AURORA, Colorado––Advocates for pet, livestock, and human safety in Aurora, Colorado claimed a resounding win with the November 4, 2014 defeat of a well-funded attempt to repeal the nine-year-old Aurora pit bull bylaw.
Asked Aurora ballot question 2D, “KEEPING OF PIT BULLS––Shall the people of Aurora adopt an ordinance allowing pit bulls back into their city?”
Aurora sprawls over parts of Adams, Arapahoe, and Douglas County. The ballot measure was rejected by 68.1% of the voters in Arapahoe County, 63.5% in Adams County, and 72.5% in Douglas County. Overall, 67.9% of Aurora voters, 51,878, approved the existing pit bull regulations. Just 24,519 voters endorsed repeal.
About 55% of registered voters cast ballots, an unusually heavy turnout in a non-presidential election year.
What bylaw required
The Aurora bylaw required keepers of pit bulls already in the city and licensed as of 2005 to carry at least $100,000 in liability insurance, less than the U.S. national average for homeowners, renters, and business owners; keep pit bulls confined within securely fenced and locked yards when allowed outdoors on the owner’s property; and keep pit bulls muzzled and on a four-foot leash when off the owner’s property.
The Aurora bylaw forbids introducing new pit bulls into the city.
The Aurora pit bull bylaw was passed five months after a pit bull mauled Xavier Benavidez, 11, in an unprovoked attack. Investigating the background to the attack and possible legislative approaches to preventing more such incidents, the Aurora city council learned that about 700 people had possessed pit bulls in the preceding several years whose existence had become known to law enforcement. Among those pit bulls, just 140––at most 20%––had ever been licensed.
A week after Aurora adopted the pit bull bylaw, but before it took effect, Aurora resident Gregg Jones, 10, was mauled by three of his family’s own pit bulls. Two of the three dogs were unlicensed.
Led by the local organization ColoRADogs, the campaign to repeal the Aurora pit bull bylaw was opposed by the leadership of the Aurora animal control division, but was funded and promoted by several national animal advocacy organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States.
A display ad published on the weekend ahead of the voting claimed the support of HSUS, the Centers for Disease Control, American Veterinary Medical Association, American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, Association of Professional Dog Trainers, American Kennel Club, American SPCA, and American Bar Association.
But representatives of those organizations were little in evidence during the waning days of the campaign, as indications mounted that the repeal effort would not even win majority support from keepers of pet dogs and donors to humane causes.
Defending the Aurora regulations was Daxton’s Friends for Canine Education & Awareness, founded by Wisconsin disk jockey Jeff Borchardt.
Borchardt’s son Daxton “was killed on March 6, 2013 at 14 months of age by his babysitter’s two pit bulls,” Borchardt recounted to media. “The dogs were raised by the babysitter since they were puppies. They were raised in a loving environment, were spayed and neutered, and were well trained. There was no indication of neglect or abuse. A thorough police investigation concluded the babysitter did nothing wrong,” but “For no reason, the dogs started to attack her and ripped Daxton from her arms. She struggled with the dogs for 15 minutes to get Daxton back and call for help. Unfortunately, Daxton did not survive the attack.”
Borchardt lives in Wisconsin, but has family in Centennial, Colorado, near Aurora.
Daxton’s Friends published informational ads in both the Aurora Sentinel and Denver Post.
“After the ad ran,” reported Rachel Spain of the Aurora Sentinel, “an employee with the Denver Post’s advertising department asked Borchardt if he could revise the ad to make it ‘not so in your face’ going forward. In email correspondence obtained by the Sentinel, the employee wrote Borchardt that the Post had received ‘a ton of hate mail and complaints’ in response to it. Borchardt said Post advertising officials told him they would refuse the ad unless he modified it because of the complaints from pit-bull proponents.”
Denver Post advertising and sales director Carla Royter eventually agreed to publish the last two ads for which Daxton’s Friends had already paid, “adding language that identified them with political advertising.”
The ads included data on pit bull attacks researched and published by DogsBite.org and ANIMALS 24-7.
Aurora Sentinel editor Dave Perry had outspokenly supported the Aurora pit bull regulations from the beginning of the repeal campaign.
More public votes?
Predicted Kristen Wyatt of Associated Press after the election results were in, “Aurora’s proposal to repeal its 9-year ban on pit bulls, the first in the nation on a general-election ballot, could presage other public votes on so-called ‘breed-specific legislation,’ laws that either ban some types of dogs or require they be sterilized. Aurora officials sent the question to voters after years of fielding complaints that its pit bull ban is unfair and punishes dogs instead of negligent owners.
ColoRADogs pledged on Facebook to continue efforts to repeal the Aurora pit bull regulations, and to fight similar regulations nationwide, likening the effort to seeking equal rights for gay, lesbian, and transgender people. But the political momentum on pit bulls may have shifted, after pit bull advocates won laws prohibiting breed-specific legislation in 19 states, even as pit bull attacks on other animals more than doubled and disfiguring or fatal pit bull attacks on humans tripled in less than ten years.
Attacks by pit bulls from animal shelters increased even more rapidly. There were 32 disfiguring or fatal maulings by shelter dogs from 1859 through 2009, 19 of them involving pit bulls. From 2010 to present, there have been 122 disfiguring maulings by shelter dogs, 80 of them involving pit bulls. In 2014 alone, 33 shelter dogs have killed or disfigured someone; 26 were pit bulls.
Attacks by pit bulls rehomed by the Longmont Humane Society, located near Aurora, made headlines in 2012, 2013, and 2014. In 2013 the Longmont Humane Society became the first humane organization known to have been fined for allowing a dangerous dog to run amok.
The Aurora decision was not the only resounding defeat for pit bull advocates on November 4, 2014. Running as an independent against incumbent Bill Sample in Arkansas state senate district 14, George Pritchett of Hot Springs drew just 28% of the vote. Pritchett had prominently opposed a Garland County dangerous dog ordinance adopted in July 2013.
Aurora echoed Miami
The Aurora results echoed the outcome of an also well-funded and aggressively promoted ballot measure meant to repeal the then-23-year-old Miami-Dade County pit bull ban in August 2012. The Miami repeal measure attracted just 37% voter support. About 20% of the eligible electorate cast ballots.
Before Aurora, the Miami outcome was the most lopsided failure of a ballot measure endorsed by major national humane organizations in 70 years.
The Best Friends Animal Society in March 2012 began airing radio ads in opposition to the Miami-Dade pit bull ban. Silent on the Aurora ballot measure, HSUS president Wayne Pacelle and Mike Markarian, president of the HSUS subsidiary Humane Society Legislative Fund, both blogged in favor of repealing the Miami ban. The Miami Herald also endorsed repealing it.
A week before the Miami-Dade voting the American Bar Association passed a resolution “Urging Adoption of Breed-Neutral Dog Laws and the Repeal of Breed Discriminatory (Pit Bull) Ordinances.” The resolution was avidly publicized by pit bull enthusiasts, both in Miami-Dade in 2012 and in Aurora in 2014.
Unlike in Aurora, there was no organized opposition to the proposed Miami-Dade pit bull ban repeal. No celebrities spoke in favor of keeping the Miami-Dade ban–only a few local pit bull victims, including Melissa Moreira, 31, who at age 8 was facially scarred for life in an unprovoked pit bull attack in the driveway of her family’s home.
The Miami pit bull ban was adopted soon after the Moreira attack, just ahead of the 1990 passage of a Florida state law prohibiting new breed-specific legislation, which exempted Miami-Dade.
Attempts to ban pit bulls from Miami-Dade had begun in 1945, after Doretta Zinke, 39, was killed during an evening walk by nine pit bulls kept by Joe Munn, 43, of Hialeah. Twenty-six pit bulls, some implicated in previous attacks on humans, were impounded from Munn and killed.
Even in 1945 there was organized pit bull advocacy, led in part by the American Humane Association and actress Delores Del Rio, and the advocates turned out in force. The Humane Society of Greater Miami, which then held the Miami-Dade animal control contract, claimed to have received hundreds of calls of protest from pit bull advocates throughout the U.S.–an almost unheard of response at a time when long-distance calls were costly and had to be manually connected by an operator.
Munn served one year of a five-year prison sentence for manslaughter. Paroled, Munn acquired more pit bulls. Two of them in 1955 mauled Harry Smalley, 73, after attacking Smalley’s dog. But another 35 years of deliberation elapsed, while many other pit bulls killed and injured animals and humans, before the Moreira attack finally tipped the Miami-Dade political balance against the pit bull advocates, who ranged from the Humane Society of Greater Miami to advocates of legalizing dogfights and segregationist splinter groups associated with the Ku Klux Klan.
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