States to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, advocates dangerous-dog laws that punish negligent pet owners rather than overarching bans on entire breeds. Even the authors of the CDC study caution cities against enacting laws based on breed. "Breed-specific legislation does not address the fact that a dog of any breed can become dangerous when bred or trained to be aggressive," it says. And most major cities, including San Francisco, New York and Chicago, have forgone breed bans in favor of beefing up laws that punish owners of any dangerous dogs. Denver may be tough on pit bulls, but its general rules regarding dangerous dogs fall below national recommendations. Currently, non-pit bull dogs in Denver must bite or cause other injury to a person or another animal before a citation can be written.

The Coalition for Living Safely with Dogs, a Colorado group comprising veterinary and animal-welfare organizations, conducted a survey in 2007 of dog-bite information collected by municipalities across the state. The study, released this past March, found that the greatest number of bites came from Labrador Retrievers, then pit bulls, then German Shepherds and Chow Chows. More telling were the circumstances of the dog bites: Children were most often the victims, and the culprits were usually dogs that had not been neutered, were running at large, were tethered or had been cited previously for biting.

In Denver, dog bites have dropped dramatically over the past twenty years, from 1,146 in 1990 to 305 in 2008. Although this period coincides with the pit bull ban, it also reflects a national trend. In the 1960s and '70s, Delise points out, New York City logged 35,000 to 40,000 dog bites a year; today that number is down to about 3,500 annually. The drop can also be seen in places like Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Delise credits the reduction in bites to a general shift in how Americans treat their dogs, as well things like leash ordinances and animal-cruelty laws — initiatives that apply to all breeds.

"So we had a system that was working — increased education, more humane care and control in the custody of our dogs, obeying leash laws, not letting your dog run loose," she says. "We were on the right track. Then we became distracted by this breed stuff."

Even Doug Kelley, who worked for Lakewood's animal control before becoming the director of Denver's animal control in 2000, attributes Denver's decline in bites not to the pit bull ban, but to metro-wide spay and neutering efforts and better enforcement of the city's non-breed-specific laws, such as calls for dogs at large. Back in the late '80s, gangs of stray dogs roamed Denver. "In the '80s, we were impounding 30,000 to 40,000 dogs a year," says Kelley. "But now not only do you not have gangs of dogs, you don't have perpetually at-large dogs that are just kind of out running loose." Supporters of pit bull bans argue that while the breed may not bite the most, its bites are more severe. But this argument doesn't mesh with statistics compiled by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. A person bitten by a dog in Denver is much more likely to go to the hospital than a person bitten in Boulder, Jefferson, Broomfield and El Paso counties, none of which ban pit bulls. In fact, Denver has the highest rate of hospitalization for dog bites of any county in the state. Not everyone who gets bitten by a dog will go to the doctor; one study found that only 80 percent of dog bites were severe enough to warrant a hospital visit. But even though Denver residents are reporting the same or fewer dog bites per capita than residents of neighboring cities, they're going to the hospital more often — which suggests that their bites are worse. And that's not because of pit bulls.

Could Denver find a better way of identifying dangerous dogs? Portland, Oregon, a city of similar size, was also the site of a pit bull attack in 1986 that resulted in the death of a child: a five-year-old boy who was fatally mauled in suburban Multinomah County. Like Denver, Portland became embroiled in a debate over how to deal with vicious breeds. Unlike Denver, Portland convened a task force of veterinarians, health officials, animal behaviorists and animal-control officers to study potential animal-control ordinances. Rather than slap a ban on a single breed, the commission recommended that the law be adjusted to allow animal-control officers to take action against the owner of a dog that was displaying certain aggressive behaviors and label the animal a "potentially dangerous dog" before it caused serious injury to a human. As a result, Portland created a model with five levels of severity, starting with any dog, running loose, that "menaces, chases, displays threatening or aggressive behaviors" against a human or other animal. Each level involves potential for a greater punitive action against the owner, as well as certain requirements for the dog. At the highest level, reserved for a dog that's caused serious injury to a person, the animal is to be euthanized, and officials have the additional option of suspending the owner's right to possess a dog.

Portland's law was put into effect in 1986. Five years later, a study found that Portland had classified 1,652 dogs as potentially dangerous. The breed with the most such classifications was the German Shepherd, followed by the pit bull, then the Labrador Retriever and the Doberman. If Portland had simply banned pit bulls after the killing of a child, it might have missed the aggressive German Shepherds. More significant, it might have punished good owners (and dogs) for the sins of the bad. The program also reduced the amount of repeat biters by 257 percent.

While Wilbur Billingsley was rushed to Denver General for emergency surgery on his legs, police and animal-control investigators looked into Tate's history. Despite his owner's assertion that he'd never had a problem with the dog, it turned out that Tate was a very bad dog, indeed: He'd bitten three people in the previous three years. Tate had twice bitten the hands of adults. The third time, he'd bitten the hand of an eight-year-old neighbor so severely that the child spent three weeks in the hospital. Animal control had cited the owner for the bites and told him to keep the dog in an enclosed structure. Instead, Martinez — a twenty-year-old custodian at the time — had simply chained Tate in the back yard, but he continued to break free. Just three days before the attack on Billingsley, Cabel told reporters, his eleven-year-old daughter and her friends had been playing in the alley when the dog leapt at the fence, which barely managed to hold.

After getting Dexter safely back to his home in Thornton, O'Connell decided to pay the $50 hearing fee to dispute Denver's determination that the dog is a pit bull. "He was picked up from a yard for doing nothing, and he was charged and judged for something he's not," he points out. O'Connell called a lawyer friend who agreed to represent him. He also had Dexter reviewed by two dog breed experts, one a certified American Kennel Club judge, the other a judge with the United Kennel Club, and they both determined that he is "definitely not a pit bull."

O'Connell was looking forward to his day in court last Friday. He had an affidavit from one of the experts; the other was going to appear in person. He had his whole argument planned, one that he was sure would free Dexter from pit bull profiling. But on his drive to Denver, he got a call from his attorney. The hearing officer had the flu, so justice for Dexter would have to wait.

In the meantime, O'Connell decided he'd find a way to make things right with the owners of the Chihuahua that his Presa Canario had mauled. "I guess he was so messed up after my dog got him that they had to put him to sleep," he says.

He won't be making amends in court, however. Since the owner of the dead dog declined to sign a complaint, O'Connell never even got a ticket for the real attack dog.

Kiernan Maletsky contributed to the research for this story. To find out more about Denver's pit bull ban, go to Contact the author at [email protected].

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.