Ink dried in Denver before the tears in Chicago, Los Angeles, & Tampa
DENVER, CHICAGO, LOS ANGELES, TAMPA––Pit bulls made news in four major U.S. cities on the night of February 10, 2020.
In Plainfield, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, 25-year-old Devin J. White died from severe bites to his arms inflicted two nights earlier by his own pit bull in what police said was an “unprovoked” attack that also injured a 52-year-old man, a 19-year-old man, and a 25-year-old woman.
“It’s all in how you raise them”
In Oro Grande, California, on the renowned Route 66 approaching Los Angeles, 5-year-old Sterling Vermeer was killed by the 12-year-old family pit bull, named Thor, raised in the household from puppyhood.
Vermeer, whose parents were at work, was under supervision by both an adult female cousin and an uncle in a backyard shed outfitted as a playroom.
“All we did,” the cousin told CBS-Los Angeles, “was step out for like two seconds just to grab the controller for [the victim] to play a game.”
That was long enough for the pit bull to seize Vermeer by the neck.
“How he snapped, we don’t understand”
“It was totally the dog’s fault,” the cousin said. “Don’t trust pit bulls. They can change at any moment. He [Thor] was a loving dog. He was not a vicious dog. How he snapped, we don’t understand.”
In Tampa, Ryan Smith of ABC Action News reported that Debra Beaulieu, 64, remained in critical condition, two days after two pit bulls and two bullmastiffs escaped from a neighbor’s house, forced their way through a partially open sliding door, and mauled Beaulieu and her own small dog in her own supposedly safe home.
Short memory in Mile High City
In Denver, acting on a motion by council member Chris Herndon, the city council––subject to veto by mayor Michael Hancock, considered unlikely––repealed the 1989 pit bull ban which had made Denver the only U.S. city with major league baseball and football teams that has not suffered a pit bull fatality in all the time since.
Originally from Kansas City, Herndon, 43, was only nine years old when a pit bull belonging to neighbor Gil Troncasa killed 3-year-old Fernando Salazar in southwest Denver in October 1986.
Herndon was 12 and still in Kansas City when a five-year-old pit bull named Tate mauled evangelical pastor Wilbur Billingsley, 58, in an alley behind his Denver home, inflicting more that seventy bites, breaking both of his legs and his right kneecap.
Billingsley never fully recovered before his reported death on March 15, 1992.
Seven Front Range cities banned pits & have had no fatalities
The Billingsley attack finally moved the Denver city council to pass a proposed pit bull ban pending since the Salazar attack.
Since 1989, the city and county of Denver have prohibited keeping pit bull breeds, defined as American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or “any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of the above breeds, or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing characteristics, which substantially conform to the standards established by American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club.”
Enforcement of the Denver ordinance was suspended for several months by a lower court ruling against it, but it was upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court in 1992.
Six other Colorado “Front Range” cities––Aurora, Castle Rock, Commerce City, Fort Lupton, La Junta, and Louisville––passed similar pit bull bans.
Aurora voters affirmed ban; Castle Rock voters never got chance before repeal
In 2004, however, a state law prohibited communities from passing new breed-specific ordinances, pushed through the legislature by the pit bull advocacy organization Animal Farm Foundation, the Best Friends Animal Society, the American SPCA, the Denver Dumb Friends League, and the Humane Society of the U.S.
The Aurora ordinance was upheld by 68% of the voters in 2014, in a local election attracting a 55% turnout, unusually heavy for a non-presidential contest.
The Castle Rock ordinance, however, was repealed by the city council in 2018, without being placed before the voters.
No Denver deaths despite non-enforcement
When the Denver ordinance took effect, pit bulls had killed a dozen Americans in the preceding decade. More than 450 Americans have died in pit bull attacks since then––but none of them in Denver, despite the notorious reluctance of former Denver Animal Protection department chief Doug L. Kelley to enforce the ordinance to the letter, while often calling for it to be repealed.
A Dogo Argentino, for example, displays “the majority of physical traits” recognized as “distinguishing characteristics” of a pit bull. Even the official Dogo Argentino breed histories recognized by the American Kennel Club and United Kennel Club acknowledge pit bull ancestry. Yet Kelley took no action under the breed-specific ordinance when in February 2012 an alleged Dogo Argentino bit 9NEWS morning anchor Kelly Dyer when she tried to kiss the dog live on the air.
Loco the Rottweiler
Kelley retired soon afterward, replaced by current Denver Animal Protection director Alice Nightengale.
Nightengale in February 2016 was criticized for lackluster dangerous dog law enforcement after a Rottweiler named Loco, with bite history dating to 2011, attacked three people in six months, including a 20-month-old infant. Two of the victims suffered broken legs.
The 2011 attack, on an 11-year-old girl, earned Loco a “dangerous dog” designation, but Loco was not impounded until after the fourth attack.
Owner Martin Pena was then charged with both a felony and a misdemeanor. Unclear is whether Pena was convicted.
Opponents of the Denver pit bull ordinance meanwhile cited the Loco attacks as purported evidence that it was not working to protect the city.
Pit bulls to be licensed like goldendoodles
Logically, the ordinance should have been reinforced by adding to it prohibitions on keeping Rottweilers, bullmastiffs, and the handful of other breeds, most of them closely related to pit bulls, who have comparable rates of killing and disfiguring humans and other animals.
Language should also have been added to motivate Denver Animal Protection to protect the public and their pets, not just dangerous dogs.
Instead, explained Michael Roberts of Denver Westword, Denver councilor Herndon “has crafted what he describes as a ‘breed-restrictive’ license.”
Elaborated Herndon, “Someone who has one of these breeds would go to Denver Animal Protection and get a license. They’ll just have to give the name of the owner and the address where the dog will reside, two emergency contacts, a description of the pit bull and a recent photograph, proof that the dog is microchipped and current on vaccinations, and pay an annual fee. And if 36 months passes and the dog doesn’t have any violations of Denver animal ordinances, the dog can transition to the regular license that any goldendoodle can have now.”
Escaped pit bulls must be reported within eight hours
A goldendoodle is a cross of golden retriever with standard poodle. No goldendoodle has ever injured anyone severely enough to make the ANIMALS 24-7 log of fatal and disfiguring dog attacks, maintained since 1982. More than 7,000 pit bulls, however, have qualified.
“There are a few other restrictions,” under the Herndon ordinance, Roberts continued. “For instance, an owner can’t keep more than two pit bulls at any time and is required to notify authorities within eight hours if the pit bull has escaped or attacked a person or another animal,” which gives a loose pit bull plenty of time to attack other people and animals by the hearse-load, “or within 24 hours if the dog dies or the owner moves.
“Moreover,” observed Roberts, “one section notes, ‘animal protection officers shall be permitted access at reasonable times and in a reasonable manner to inspect the pit bull and/or the premise where the pit bull is located for sanitary and health conditions.”
The new Denver ordinance also stipulates that Denver Animal Protection “is the only agency that can provide a pit bull breed assessment valid in Denver.
Denver killed fewer pit bulls than any other major league city
The former Denver ordinance was often assailed by pit bull advocates for purportedly causing the city to impound and kill more pit bulls than other cities.
Indeed, data gathered by 9Wants to Know and I-News in 2013 from through the “Front Range” region of Colorado showed that Denver Animal Protection killed pit bulls at about twice the rate of the animal control agencies serving surrounding cities, but the report failed to note that six of those surrounding cities then also enforced pit bull bans.
Further, as of 2009, according to data gathered by ANIMALS 24-7, Denver killed fewer pit bulls per 1,000 residents than any other major league city, less than half as many as Miami, New York City, and San Francisco, all of which also had––and still have––some sort of breed-specific restrictions in effect.
At that, those four cities each killed pit bulls at about 10% the rate of other U.S. major league cities.
Doing a follow-up study has been inhibited by the increasing reluctance of animal shelters to disclose breed-specific euthanasia data.
Voters to decide about wolf reintroduction
On February 11, 2020, one day after the Denver pit bull ordinance was repealed, Colorado Public Radio reporter Sam Brasch interviewed retired animal rights lawyer, Denver resident, and friend of ANIMALS 24-7 Larry Weiss about his success in helping to place Colorado proposed initiative 107, to restore grey wolves to the state, on the November 2020 General Election ballot.
“If successful,” summarized Brasch, initiative 107 “could force the state to capture and release wolves in western Colorado by 2024. According to the coalition backing the plan, it would also be the first time that voters — in any state — would decide whether to reintroduce an endangered species,” Brasch continued.
“Weiss is well aware of the historic nature of the initiative. For him, it’s a chance to question the authority of government biologists to make big decisions about wildlife.”
Since 1995: wolves no deaths, pit bulls 450+
Wolf reintroduction has long been bitterly opposed by Colorado hunters and ranchers, who extirpated wolves from the state more than seventy years ago, and have sought to keep either grey wolves from wandering south from Wyoming, or Mexican grey wolves from meandering north from Arizona and/or New Mexico.
Wolf reintroduction “definitely should be decided by the people and not by the scientists,” Weiss said. “Then we take it to the scientists to implement what the people feel about this major division of opinions.”
Wolf reintroduction to Colorado is alleged by foes to present a safety threat to the public, pets, and livestock. The sum of humans reportedly killed by wolves in the entirety of recorded North American history, however, including in Mexico and Canada, is just 39, none of them in the continental U.S. since the 1995 reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone and the northern Rocky Mountains.
The sum of Americans killed by pit bulls has not been fewer than 29 in any year since 2010, and already stands at seven in the first six weeks of 2020, a pace of pit bull mauling deaths which would easily exceed the 2017 record of 40.