Pit-bull service dog ban in Denver: Is it time for ordinance that doesn't single out breed?

Denver City Council's decision not to provide a service-dog exception for its long-time pit-bull ban violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to an attorney suing Denver and Aurora on behalf of disabled vets.

Councilwoman Paula Sandoval, who voted for creating an exception, agrees -- and she wonders if it's time for fundamental changes in Denver's rules.

Sandoval's vote wasn't influenced by the aforementioned lawsuit, filed by the Animal Law Center back in March. Indeed, she wasn't aware of the complaint until being informed about it by Westword. So why was she among the four members of council (opposed by nine colleagues) to favor an exception?

"It's pretty simple: The federal government has passed regulations to allow pit bulls as service animals," she says. "Those are the ADA rules."

In addition, she's concerned about people visiting Denver with a pit bull service dog. "If you're dependent on the dog and you travel to a city that doesn't allow it, what do you do as an individual?" she wonders.

At the same time, Sandoval notes that "I am sensitive to the fact that we have had a pit-bull ban for a number of years, and there's a strong feeling among some people to keep it in place." She also acknowledges that "there's really no nationwide standard for service-dog training, so the city is limited in its ability to check on whether a service dog is a bona fide service dog."

This last observation ties in to concerns among some council members that locals with pit bulls could designate them service dogs as a way of getting around the Denver ban. Right now, though, Sandoval only knows of one person with a pit bull as a service dog -- so presumably a sudden increase in that number would raise red flags.

Balancing these issues in Sandoval's mind is the possibility of lawsuits and the expense of defending them during tight budget times, as well as the example of other nearby municipalities, which have come up with an alternate approach.

"Jefferson County has a dangerous dog ordinance that doesn't single out pit bulls," she maintains. In her view, "we definitely need strong dangerous dog ordinances, and we happen to have a strong one for pit bulls, in that we don't allow them at all, and if we find one, we put them down. But that should probably be extended to all dangerous dogs."

Of course, Denver's pit bull ban has survived attacks in the past. "The State of Colorado passed legislation several years ago that said municipalities could not have breed-specific laws on the books," Sandoval points out, "and Denver challenged that and won, because we're a home-rule city. That's why we still have the ban today."

How about tomorrow? Sandoval can only speculate, but she describes pit bulls as "a hot issue" that certainly could resurface.

More from our News archive: "Leaked: photos of pit bulls killed due to Denver ban."

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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