Tuesday, August 24, 2010

After decades with ban, Denver revisits pit bulls

By Jared Jacang Maher, Face the State

Pit bulls, outlawed from Denver more than 20 years ago, will be allowed back into city limits as service animals under a proposed law being considered today by the city council’s safety committee.
The ordinance proposed by City Attorney David Broadwell would prevent owners of the breed from being prosecuted under Denver's anti-pit bull ordinance if the dog qualifies as a "service animal" under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Owners who claim their pit bulls are trained to perform tasks that help them cope with a psychical, mental or psychiatric disability will be able to claim an "affirmative defense" against any charges that their dog's breed violates Denver law.
The proposed change comes as Denver and Aurora contend with a class-action lawsuit challenging both cities' breed bans as contrary to the civil right for disabled people to possess and utilize a service dog of their choosing. Two of the defendants are U.S. veterans who say their pit bull service animals assist them in dealing with war-related mental trauma and disabilities. One of the veterans was separated from his dog for five months after it was confiscated by Aurora Animal Control for being a pit bull.
Jennifer Reba Edwards, the attorney representing the dog owners, says that both Denver and Aurora have requested time to try and enact changes to their respective ordinances to allow disabled people to possess service animals that are pit bulls. "The writing was on the wall," says Edwards. "They know they should have had this in place a long time ago."
Another motivating factor for city officials are regulations enacted recently by the Department of Justice that confront breed restrictions by state and local governments as "limiting the rights of persons with disabilities under the ADA." A memo from the department says that decisions as to whether a dog should be permitted under the umbrella of "service animal" should be "based on that particular animal's actual behavior or history - not based on fears or generalizations about how an animal or breed might behave."
It appears that Denver hopes that passing this bill to allow pit bulls as service dogs will get the city on the right side of the ADA while still maintaining the integrity of the breed ban. But, when put into practice, this sliver of an exception could likely turn into a barn door as officials attempt to determine which pit bulls are legitimate service animals and which are not.
The ADA section on what constitutes a service animal is notoriously vague. There is no national database or permitting model for service animals. Public officials cannot demand documentation that the animal has been certified, trained or licensed, nor can they ask an individual about their disability, which could range from blindness to severe anxiety.
Denver could be welcoming back pit bulls in a big way as people find loopholes around the ban, especially since Animal Care and Control head Doug Kelly has indicated that his agency is apt not to become an arbiter of true disability. If the DOJ suggests breed bans are overly broad for service animals, Denver’s famously animal-loving citizens may ask, why not for all dogs?

Update August 27, 2010 2:43pm - The following article is by Raetta Holdman, CBS 4 Denver:

Denver May Have To Revise Pit Bull Ban

Sky and Glenn Belcher
The city of Denver is considering revising its ban on pit bull dogs because it is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Three people have sued the city saying the 20-year-old ban prevents them from using pit bulls as service dogs.

One of the plaintiffs is Glenn Belcher and Sky is his service dog. Sky is a pit bull. Belcher suffers from post traumatic stress disorder as well as some mobility issues after serving in the military in the first Desert Storm conflict.

"I know for a fact that if it wasn't for this dog that I wouldn't be here today," Belcher said. "He stays by me, he will wake me if I have bad terrors."

Belcher discovered the ban on pit bulls when he moved to Denver with Sky.

"When I first got here I tried to register him to no avail. I was told that if I wanted to keep my dog I had to move out of the city," Belcher said.

The suit has the city reviewing the ban and at least one council member believes, the ban will have to be changed.

"Ours hands are pretty much tied," explained councilman Paul Lopez, "We can't not implement a federal law so we have to come in accordance with federal law."

Lopez said he does support the pit bull ban.

"By no means is it an attack on the breed or the animal," he said. "There are a lot of folks who train these animals to become vicious and I think more needs to be done to go after some of those folks."

It's the presence of those trained animals that worries Lopez.

Belcher is aware of the reputation pit bulls have but also says it is an issue of how they are trained. He said Sky behaves more like the breed standard used to be, a very mellow dog who loves close contact and to be petted.

"The reason I got this breed is that I had two other pit bulls, they were both rescues and they were really good dogs," Belcher said.

"They've just got a really bad rap and it's time for people who have pit bull as a pet or who have service dog like mine to stand up for this breed."

The full city council will have its first reading of the proposed revision in September.

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