After years of back-and-forth, punting, elections and town halls, Aurora lawmakers have finally tightened the leash on dangerous dogs and re-written the city’s animal-related laws.

A majority of city council members approved sweeping animal rules Nov. 2 overhauling the lives of many Aurorans and their pets. Neighbors will have to collect complaints about barking dogs; feral cats could have “caretakers” bringing food and water, not a trip to the shelter; and “potentially dangerous” dogs will be hamstrung by a slew of rules designed to protect the public, while allowing owners a chance to right a wrong. 

Ginger, a pit bull mixed breed, gives her owner a big hug after a round of fetch, Juliet Piccone, a lawyer and animal rights advocate, Feb. 3, 2014 at Bicentennial Park. The Aurora City Council approved sweeping animal rules, Nov. 2, 2020, that could overhaul the lives of Aurora residents and their pets. Marla R. Keown/Sentinel Colorado

But among the long additions and revisions to city legalese, Aurorans won’t find a repeal of the city’s breed-restricted ordinance. American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers are still banned within city limits. 

Councilmember Allison Hiltz, who has championed aspects of the jam-packed animal ordinance, said the new rules were a “long time in the making.”

Dangerous Animals

Aurora’s dog lovers and cat whisperers might recognize some of the changes from more than a year ago, when former Councilmember Charlie Richardson attempted to replace the so-called breed ban with a set of rules regulating dangerous and aggressive animals for their behavior — not their DNA. 

Himself an owner of two cane corso dogs that were a part of the original Aurora breed ban, Richardson’s push to overhaul Aurora’s animal code ended when he lost his seat to now-Ward IV Councilmember Juan Marcano.

Some of Richardson’s plans live on in the current rules — most importantly, his push to regulate the lives of aggressive, dangerous or potentially dangerous pets.

The rules are written to guide judges when deciding exactly how dangerous an animal is and hand down punishments in the name of public safety, from muzzling to impounding or killing the animal.  

On the lowest rung, an “aggressive” animal is one who approached “any person or other animal in an apparent attitude of attack” without provocation. A “potentially dangerous” animal has actually bitten a human or injured a dog or cat. 

If a municipal judge decides a resident’s dog or other animal falls into these categories, owners will have to apply for a permit and abide by a bunch of rules for two years, such as muzzling the animal when it’s off one’s property and completing a training plan. If these or other rules are broken, the city might order the owner to hand over their pet. 

The upshot, Hiltz said, is that these rules “allow responsible dog owners to keep their family pets” after a nip at a dog park or a bad interaction with a neighbor.

Hiltz carried the water on these ideas in part because she owned a dog deemed “potentially dangerous” in Centennial before moving to Aurora. After a one-off tiff, Hiltz said her otherwise adorable mutt Penny had to regularly don a muzzle. She even had to bring letters of recommendation for Penny to a local judge. 

When she moved to Aurora, she found that the city didn’t have a “potentially dangerous” category, unlike Centennial and Denver. 

That meant that, unless Penny became more dangerous, the city wouldn’t keep eyes on her — and other dogs who might deserve the restrictions more, she said. Penny died of old age after a peaceful life.

If an animal lands a second bite on a human or otherwise kills a domesticated animal, a city judge would define it as “dangerous” and impose tougher rules.

A dog or other creature deemed dangerous will have to live for three years — trouble-free — with many more rules in addition to wearing a muzzle. The owner will have to confine the animal, leash it in a specific manner, adorn their home with “Beware of Dog” signs and possibly even purchase liability insurance. They’ll also have to immediately notify the city if the animal escaped and jump through hoops to give away the pet. 

If the city finds none of these measures will make a pet less dangerous, animal services personnel could still “immediately” kill the animal. 

And the rules wouldn’t apply to all dogs, including registered guard dogs and police dogs. 

Along with these restrictions, the sweeping ordinance puts in place many more protections for dogs. Animal control officers would have more power to temporarily enter properties to provide food and water, but also protection from frigid cold and sweltering heat. Owners will have to tie up their dogs in a manner that prevents strangulation. 

And two years after an infamous case of animal sex abuse rocked Aurora, sex acts with animals will be specifically defined as “animal cruelty.” 

Protests briefly flared in Oct. 2018 after Aurora Animal Shelter officials killed an aggressive husky named Bubba, a victim of repeated sex acts. The dog’s previous owners, Frederick Manzanares and Janette Solano, pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges.

Fighting animals are also added to the list of animal cruelty crimes. 

Breeds Banned

While the new rules have the power to shape a dog’s life, city law will continue to ban Aurorans from owning three pitbull breeds.

Certain dogs have been banned in city limits since 2005, when city council members passed an ordinance barring residents from owning 10 different breeds in the city. City lawmakers later trimmed the code to only prohibit three breeds: American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers. 

Since 2006 — the first full calendar year the city’s breed-specific legislation was in place — the Aurora Municipal Court has issued nearly 1,300 summonses for the charge of having a restricted breed, according to Zelda DeBoyes, court administrator for the city. The number of summonses filed for the offense has dwindled in the past decade, with 241 cases filed the year the law took effect, and just 50 such cases written into court so far this year.

The ban has long wrung controversy, outrage and approval from far beyond Aurora. 

After an afternoon of playing in the park, Nemo sits with his puppy Hennessy, May 24, 2018 at City Park in Aurora. The Aurora City Council approved sweeping animal rules, Nov. 2, 2020, that could overhaul the lives of Aurora residents and their pets.
Photo by Veronica L. Holyfield/Sentinel Colorado

After a season of town halls, virtual comments and special meetings, Aurorans weren’t given the opportunity to decide for themselves this November whether the breed ban should live on. In August, a majority of councilmembers said lawmakers themselves would decide the future of pitbulls in Aurora. An overwhelming majority of city voters elected to uphold the ban in November 2014.

Even without a repeal, the “dangerous animal” reforms are welcome changes for the Dumb Friends League, the Denver-based animal shelter and humane society. 

Spokesperson Joan Thielen said those rules are “a step in the direction toward repealing (Aurora’s) pitbull ban.” 

“We believe animals should be evaluated on an individual basis and not on their breed alone,” Thielen said. 

Hiltz echoed that argument. She said “a pit bull isn’t necessarily dangerous and a dangerous animal isn’t necessarily a pit bull.” 

In 2018, Castle Rock lifted its pit bull ban, again reigniting the debate in Aurora and other metro region municipalities. Denver voters this week elected to strike that city’s longstanding ban on pitties.

The expanded city rules will also add another kind of dog to the list of banned pooches: wolf-dog hybrids. Aurora Animal Services became the center of a national controversy in spring 2017 when control officers seized a dog named Capone, thought to be part wolf, and kept the animal from its owners. A DNA test later revealed the animal was not in fact a wolf, and a judge allowed the pooch to be returned to its family.

Now, a dog found to have any amount of wolf — or canis lupus — DNA can’t legally live in Aurora.

Anthony Youngblood, manager of the city’s Animal Services Division, said during a city council study session that the rabies vaccine used for dogs isn’t effective when wolf DNA is present. 

Thielen said this is an important rule as well. 

“We don’t believe that wild or exotic animals should be kept as pets,” she said. 

Barking Dogs

Almost two years after moving into their Saddlerock home, Jim and Lorraine Pulfrey can’t stand the cacophony of barking dogs.

The couple said they and their neighbors are going nuts because of non-stop barking emanating from a nearby doggy daycare, Dugan’s Dog House at 6830 S. Liverpool St.

Dugan’s Dog House said staff take noise-reduction measures like quieting “overstimulated” dogs and modifying the space. In a statement, they said “barking is innate to dogs.” 

Jim said the barking is incessant.

“Those dogs bark all day long, from about 6:15 in the morning until 6 at night,” Jim said. “Literally, it affects you mentally. It never stops.”

With four complaints in tow, they’ve filed a barking dog complaint with the city to reclaim their quality of life. That meant an animal services officer paid the household a visit to hear whether the dogs were barking. Currently, an officer has to personally witness the barking to kick off court proceedings and restore some peace and quiet.

The problem with this, Lorraine said, is that the dogs actually have to be barking during those few minutes when the officer is on-site. 

But the family, and others near Dugan’s, will have their day in court. And for residents similarly losing their marbles because of their neighbor’s screaming dog, the process will have changed somewhat. 

Instead of requiring an animal services officer to drive all the way to the scene of  the bark, residents will have to simply collect two complaints from separate households. They also have to be willing to testify in court. 

Community Cats

Asking a cat not to roam is like asking a fish not to swim. 

But many Aurorans probably don’t know it is technically illegal for Mittens to wander off his owner’s property.  The city’s rules don’t specify whether a feline friend has to be leashed or jammed into a cat carrier, but owners are responsible for keeping the little beast from that neighborhood incursion. 

Owners will still have to keep an eye on their cat with the new changes. However, the new rules also carve out an exception for so-called “cat colonies” of feral and un-owned cats. 

A domestic cat roams the great outdoors. The Aurora City Council approved sweeping animal rules, Nov. 2, 2020, that could overhaul the lives of Aurora residents and their pets. Stock photo by Tobias Arhelger

Aurorans will be able to register with the city and become “community cat caretakers” to monitor groups of roaming cats meeting in backyards and alleys. According to the new rules, cats like these will be monitored, periodically fed, spayed, neutered and identified as members of the city’s new, special class of felines. 

This “community cat” concept was a sticking point for Councilmember Dave Gruber. He cast the sole “no” vote against the omnibus animal rules during the first and second rounds of voting. 

“…Everybody knows that a community cat is an alien predator in Colorado,” Gruber said Oct 19, adding that the issue is a “severe problem for Colorado and the environment.”

The idea breaks somewhat with other metroplex cities. In Lakewood, all cats have license to freely roam. But in Thornton, Boots has to be on a leash. 

Thielen said the Dumb Friends League is excited about this “community cats” provision. She expects Aurora’s population of community cats will dwindle because of the spaying and neutering requirement. And because they’ll be fed, she thinks the cats won’t have an adverse impact on birds and other wildlife. 

“There’s always the possibility that they’ll hunt for sport,” she added. 

The data doesn’t quite back that up. Cats have been shown to have a significant negative impact on wildlife, including cats that are already being fed by humans.

Their impact on birds is especially pronounced. Cats are the number one human-caused threat to birds in the U.S. and Canada, according to the American Bird Conservancy. That group estimated cats kill around 2.4 billion birds every year in the U.S. 

A study in the science journal Nature estimated that free-range cats kill upwards of six billion mammals yearly, and that unowned cats are responsible for the majority of killings. Their impact is so severe that the International Union for Conservation of Nature has named the domestic cat one of the world’s 100 most invasive species.

Animal advocates have been divided on whether programs that trap feral cats, spay and neuter them and then return them to the outdoors are effective. 

Becky Robinson, president of feline welfare organization Alley Cat Allies, believes that’s the most humane and effective way to deal with cats who are too undomesticated to be adopted.

“When you remove a group of cats it just creates a vacuum, and more cats move in that are not sterilizing or vaccinated and they just breed up to the capacity again,” she said.

— Staff writer Carina Julig contributed to this report