TOTAL BULL? Aurora looks at ending breed ban, allowing forbidden ‘pit bulls’ back in

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Michael Terry and Gnarly, one of his three American Bullies in Terry’s backyard.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

For the first time in 40 years, the city of Aurora is conducting a wholesale revision of its laws related to pets, pooches and everything in between.

The city has spent more than a year gauging public opinion regarding a bevy of proposed tweaks to the lengthy chapter of city code related to animals. The expansive package of proposals quietly passed out of a city council policy committee late last month, and it will now head to an upcoming study session for approval by the full city council.

Among the proposed changes is nixing the city’s divisive ban on pit bulls, tweaking how the city regulates people who breed dogs for pageants, and carving an exemption to allow American Bullys — not American pit bull terriers.

Here’s what the Aurora city council will be tasked with approving or rejecting in the coming months.

BULLY FOR AURORA

Aurora has been a frequent battleground for opponents and fans of American pit bull terriers since the city enacted a ban on the animals in October 2005. That’s when city council members passed an ordinance barring residents from owning 10 different breeds in the city, though municipal lawmakers trimmed the code to only prohibit three breeds — American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers — six years later. The law remains on the books today, and an overwhelming majority of city voters elected to uphold the ban in November 2014.

Councilman Charlie Richardson floated a proposal earlier this summer to kill the citywide ban on pit bulls and replace it with a set of codes that would bar people from owning aggressive, dangerous or potentially dangerous pets.

“Essentially, times have changed,” Richardson, who owns two cane corso dogs that were a part of the original Aurora breed ban, said of his proposed dangerous dog ordinance. “(Pitbulls) were associated with black gangs, and I think we’ve moved beyond that, and we’re much more sophisticated now … Animals can’t fight back, and so if we humans don’t intercede to try to protect them, they’re defenseless.”

Richardson’s proposal deems a potentially dangerous animal as any animal that “behaves in a manner that a reasonable person would believe poses a serious or unjustified imminent threat of serious physical injury or death to a person or domestic animal,” according to proposed language. An “aggressive animal” would be any creature, “which without provocation or justification, approaches any person or other animal in an apparent attitude of attack.”

There are exemptions for animals working with law enforcement, and “aggressive animals” that remain in an enclosure.

People found guilty by a judge of having either an aggressive or potentially dangerous animal would have to register the animal as such with the city, keep the animal leashed and muzzled when in public and get the animal spayed or neutered. If the animal were to receive additional training and avoid any other unlawful incidents for two years, the owner could then apply to take the animal off the city’s list of aggressive or potentially dangerous pets.

Michael Terry and Tangie, one of his three American Bullies in Terry’s backyard. Terry went to Spain to buy Tangie.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Under the same proposal, a “dangerous animal” would constitute any animal that bites any person or domesticated animal, according to the proposed ordinance. Owners who fail to comply with conditions set by a judge could also be slapped a “dangerous animal” tag. People found guilty of having such animals would have to register their pets with the city and adhere to a slew of additional regulations for at least three years, including keeping the animal locked in an enclosure whenever it is outside of a home, leashed and muzzled when outside, and posting “Beware of Dog” signs on their homes.

People found guilty of these proposed codes could also face fines of up to $2,650 and up to a year in prison.

Admittedly, there are umpteen procedural wrinkles that will need to be addressed if the proposal is passed, according to Anthony Youngblood, newly appointed manager of the city’s Animal Services Division.

“City attorneys are going to have to put together input on how officers handle this day to day,” Youngblood said. “I do not have a clean-cut scenario of how this would go.”

In a series of surveys issued earlier this year, a majority of the several hundred respondents reported supporting the proposed dangerous animal ordinance. Youngblood said narrative comments solicited during the survey process elucidated a strong consensus to strip the ban from city code.

“The comments overwhelming say, ‘Please repeal the ban’”, Youngblood said at a recent public meeting.

More than 1,100 people responded to voluntary, online surveys regarding a slew of the proposed changes earlier this spring, according to city documents. An additional 477 people responded to more surveys about Richardson’s dangerous animal ordinance after he introduced the legislation in July. More than 55 % of those surveyed supported Richardson’s proposed revision.

Dogs available for adoption at the Aurora Animal Shelter. Photo by Geoff Ziegler/The Sentinel

However, staffers said survey respondents reported being confused by the questions, and the process was plagued with incomplete responses. Not one of the 1,630 people who took the various surveys completed every question.

“There were many people who were interested in following the progress of the ordinance revision, but were not interested in completing the survey,” according to city documents. “This is evident in the number of respondents who only answered the first few questions.”

Despite the city’s 15-year-old prohibition on pit bulls within city limits, staff have acknowledged that the dogs remain in the city, both illegally and legally.

“Staff noted that restricted breed dogs do currently live in Aurora,” according to documents provided to city council members last month. “If the breed restriction is lifted, there may likely be an increase in the number of aggressive incidents due to owners feeling more comfortable having under-socialized dogs in the community.”

Since 2006 — the first full calendar year the city’s breed-specific legislation was in place, the Aurora Municipal Court has issued 1,208 summonses for the charge of having a restricted breed, according to Zelda DeBoyes, court administrator for the city. More than 250 of those cases, mostly those filed in the last three years, remain open, DeBoyes said. Of the nearly 500 restricted breed licenses granted to pit bull-owners who were grandfathered into the city law in 2005, only one remains, according to Aurora Animal Services data. The city has also granted 21 service-animal licenses for restricted breed dogs since 2016, according to Aurora Animal Services.

Proposed changes to Aurora’s animal control laws. GRAPHIC BY ROBERT SAUSAMAN/SENTINEL COLORADO

The number of reported dog bites by restricted breeds in the city has tracked up each year since 2015, according to city data, with this year’s total again expected to eclipse the high mark in 2018. Aurora tallied 40 bites by restricted breed dogs last year, with 38 on the books in 2019 as of Oct. 28. Those numbers constitute roughly 10 % of reported dog bites among all breeds across the city. Last year, the Aurora Animal Shelter killed 85 dogs that were deemed restricted breeds in the city.

The rise in reported bites by restricted breed animals could be attributed to an overall rising population adopting more dogs, according to Youngblood.

“I think more people want animals, and with more people taking their animals to dog parks — it’s a formula,” he said. “The American Veterinary Medical Association is making statements that based on the growing population, households have more animals, and interactions happen.”

The nonprofit veterinary association reports that some 38 % of American homes have at least one dog, totaling 78 million pooches across the country. Approximately 4.5 million people report being bitten by dogs each year, resulting in nearly $700 million in insurance claims, according to the group’s 2018 data.

But those statistics only paint a partial picture, according to camps on both sides of the issue that have spent years cheerleading and condemning Aurora’s breed bans.

“We’re hoping that if Aurora lifts their ban that everyone else will start to lift their bans as well,” said Tara Bostick with the Colorado Liaison for Animal Welfare Alliance, a soon-to-be incorporated non-profit organization. “Aurora and Denver are known across the U.S. for their breed-specific legislation.”

Denver passed its own ban on pit bulls 30 years ago. Castle Rock lifted that city’s roughly quarter-century ban on pit bulls last year.

Bostick, an Arvada resident who lives with a pit bull, said she believes a lack of education has fostered disinformation and fear surrounding the issue for decades.

Amber smiles for the camera at DMK Rehoming. The shelter DMK is not able to take in all of the pit bulls relinquished by owners who live in Auora. In 2013, Aurora voters upheld the city’s nearly decade-long pit bull ban by a 2-to-1 margin. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

“There’s no education at all,” she said. “If I had the money, I would pay everybody $100 to spend one hour in a shelter with a pit bull because they’re not bad dogs.”

She said her group has delayed registering as a 501(c)3 organization so it can formally lobby on behalf of Richardson’s proposal in Aurora.

Colleen Lynn, founder of the Texas-based website dogsbite.org, which advocates for pit bull-specific legislation and bans, disagreed.

“Aurora’s ban is a proven human success and a proven humane success,” Lynn, who actively lobbied to maintain Aurora’s ban on pit bulls when the issue went to voters in 2014, wrote in an email.

Citing Aurora Animal Services statistics from 2014, Lynn said bites by pit bulls in the city decreased by 73 % in the first eight years of the ban of the city.

“I don’t know why you would like to become like the rest of the U.S. where these injuries are staggering and growing,” Lynn said. She said her website plans to encourage visitors to testify at city meetings when possible and write letters to city council members encouraging them to uphold the current ban.

Youngblood said the package of proposed Aurora code revisions could appear on a city council agenda in December or January.

PET PEEVES

American Bully exemption

City council members could rebuke Richardson’s proposed law altogether, which would keep the current ban in city code. In that scenario, city lawmakers could then be asked to carve an exemption for American Bullys, a recently recognized companion breed. Aurora resident Michael Terry has lobbied city council members for months to allow bullys in the city after animal care officers said several of his dogs and a litter of puppies were technically not allowed.

“It was a constant battle of me going to city council and getting the city attorneys to set a meeting with me,” Terry, 34, said. “At the end of the day, I felt like I owed it to my dogs.”

Terry, a resident of council Ward V, said if the American Bully exemption passes, he plans to obtain a fancier’s permit to breed the dogs and hold dog shows in the city.

“It’s just a super frustrating situation that has gone on all year long,” he said. “All I want to do is do the right thing. I want to have a fancier’s permit to breed my animals and host shows here in the city where I want to live.”

When law imitates life

After a man pleaded guilty to organizing sex acts between himself, his girlfriend and his dog in his Aurora mobile home last fall, the city is calling to formally deem sex acts with animals as animal abuse. The state added its own statute on bestiality in 2007.

Wolf hybrids will officially be disallowed in Aurora after the city in 2017 got into a legal spat with a couple who affirmed their shepherd mix, Capone, was not in fact part-wolf. Animal Services staff had impounded the dog on suspicion the dog was a recent descendent of wolves. DNA tests conducted on the dog’s blood in California concluded the dog was merely a canine.

Fanciers Find Footing

When the city proposed its initial set of animal code revisions last fall, nixing the longstanding fancier’s permit was at the top of the list. However, after an outcry from Aurora’s 47 fanciers, the city agreed to keep the permits albeit with several tweaks. A city working group proposed that fanciers, or people who generally breed animals for dog shows or other spectacles, will be allowed to house up to eight dogs or cats, instead of the current totals of six dogs and 10 cats. Permit holders will also have to prove they are “actively participating in recognized, formal, organization-based shows or sporting events” with groups such as the American Kennel Club, according to city documents.

No more Fido fight clubs

Council Member Allison Hiltz has called for a new section in city code that would bar residents from “causing, sponsoring, instigating, allowing or encouraging an animal to fight another animal,” according to city documents. The proposed measure also prohibits people from breeding or training animals for such purposes. Nearly 90 percent of 1,153 people surveyed supported this proposed change.

The birds and the bees and the puppies and the kittens — for free

Currently, any owner of a cat or dog whose animal produces a litter is technically required to get a $262 permit within one week of birth. But, the rule is rarely imposed and difficult to enforce, according to city staff, so a new proposal calls to axe the requirement altogether. “This change was proposed because there is low compliance, generally the community does not know this is a requirement, and the fee is high,” staff wrote.