Pit bull service dog owners make progress with City Council
Peter Marcus, DDN Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010
|SERVICE DOG? — To Glenn Belcher, an Operation Desert Storm veteran, his pit bull, Sky, absolutely is a service dog.|
Operation Desert Storm veteran Glenn Belcher suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder. His 3-year-old pit bull, Sky, is his only saving grace.
But Denver animal control officials won’t let Belcher keep his pit bull because of a 20-year-old city ban on the breed. Never mind that Sky is considered a service dog, protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Animal Control Director Doug Kelley simply couldn’t approve Sky for use in the city because Sky is of a banned breed, considered by most on City Council to be vicious and a danger to the city.
Help, however, may be coming to disabled Denverites like Belcher. A City Council committee on Tuesday moved forward with a change to the city’s 20-year-old ban on the breed that would allow people with disabilities to own pit bulls that are considered service dogs.
Belcher relies on Sky. He shares his horror stories with his buddy so that he doesn’t have to burden his friends and family with the pain. When Belcher suffers from night terrors, Sky sits on his chest to keep him from panicking out of control. Sometimes Sky wakes Belcher up out of the terrors and eases his trauma with a lick to the face.
“There’s no such thing as a bad dog, but there’s such a thing as bad owners,” explains Belcher. “That’s what happened. This poor breed has just been side-railed into oblivion, and I think it’s time for the public to understand that it’s not the dogs.”
When Belcher was blocked by animal control from having his service pit bill in Denver, he took the case to the Wheat Ridge-based Animal Law Center. Attorneys planned on filing with a federal court for an injunction preventing the city from blocking pit bulls as service dogs. But in March, both Denver and Aurora – which also bans pit bulls — signed a joint stipulation stating that they wouldn’t go after any pit bulls that are considered service dogs.
Attorney Jennifer Edwards isn’t resting quite yet. She has filed a federal lawsuit challenging both Denver’s and Aurora’s pit bull bans, arguing that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits municipalities from using breed-specific legislation to ban any service dog. Three plaintiffs are named, including Belcher.
The federal law is clear in that it preempts any municipal breed-specific ban in cases where the animal has been designated as a service dog, said Edwards. City attorneys agree.
The Animal Law Center’s lawsuit also challenges Denver’s prohibition against transporting pit bulls through Denver. City Council members heard from city attorneys on Tuesday that they need to update the city’s pit bull ban to lift transport restrictions on pit bull owners who travel through Denver. A state court actually ruled in 2004 that the city had no right to prohibit transport of pit bulls through the city. But in over five years, city officials never updated its law to comply with the court’s order.
“It’s pretty offensive that this has been on the books this way for this long in complete violation of the ADA, in complete violation of our Constitutionally protected rights, and it took a lawsuit from the Animal Law Center to open their eyes,” said Edwards.
The proposed ordinance change passed out of the Health, Safety, Education and Services Committee on Tuesday and is likely to be heard by the full City Council on Sept. 13.
City Council members appeared reluctant to back the ordinance change, but felt their hands were tied by federal law. Councilwoman Carol Boigon, who has a disability herself and says she is a proponent of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said she is concerned that the ordinance change will lead to an abuse of the system and a sort of back door to legalizing pit bulls.
“I’m thinking of all of the drug houses that I have worked on over the last seven years, and a couple of them have people who have become paraplegics in bad drug deals, but were still dealing out of their house, and they had tough dogs,” said Boigon. “Was that a service dog? Well, I don’t know, but those certainly were legitimately handicapped people. I think we’re going to be in a world of hurt down the road on this.”
Animal Control Director Kelley acknowledged that the city has no separate licensing process for service dogs. In other words, anyone can walk in to claim their dog is a service dog, and animal control officers are not allowed to ask specific questions about the person’s disability because of protections afforded under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
City attorneys acknowledged that the only way for animal control officers to prove that a person is legitimately using a service dog would be to follow-up with an investigation. But officials say there simply are no resources to allow for those investigations.
Councilman Doug Linkhart suggested that Kelley and his department develop a separate licensing process for service animals, as well as a test or survey to accompany the application.
But in the meantime, concern — or joy depending on which side of the fence you stand on — is being raised that the ordinance change is leading to a legalization of pit bulls in the City of Denver.
Councilwoman Carla Madison — an opponent of the city’s pit bull ban who is attempting to garner support for a bill that would allow pit bulls if they are specially licensed by the city — said it is ridiculous for the Council to be enacting piecemeal changes to the city’s pit bull ban.
“I just think that this opens kind of a Pandora’s box,” she told her colleagues. “You have to observe the dog. Who’s going to do that observation? We don’t have that many animal control officers, and they have enough to do as it is.”
“Maybe we need to re-look at our pit bull ban and see if there’s some way we can help close that gap … maybe put in place a dangerous dog act, just look at it differently,” Madison continued.
The lawsuit by the Animal Law Center isn’t the only lawsuit Denver is facing. There are at least eight individuals who have or are currently pursuing or considering lawsuits against the city.
The most prominent case is one filed in 2007 by pit bull advocate Sonya Dias. The city is spending thousands of dollars defending itself against the lawsuit.
Dias was forced to sell her home in Denver to save her pit bull Gryffindor. She hopes the continued pressure will lead to a repeal of the ban.
“Any sort of societal change takes time, and thank God we’re moving toward more wiser laws and maybe a little compassion thrown in there as well,” said Dias. “I think it’s going to change, no matter what. What we’re doing, and what the ADA-oriented lawsuit has done is just pushing that to make it happen a little faster.”