Why Some Pit Bulls Are Exempt from Breed Bans in Denver, Aurora

Why Some Pit Bulls Are Exempt from Breed Bans in Denver, Aurora
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While Aurora's city council weighs whether to repeal a ban on pit bulls and replace it with an ordinance that targets aggressive animals in general, residents of the community, as well as folks in Denver, which also prohibits the breed, can still legally own such dogs.

How? Pit bulls in Aurora and Denver are exempted from the assorted bans if they're designated as service animals — and Aurora also allows pit bulls that serve as emotional support dogs. And the process to attain these licenses is extremely easy. When it comes to service animals, those applying for the status on behalf of a pit bull need answer only two simple questions (they're similar but distinct in each city), and the licenses are granted without charge.

Critics of this system see it as ripe for abuse. After all, even though the intentional misrepresentation of an assistance animal is against state law, petitioners don't have to provide evidence of any disability or demonstrate what the pit bull does to help overcome it. But representatives from both Aurora and Denver stress that they can't change the process, since it's mandated by the Americans With Disabilities Act, a federal law.

According to Michael Bryant, a spokesman for the City of Aurora, "people seeking the service animal designation have to come into the Aurora Animal Shelter, and under the ADA, we can only ask them if they have a disability and if their animal is trained to perform a specific task that's related to the disability. They don't have to identify the task, and we can't ask what the disability is — and if the answers to the questions are yes, they will receive a city license for the animal, regardless of breed."

Bryant adds that "it's a fee-free license. There's no cost associated with it. The only requirement we have is that the animal has a current rabies vaccine."

For a dog, including a pit bull, to be dubbed an emotional support animal in Aurora, a different federal law applies: the Fair Housing Act. "It's a little different from ADA coverage, and our regulations are a little different," Bryant points out. "Animal Services requires someone to have a letter from a medical professional that says a person has a disability and the animal alleviates some of the symptoms of the disability. And in addition to the rabies vaccine, they're required to be spayed or neutered and microchipped, and to also have a regular city license, which costs $15 a year." Emotional support pit bulls that meet these conditions are also exempt from Aurora's breed ban, Bryant confirms.

In 2017, Kara, the dog seen here, became Colorado's first officially sanctioned drug-detecting pit bull. - COURTESY OF KAREN HOGLUND PHOTOGRAPHY
In 2017, Kara, the dog seen here, became Colorado's first officially sanctioned drug-detecting pit bull.
Courtesy of Karen Hoglund Photography
As for Denver, its rules are detailed by Lieutenant Josh Rolfe of the city's Animal Protection division, who says the two questions to recognize pit bulls as a service animal are "Is the dog a service animal?" and "What task has the animal been trained to perform?" "If the person is able to adequately articulate answers to those questions that indicate a trained behavior the animal performs that could reasonably relate to a possible disability, we are to treat that as a service animal," he says.

Because the second query requires more than an affirmative response, Rolfe points out that "questions about the validity of a task are referred to a supervisor and discussed in consultation with the city's ADA coordinator and possibly also with the city attorney's office. There is no specific service-animal registry, locally or nationally, so the process is largely verbal. However, service animals of all breeds qualify for a free license with the City and County of Denver."

On top of that, service animals "are still required to obey every law within any jurisdiction which they visit or reside in," he goes on. "So since we require dogs in Denver to be licensed, vaccinated and spayed or neutered, a service animal would not be exempt from those. ... The only other exception to this law could be, for example, if the dog is trained to retrieve items for an individual who has mobility issues and therefore must be unleashed in order to accomplish its task. When not being utilized in this manner, that dog would still be required to be in control by a leash."

Back in 2016, some high-profile legislators became concerned enough by the possibility of people falsely claiming that their dog was a service animal that they passed House Bill 16-1426, "Concerning Intentional Misrepresentation of Entitlement to an Assistance Animal." But the measure, which was subsequently signed into law by then-governor John Hickenlooper, focuses on those wanting to bring dogs and other animals "into a public business that generally would not allow animals on the premises," according to a City of Denver document. Violations can result in fines ranging from $50 to $500.

The threat of legal action would presumably remain if an individual used the ADA rules to get around a breed ban for pit bulls. But once a pit bull owner gets a license in Aurora, it's another story. "We put a flag in our records that shows they have a service animal," says spokesman Bryant. "That lets people rest assured that they're allowed to have that animal and they won't be found in violation" of the breed-ban ordinance.

Rolfe says he does his best to make sure that Denver residents don't try to use the rules in ways that were never intended. He offers the following anecdote: "Believe it or not, there was once someone in southern Colorado who was beating his dog and tried to claim it was a service animal that he beat so that he did not become violent with people — completely unacceptable, obviously."
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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