Wolves are also on the ballot
DENVER, Colorado––Just a week before Denver voters cast ballots on whether to repeal the city’s 31-year-old ban on pit bulls and on whether to restore wolves to Colorado, the dog attack getting most local media attention involves neither a pit bull, nor a wolf dog, nor even a human victim.
But that in itself demonstrates the success of the 1989 pit bull ban: Denver, unlike any other major league city, has not had a fatal or disfiguring pit bull attack on a human in all the years since.
Indeed, Denver has had so few serious attacks by dogs of any breed type that even a dog-on-dog attack in a boarding kennel can make headlines––and has.
Elsewhere around the U.S., pit bulls have killed at least 480 people, disfiguring more than 5,000.
Dog-on-dog attacks in boarding kennels usually get reported, if at all, only by unhappy owners via social media.
Pit bull ban may help wolf restoration
Not having had to worry much about canine mayhem in longer than the 26 years since the successful Yellowstone wolf reintroduction may contribute to overwhelming support for the wolf reintroduction measure, Proposition 114, in Denver and surrounding suburbs.
Polls indicate that Proposition 114 will pass by about a four-to-one margin, despite 39 rural Colorado counties having passed resolutions of opposition to wolf restoration.
What will become of the Denver pit bull ban is unclear, with no recent polls available, and an intensive, well-funded campaign for repeal underway, without organized opposition.
Only once, however, have voters failed to uphold a pit bull ban, in Springfield, Missouri in 2018, and that ban had not yet taken effect.
Pit bulls kill more people in a year than wolves in 300
Opponents of wolf reintroduction to Colorado argue that it would present a safety threat to the public, pets, and livestock.
The potential threat to livestock is well-documented, albeit often exaggerated. Wolves rarely prey upon pets, however, and the sum of humans reportedly killed by wolves in the entirety of recorded North American history, including in Mexico and Canada, is just 39.
Wolves have not killed anyone 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, by contrast, has not been fewer than 29 in any year since 2010. The 2020 toll, through October 28, was 35 confirmed human deaths and four more suspected in cases where the dogs involved were not positively identified.
German shepherd kills Pomeranian
The dog attack stirring current notice in Denver apparently involved a German shepherd jumping a pair of Pomeranians belonging to Denver residents Glen Cunningham and Marcus Wilkerson.
“Wilkerson heads the FOX31 and Channel 2 sales department,” said KDVR reporter Michael Konopasek. “Before leaving for a weekend getaway, the men took Penelope and Thelma,” their Pomeranians, “to City Bark Denver,” a boarding kennel in business since 2003.
“A Denver Environmental Public Health investigator told Wilkerson video evidence from the business shows a German shepherd attacking Penelope,” Konopasek wrote.
“One of the employees has ‘fessed up that they made a mistake and they put small dogs in with all the large dogs,” Wilkerson said.
Circumstances recall “playgroups”
While the City Bark Denver fatal dog-on-dog attack did not involve a pit bull, the reported circumstances recall the “playgroups” concept developed and popularized in the Denver area as an alternative to traditional behavioral assessments for pit bulls by Aimee Sadler, behavior and training program director for the Longmont Humane Society from September 2005 to 2015.
Seven other Colorado “Front Range” cities––Aurora, Castle Rock, Commerce City, Fort Lupton, La Junta, Lone Tree, and Louisville––eventually joined Denver in banning pit bulls, but Longmont did not, becoming known as a local pit bull haven.
Attacks by pit bulls rehomed by the Longmont Humane Society during Sadler’s tenure made headlines in 2012, 2013, and 2014. The 2013 attack led to the Longmont Humane Society becoming the first humane organization known to have been fined for allowing a dangerous dog to run amok.
Austin model for Denver?!
Sadler went on to found Dogs Playing for Life, teaching the use of “playgroups” as an alternative to traditional behavioral assessments for pit bulls.
At the Austin Animal Center, among the first shelters known to use the “playgroups” technique, repeated maulings of other dogs by impounded pit bulls followed. A 35% rise in dog attacks in the community since 2011 appeared to accelerate.
Coincidentally, Austin Animal Center practice was offered as a model by Denver University associate professor of social work Kevin Morris in an October 2018 argument against the Denver pit bull ban.
Fun with numbers
Morris and colleagues at the Sturm College of Law, a part of Denver University, claimed then that enforcing the ban had cost Denver “a loss of $43.2 million over 28 years.”
That appears to have been approximately equal to the sum of every penny spent for everything Denver city and county animal control did during the time frame in question, including all personnel costs, all costs for facilities and vehicles, and all costs associated with handling every other animal impounded in Denver.
Insufficiently questioned about his claims in 2018, Morris on October 7, 2020 asserted that Denver “has spent more than $100 million enforcing the ban, with little measurable impact on public safety.”
That, besides being more than twice Morris’ estimate of just two years earlier, postulated that the 28-year annual cost of pit bull ban enforcement has amounted to more than $3.6 million per year.
What is the cost of a life?
In truth, the Denver animal control budget just reached $4 million for the first time in 2018, and until recent years was substantially less, again for all services provided.
Further, measuring the cost/benefit ratio of preventing any calamity always involves comparing known expense to the unknown harm prevented, whether the money is spent to prevent fatal and disfiguring dog attacks, fire, flood, or traffic accidents.
Indeed, individual pit bull mauling victims often have medical expenses exceeding the entire Denver animal control budget. Court awards to victims in excess of $4 million are not uncommon, though rarely collected in full.
Wording of the ballot measure
The ballot measure pertaining to pit bulls going before Denver voters on November 3, 2020 reads, “Shall the voters for the City and County of Denver adopt an ordinance authorizing the city to grant a provisional permit to owners or keepers of a pit bull, provided the owner microchips the animal and complies with additional requirements set by Denver Animal Protection”
If approved by a majority vote, the ballot measure would put into effect a bill introduced in January 2020 by Denver city council member Chris Herndon.
Under this bill, summarized Herndon to Michael Roberts of Denver Westword, a pit bull owner could get a three-year provisional license to keep the dog within city limits.
“If 36 months passes and the dog doesn’t have any violations of Denver animal ordinances, ” Herndon said, “the dog can transition to the regular license that any goldendoodle can have now.”
“Very real risk of severe injury”
The Denver city council on February 10, 2020 adopted the Herndon bill. Denver mayor Michael B. Hancock vetoed it four days later.
“Unfortunately,” Hancock pointed out, “less than 20% of all pets in Denver are currently licensed, which raises significant questions about the effectiveness of this proposed new system. Irresponsible pet owners continue to be a problem, and it is the irresponsible owners and their dogs I must consider in evaluating the overall impact of this ordinance.
“I do not believe this ordinance fully addresses the very real risk of severe injury that can result from attacks from these particular dog breeds, especially should they happen to a child,” Hancock continued.
Letter of the law
Hancock explained that he personally remembered when a pit bull killed 3-year-old Fernando Salazar in southwest Denver in October 1986. The pit bull belonged to neighbor Gil Troncasa.
Hancock also mentioned personally remembering when in 1989 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.
The language of the 1989 Denver pit bull ban prohibits 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.”
Pit bull advocates vs. voters
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.
In 2004, however, a Colorado 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.
Existing pit bull bans, in Denver and in the seven other “Front Range” cities which then had them, were exempted and remained in force.
The Aurora pit bull ban was upheld by 68% of the voters when put on the ballot in 2014, but the Castle Rock ordinance was repealed by the city council in 2018, without a public say in the matter.
Aurora pit bull advocates sought to have a repeal measure put on the 2020 ballot, but the city council declined, by a 7-3 margin.
Denver ban saves pit bulls’ lives
The major argument made against the Denver pit bull ban over the years, summarized on October 28, 2020 by Denver Post columnist Krista Kafer, is that “When a city has a breed-specific ban, good dogs die.”
Ironically, the major effect of the Denver pit bull ban from 1989 through 2009, when breed-specific Denver city shelter data was last published, was to save pit bulls’ lives by preventing casual acquisition, breeding, and dumping of pit bulls.
During those 20 years, Denver killed an average of just 275 pit bulls per year, 3% of all the dogs killed in the city shelter.
The U.S. as a whole killed 22.5 times more pit bulls relative to human population, an average of 967,302 per year, 21% of all dogs killed in shelters.
San Francisco, acclaimed as the purported first U.S. “no kill city,” killed 452 pit bulls per year. Los Angeles killed 13,000––and still ranked sixth among major league cities in fewest pit bulls killed relative to both human population served and total dog intake.
Denver ban never fully enforced
Despite the success of the Denver pit bull ban in reducing the Denver Animal Protection department workload, former animal control chief Doug L. Kelley was notoriously reluctant to enforce the pit bull ban 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.
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.