Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pit bull ban repeal eyed

Madison works on ordinance OK’ing dogs, with stipulations

A City Council member is working on an ordinance change that would allow pit bulls in Denver.

But repealing the city’s 20-year-old ban on pit bulls would come with many stipulations, such as requiring temperament testing, muzzling the dog, and requiring special licensing and insurance fees, to name a few proposed restrictions.

Councilwoman Carla Madison — who identifies herself as a “dog lover” who is opposed to the city’s breed-specific legislation — said the idea is only in very preliminary stages, being discussed with fellow Council members, the mayor, animal control officials and city attorneys.

“For me personally, it’s not about the dogs, but about the people who own the dogs,” said Madison.

Being called the Responsible Pit Bull Ownership Act, support for the ordinance change is growing with a national pro-pit bull group based out of California called ROVERlution. Founder of the group, David Edelstein, said the city could help close its $120 million budget shortfall if it only repealed the breed ban.

“They’re spending about a quarter of a million dollars per year (on enforcing this ban). But has it alleviated dog bites in Denver? No, not even close,” said Edelstein.

City officials were unable to present the Denver Daily News with a cost analysis of how much it costs to enforce the ban, stating that there is no specific line item for the enforcement, and that the cost is part of overall animal control costs.

But Meghan Hughes, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Health, said ROVERlution never contacted her office in conducting its cost analysis. Records provided by Hughes show that 2,011 pit bulls have been euthanized by the city.

Regardless, Edelstein says the city can both save and make money by repealing the ban and then issuing fines and fees related to an ordinance change.

“Now is the perfect time to use home rule for something productive and in the name of public welfare,” he wrote to city officials. “This law and its authority has been abused long enough.”


Mayor considering it

Mayor John Hickenlooper told the Denver Daily News that his office is considering Madison’s proposal.

“This is something we will certainly look at carefully,” he said. “In the end, we want to do what’s best to maintain a safe city for everyone.”

Hughes was unable to say with certainty whether a ban on pit bulls has made the city safer.

“I don’t know that there’s one single answer to that. I think it all depends on the way you look at it,” she said. “Technically, there hasn’t been any serious bites since the ban was put into place; however, it’s hard to tell when you really don’t know how many dogs are out there.”

Denver actually has a higher than normal rate of dog hospitalizations than any other area of Colorado, despite the ban, according to the National Canine Research Council.


Does ban work?

Several other towns and cities in Colorado — including Englewood and Lakewood — have examined dog bite data and decided breed-specific legislation does not work.

Ban advocates, however, point out that there has not been a serious pit bull attack in Denver since the 1989 mauling of Rev. Wilbur Billingsley, who was left with more than 70 bites and two broken legs. The incident resulted in the City Council banning pit bulls from the city.

Local ban foes declined to comment on Madison’s proposal, saying it is too premature.

Meanwhile, three former Denver residents have filed a lawsuit to overturn the ban. In May, a federal appeals court in Denver gave the go-ahead to challenge the law in court. The three-judge panel overturned a March 2008 decision by a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit.


Looking to save money

Facing budgetary pressures, sources — who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press — said city officials have expressed an interest in finding a fast compromise to squash the lawsuit and stop mounting legal fees. A compromise could include fast-tracking the Responsible Pit Bull Ownership Act.

But supporters are sure to come across opposition, including from inside the city attorney’s office. Kori Nelson, a Denver assistant city attorney who led the city’s fight to re-enact its ban in 2004, has on numerous occasions told the Denver Daily News that pit bulls are a unique breed with inherently dangerous characteristics.

“It’s designed to prevent maulings and death attacks by pit bulls,” he said of the ban.

City attorneys are still trying to determine whether the ban must first be repealed before it can be changed, said Madison.


Madison seeks input

The councilwoman says she has been receiving letters concerning her proposal from across the nation, but very few from Denver citizens. She is asking for Denverites to send her their opinions so that she and the rest of Council can make an informed decision.

“I’m just a dog lover, and I have had pit mixes and have known pits that are great dogs, and I know people that have had to leave the city because of their dog,” said Madison. “But, ya know, people snap. Some people say that pit bulls have this internal negative thing that they can just all of a sudden be nice family dogs and then one day just snap. But I think that could happen to anyone at any time.”