Susan Shawl's Pit Bull-Attack Death Sets Back Breed-Ban Fight, Advocate Says

David Edelstein, founder of Team Pit-a-Full, a pro-pit bull advocacy organization and training service, has been working for years to overturn pit bull bans in Denver and Aurora.

Now, after Conifer resident Susan Shawl was killed in an attack by two terrier-pit mixes owned by her son, he sees the battle stretching even further into the future.

"This is the kind of incident that sets us back five or ten years," Edelstein says.

As we've reported, Denver's pit bull ban was put into place in 1989, following a pit bull attack that May on Wilbur Billingsley, a 58-year-old evangelical pastor living in the San Rafael neighborhood.

A nearby resident who came to Billingsley's aid responded by hitting the dog with a two-by-four — and when that failed to stop the assault, he killed the animal with a twenty-gauge shotgun.

The final tally of Billingsley's wounds: seventy-plus bites, two broken legs and a shattered right kneecap.

Twenty years later, activists interviewed for a 2009 Westword feature article decried the the deaths of an estimated 3,497 pit bulls as a result of the ban and maintained that blaming the breed rather than dog owners was wrongheaded and unfair.

Edelstein agrees.

"One part of Team Pit-a-Full is our advocacy group," he notes, "and the other side is dog training and rehabilitation. We work with the worst of the worst: dogs that have injured people, dogs that have attacked and killed other dogs. The clients come in all shapes and sizes, and the breeds aren't exclusive to pit bulls; there are everything from yellow labs to spaniels. That's why we shouldn't look at this as a pit bull incident. It was a dog incident. It could have been any breed."

Maybe so, but news organizations covering the case have put the dogs' pit bull lineage front and center. The sixty-year-old Shawl was reportedly attacked around 7 p.m. on Monday, August 29, and her son, Richard Shawl, was injured badly enough while trying to save her that he had to be hospitalized. Susan was declared dead at the scene, and after the dogs were finally rounded up (a process said to have taken around thirty minutes), Richard gave permission to euthanize them.

A neighbor had registered a previous complaint against the dogs with Jefferson County authorities, claiming that they were "loose and aggressive" — and even though the filing dates back to 2008, Edelstein sees it as significant.

Otherwise, he points out, "there's a lot of information missing at this point of the game," and he blames the media for re-demonizing pit bulls in the process. "For every one positive pit bull story, there are five negative ones," he says, because "'Labrador Retriever Attacks Baby' doesn't sell newspapers or get TV ratings like 'Pit Bull Attacks Baby.'"

Recently, Edelstein had been optimistic about making progress in his mission to end Denver's pit bull prohibition.

The Shawl attack took place against the backdrop of what he characterizes as "some very, very quiet discussions we've been having with a particular city council member" about the breed ban. "And one of the first bits of information they were seeking is, what does the history of dog bites look like in the City of Denver? So we pulled up records from animal control from 2000 to 2015, and there were some pit bulls on the list — but there were also German shepherds, Rottweilers, huskies."

In his view, "the fact that there were so many different breeds really told the tale. We have a serious problem with dog bites in our community, and if you focus on just one breed, you're missing the point. You have to have rules that work for any dog, whether it's a two-pound chihuahua or a 100-pound mastiff."

Shawl's death "is a real tragedy," Edelstein stresses, "and we're really, really sorry it happened. A woman lost her life, and a son doesn't have his mother or his dogs anymore. But most of these incidents are 110 percent avoidable. Hopefully, the community of dog owners will learn from this and say, 'I don't want this happening to me and my family. If my dog has problems, I need to step up and address them instead of ignoring a ticking time bomb.' And that goes for every breed of dog, not just pit bulls."

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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