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CoverStory

Guilty by DNA
Are breed bans an effective way of preventing dog attacks?
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by Christina Eisert (Editorial@boulderweekly.com)

Say the words "pit bull," and watch fear seep into people’s eyes. Free association, no doubt, will uncover other words, like "dangerous," "unpredictable" and "killers."

The fear these dogs invoke is no doubt at a peak now, just days after three loose and extremely aggressive pit bulls went on a rampage in Elbert County. The dogs killed 40-year-old Jennifer Brooke as she attempted to feed her horses in her own barn and severely injured two men, Bjorn Osmunsen and Lynn Baker.

The dogs were shot to death, but even that wasn’t easy. Baker’s son came to his father’s rescue, firing several rounds of birdshot at the dogs, enough to injure and distract them. Baker then got his gun, and shot at the dogs several times. In the end, Baker and a local sheriff managed to kill all three dogs.

The dogs had a history of attacking humans. In April, they attacked neighbor Diana Nichols. But charges of having a vicious dog were dropped against owner Jacqueline McCuen, because the rural community southeast of Denver has no ordinances to govern this type of offense.

Were these dogs typical of the breed? Or did an irresponsible owner raise them to be attack dogs, and then let them run loose and unsupervised in the neighborhood? Should communities like ths have better ways to deal with vicious dogs, and bad owners?

This begs the question, should all pit bulls–the most popular dog in America–be banned and the dogs euthanized for society’s safety? A group of citizens in Denver, where owning pit bulls is illegal, think not and are taking measures to overturn the ban–even in the wake of the Brooke’s death.

They say breed bans don’t work, and that they and their dogs–nonviolent pit bulls–are suffering for the irresponsibility of other owners.

But the city has no intention of overturning the ban at this time, says Denver City Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez.

"Actually, (Denver’s environmental health department) wanted to pump it up a bit," she adds.

The number of Denver pit bulls impounded and euthanized is on the rise. There is talk of implanting GPS tracking devices in impounded pit bulls, to make sure they leave Denver and never come back.

Good dogs

Trinity, a 2-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier, was, until recently, happily employed as a therapy dog. Four days a week she lived with her owner, psychotherapist Myriam Reynolds, at Denver Children’s Home, providing no-strings-attached love to the teenage boys who make the home their last stop between a troubled youth and an uncertain adulthood.

"We are the last place they would live before (the boys) are emancipated," says Reynolds, adding that Trinity’s love was often the first unconditional affection the boys received. All that changed when Trinity was taken from Reynolds’ Denver residence on Oct. 17 and impounded for several days. Had she attacked one of the boys? No. In fact, she had not bitten anyone, bared her teeth, growled or shown any signs of aggression whatsoever.

Her crime? Her breed.

"My dog was licking the animal control officer. I mean, she didn’t know what was happening," says Reynolds. "There was no complaint at all other than the breed."

Reynolds’ dog is now staying with friends in Breckenridge, but she hopes to get Trinity back eventually. She went to court on Nov. 24 to face the charges of having a pit bull in Denver, and says the judge was dismissing all pit bull cases, as most of the dogs had been put to sleep or removed from the county. Reynolds came close to pleading guilty and letting the case get dismissed. But instead she plead not guilty. She wants to challenge the constitutionality of the law in court–and is hoping the result will be a homecoming for Trinity.

Former Denver resident Howard Margolius knows her pain. When his pit bull, Cyan, a 4-year-old American Pit Bull Terrier, was taken by Denver animal control on Oct. 2, he was shocked.

"It’s a traumatic experience, and my dog never hurt anybody," he says. But Margolius was not about to give his dog up without a fight–even if the fight is not quite popular at the moment.

"I wasn’t political or anything," he says about himself before Cyan was seized.

Now, Margolius and Reynolds are taking their fight to the Denver City Council. They say if they have to, they will sue to try to overturn the breed ban. Margolius goes to court to face the pit bull charges at the end of December and will plead not guilty, as Reynolds did, in order to take the case to trial on constitutional grounds.

Margolius has also hit the streets and the Internet, gathering 300 signatures in Denver from people who also want the breed ban lifted. He says thousands from across the country have signed the petition online, in support of repealing this kind of legislation.

But rather than giving Cyan up or abandoning him to be euthanized at the Denver Animal Shelter, Margolius has decided to move–two blocks down the road to Englewood, and outside the Denver County boundary, after living in his home for six years.

"Isn’t that ridiculous?" he asks. "Is my dog going to be any different two blocks away?"

Crime and punishment

Pit bulls have been illegal to own in Denver since 1989, after two vicious maulings in an 18-month period that left a young boy dead and an adult–a pastor–severely injured.

Denver’s breed-specific legislation, or BSL, prohibits four breeds of dogs, commonly lumped together under the term pit bull: the Bull Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier and the American Pit Bull Terrier.

Most pit bull owners are reported by neighbors, says Denver City and County Animal Control and Shelter Director Doug Kelly. Impounded pits are taken to the shelter, where they undergo a 35-point evaluation three times over by three different canine experts, who work to determine if the dog is a pit bull variety. Two out of the three experts must say yes to determine that the dog is, in fact, a pit bull, as they are often confused with other breeds.

"It really doesn’t have anything to do with the behavior of the animal," says Kelly.

What happens next depends on the situation. A pit that has not been caught in Denver before, and who has an owner with no previous violations of the breed ban, can be released–if the owner signs an affidavit saying the dog will be taken out of Denver City and County and if a second affidavit is signed by a resident living outside the Denver limits who agrees to take the dog and keep it out of Denver.

"If we don’t have an owner on it, or if the dog has been impounded before, or if the owner has had a violation before, then the dog is euthanized," says Kelly. "The tendencies of the particular dog really don’t enter into the decision at all. It’s based on the declaration by the city council that pit bulls are dangerous, and the behavior of a specific dog really doesn’t enter into it at any point. It’s all based on their physical characteristics."

These dogs are never considered for adoption or refuge outside of Denver, even if they have never exhibited aggressive tendencies. In all, 2002 saw 608 pit bulls impounded in Denver, and 338 of them were euthanized. This number is up from 2001, when 371 pit bulls were impounded. This year, as of Oct. 13, 553 pit bulls have come through the Denver Animal Shelter. Kelly says he is unsure why the numbers are rising, but adds that a majority of the pit bulls are put to sleep. In 2002, the shelter took in 8,808 dogs total, and euthanized 2,662 of them.

Denver Animal Control reports an average of 660 dog bites a year, for all breeds and mixes. Kelly says about 1 percent of them have been caused by pit bull breeds. He says that since the breed ban went into effect more than 13 years ago, about five people have been killed by dogs of different breeds in Denver, and 30 people have been seriously injured.

When asked about patterns in these attacks, he says, "Actually the most common one has been Rottweilers. But we have a lot of Rottweilers in Denver."

He says people who may ordinarily opt for a pit may be choosing Rottweilers instead, as they are legal to own.

"It’s a similar type of an animal. You know, the same type of what they call bully-dogs," he says, adding that there has never been a proposal to ban Rottweilers in Denver.

Boulder takes a different approach than Denver does, in terms of handling aggressive dogs. Jan Smith, chief executive officer for Humane Society of Boulder Valley, says the city of Boulder has no breed-specific legislation. In Boulder County, only Louisville prohibits pit bulls. In the city of Boulder, Smith says the shelter uses a temperament evaluation to determine if incoming dogs are aggressive or not.

"Essentially, a dog has to pass this temperament test in order to be placed for adoption," says Smith. "I think it’s worked for us." She says about two-thirds of the dogs euthanized in Boulder were put down due to aggressive behavior, and one third due to severe health problems. In 2002, the Boulder shelter took in 7,400 animals, and euthanized 945 of them.

Nature vs. nurture

Glen Bui is a geneticist with the American Canine Foundation, a national group dedicated to repealing BSL. The group is helping Margolius and Reynolds with their cases and has won constitutional challenges of breed bans in several cities and states across the country including in Westbury, N.Y., and the Alabama Supreme Court.

"When you look at the breed ban, the whole original idea was to stop illegal dog fighting," he says. Bui is a member of a task force that cracks down on dogfights. "There’s still ongoing problems in Denver, and everywhere else in the country with abuse to animals, so the breed ban is not the answer, and the specifics prove it."

He says pit bulls are the victims of bad press, not bad genetics.

"The truth is the pit pull doesn’t bite with any more pressure than any other breed, and that’s been backed by scientific research," he says. "They’re no more genetically dangerous then any breed could be in the wrong hands."

Bui would like to see the focus shift from dog to owner responsibility. It’s all a matter of socialization, he says, of teaching a dog how to behave around people–especially children, other dogs and even wildlife. Pit bulls are not destined by nature to be killers, he says.

But some people acquire pit bulls because of their aggressive reputations, and raise them in such a way to reinforce the stereotype.

"When you train (a pit bull) for fighting, you treadmill them, you bait them and you enhance all the natural traits they have," says Bui. "Those dogs that are trained to fight can be dangerous."

Any dog of any breed can be dangerous, say Bui, who notes that 280 mixed breeds were responsible for fatal attacks in the past 40 years.

The list includes all the notorious dogs such as pit bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds and Chows, as well as some normally less-threatening breeds such as Pomeranians and Basenjis.

"But you only have 4,000 Basenjis, and you have three listed for fatal attack," He continues. "Divide that ratio, compare it to 4.8 million pit bulls, and 50 (fatal attacks), and you’ll see the Basenjis are actually (more statistically likely to attack)."

Bui says that while all breeds of dog can cause harm, all breeds can also give love.

"We just need to focus on the real problem, and it’s the owners. It’s man," he reminds those who may feel anger towards a breed associated with a recent local killing.

Pit bulls–a history

Pit bull breeds came to this country via Ireland and England, where they were bred for a variety of reasons. Eventually, many of the dogs were bred specifically for fighting.

"When they outlawed blood sports in England, in 1835, they went on to use the terriers to fight rats, and they used that as a sport, because it was just something that they did in barbaric days," says Bui. "So from there they found that these smaller breeds, like the pit bull terrier crosses, would fight each other because they’re a terrier and they have prey-drive, so you put them together and they tend to want to challenge each other–the males do. So they started this sport of dog fighting… in England, and then it trickled over into our country.

"But, these men fought the dogs in a gentleman’s sport," he adds.

Dogs that exhibited aggression towards humans were put down, and this Bui insists actually makes pit bulls a safer pet than many other breeds.

"The American Pit Bull Terrier as a whole breed–and I know this is hard to believe when you hear all this other information–is one of the most sound, stable breeds in existence, and the reason being because it was never bred for human aggression. As a geneticist I can tell you (that)," he says.

Not all pit bulls were bred to fight, though. Bui says this is a skill that must be taught to a dog. Pit bulls have a rich history in this country, where nearly 10 percent of all dogs are American Pit Bulls Terriers, making them the most popular breed in the nation. They are used as therapy dogs (like Trinity), for rescue and police work, and as show dogs in competitions. In fact, the army’s most decorated dog of all time, Sgt. Stubby, was a pit bull and is honored as a WWI hero to this day. In 1903, when the first car crossed the United States, a pit bull was in the passenger seat. And in 1999, when feds seized 3,075 pounds of cocaine in Texas in the largest border drug bust ever, it was a pit bull that sniffed out the contraband.

Despite this, communities all over the world have bans on the breed. Along with a continually shifting number of American cities and towns, entire countries such as England and Denmark have made the breed group illegal. Germany has put so many of the dogs to sleep that it is often referred to as a "breed holocaust" in the media. Recently, after a pit broke lose during flight and wreaked havoc in the cargo area, pit bulls were banned on American Airlines. Since then, the airline has revoked the ban.

That pit bulls are potentially dangerous needs no attesting. That they are not always aggressive killers perhaps does. In the end, the onus will be on owners to raise their dogs responsibly and improve their reputation.

"It has nothing to do with animal rights," Reynolds says. "It has to do with our rights, as owners, not to be discriminated against."

"We’ve got to educate the public," says Margolius. "The only media these dogs get is bad media."

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com



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