Can Denver’s repeal of its pit bull ban help dismantle stereotypes?

Citizens of Denver, Colorado, voted to overturn an ordinance banning ownership of pit bulls last week, striking a decisive blow for proponents of breed-specific legislation (BSL).

The city enacted the ban in 1989 after a rash of pit bull attacks in Colorado, and across the US, made headlines. The resulting public outcry helped demonize the breed, and many communities passed similar legislation.

It’s not the first time efforts have been made to overturn the Denver ban. The Denver City Council voted to repeal the breed ban in February, but it was vetoed by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who cited safety concerns.

Not to be dissuaded, pit bull advocates sent the issue to the ballot for voters to decide. The ballot measure was approved by at least 65% of voters.

But it’s not a free ride for Denver pit bull owners—they still need a permit to own a pit bull.

Technically, pit bull breeds are still illegal to own within the City and County of Denver, unless you have a Breed-Restricted Permit for the dog issued by Denver Animal Protection. The statute defines pit bull–type dogs as those who display a majority of physical traits of any one or more of the following breeds: American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, or Staffordshire bull terrier.

NEWStat contacted Apryl Steele, DVM, CAWA, president and CEO of the Dumb Friends League (DFL) a Denver-based animal rescue organization and shelter that cares for and adopts out sick, injured, neglected, and unwanted animals, to talk about the implications of lifting the ban.

Steele said the DFL has been a vocal supporter of BSL reform in Colorado: “By allowing pit bulls in Denver, we’re allowing people to adopt behaviorally screened pit bulls and increasing the opportunity for [them] to experience better socialization.”

Steele said the three-decade-old ban didn’t necessarily deter people from owning pit bulls, but it did make them sneakier about it, to everyone’s detriment: “People in Denver [still] had pit bulls, but they . . . often hid them so [the dogs] didn’t get confiscated.”

That compounded the problem the ban was meant to solve by decreasing the dogs’ socialization—and their access to behavior resources, thus increasing the possibility of negative interactions with people, which, in turn, reinforced the negative stereotype of the “dangerous” pit bull: “Dangerous dogs come in every breed,” Steele pointed out. “And our laws should manage the risk of any dangerous dog,”

Steele said reforming Denver’s ban is likely to help other communities seeking to overturn BSL: “Because Denver was one of the largest cities with a [pit bull] ban, supporters of BSL often use Denver as an example.”

Steele says she expects to see a jump in pit bull adoptions at the DFL because of the lifting of the ban.

“We have patrons at the League every week who want to adopt a pit bull but can’t because of where they live.” She said pit bulls have historically been more difficult than other breeds to adopt out because of BSL. Nevertheless, she’s proud of the League’s track record: “We have placed every healthy and safe pit bull we’ve received over the past three years into communities that don’t have BSL, but because the adopter pool is limited, these dogs have had a longer length of stay than most other breeds.”

Thankfully, that’s likely to change, at least in Denver: more than 900 cities in the US currently have some form of BSL on the books.

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