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Pit-bull bans lead Denver
Aurora into endless litigation - and now, a face-off with the disabled

May 5, 2010
By Jared Jacang Maher, Face The State
Both Denver and Aurora have laws banning pit bulls. The breed, they say, is so dangerous to the public that any dog displaying more than 50 percent of pit bull-like features must be run from city limits or face extermination. But what about a pit bull acting as a service animal for a disabled person? Should officials accept dogs that their own laws deem inherently unacceptable?

Good question - and one that happens to be at the core of a new federal class-action lawsuit filed against Denver and Aurora by three disabled people who say the laws banning pit bulls violate their civil rights under the American Disabilities Act. Allen Grider of Aurora and Glenn Belcher of Denver are U.S. veterans who suffer from psychological disabilities they say resulted from wartime service. Valarie Piltz is a Washington-based dog trainer with physical mobility problems and a condition that causes her to experience debilitating panic attacks. All three say the breed bans fail to make proper exemptions for their service animals of choice: pit bulls.

Actually, in the case of Grider, it's Aurora animal control that deemed his dog "Precious" a pit bull. The Vietnam vet says the dog is a boxer/lab mix recommended by a VA social worker to help him manage his acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and related mental disabilities. Among other acts, Precious is trained to enter rooms and buildings ahead of Grider and perform nighttime patrols in their Aurora apartment to ease his owner's persistent bouts of hyper vigilance.

Pit Bull Training 

Grider claims that in November an officer with the Aurora Animal Care Division used a false claim of an animal abuse report to gain access to Precious and then seize the animal under the pit bull law despite Grider's insistence that the dog is a service animal. During the 10 days that Precious was impounded, Grider "suffered from severe anxiety stemming from his PTSD," says the complaint. Officials released Precious only after Grider arranged for the dog to live at a friend's house outside of Aurora.

Pit Bull TrainingAn agreement with Aurora allows Grider to have his dog while the lawsuit proceeds, "but during the four or five months he was without his service dog, he was living on the edge the whole time," says the plaintiff's attorney, Jennifer Reba Edwards, of the Wheat Ridge-based Animal Law Center. Aurora says it will allow Precious to stay in the city as a service animal, but only if he abides by rules for dogs that are deemed vicious, stipulations that Edwards calls absurd.

 

"They said, 'You're going to have to get liability insurance. You're going to have to keep her in a six-sided enclosure. You're going to have to muzzle her whenever you take her anywhere.' A lot of these things defeat the purpose of having a service animal, so they've really missed the whole point," says Edwards.

Nine cities in Colorado have bans on pit bulls. Aurora's law, enacted in 2005, also prohibits seven other so-called "fighting breeds" of dog, including the American Bulldog, Presa Canario and Tosa Inu. While the Aurora law is the broadest in terms of banned breeds, Denver's anti-pit bull ordinance was one of the first in the nation when it was passed in 1989 and has been by far the most controversial. Denver has killed more than 3,500 dogs, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in enforcement costs and faced a bevy of lawsuits from dog owners and animal welfare groups to maintain the ban over the last two decades.

 

Pit Bull Training 

In January, the city paid $5,000 to settle with a woman who filed suit after her dog was killed for being a pit bull. The city also agreed to formalize its proceedings for impounding, assessing and ultimately destroying dogs it considers to be pit bulls, a process dog owners have long criticized as unclear and arbitrary. Dias v. Denver, another long-running lawsuit by pit bull owners who says the ban unconstitutionally drove them out of the city, continues to wind its way through the federal appeals court. According to the Denver Daily News, the case has cost Denver at least $15,000 in legal fees. And the service dog case could end up costing Denver even more; Grider et al are asking for $75,000 and a permanent exemption to the pit bull ban for service dogs.

"I just want to know my dog and I are protected if we ever get stopped," says Glenn Belcher, who suffers from depression, anxiety and physical disabilities from an accident that occurred while he was serving in the Gulf War. His dog "Sky" helps him with balance and walking up stairs, but largely the purebred pit bull functions as a "therapy dog" when the 38-year-old gets hit with debilitating panic attacks and night terrors. He was able to license Sky as a service dog in Palm Springs, California. Belcher relocated to Denver last fall and says he tried to obtain a similar license from Animal Care and Control but was told by staff that he wasn't allowed under the city's pit bull ban. "I was told to either live here by myself or get rid of my dog," says Belcher. Like Grider, he has been granted a temporary stipulation to keep his dog for the duration of the suit.

 

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The third plaintiff, Washington dog trainer Valerie Piltz, was arranging a trip to stay with her sister who lives in Denver last fall and was hoping to bring her two pit bull service dogs, "Klicker" and "Powerball," that she has trained to assist her with mobility and warn her of oncoming chemical imbalances in her body that cause debilitating anxiety attacks. But when Plitz's sister called Denver animal control, she says she was told by division director Doug Kelley that the dogs would only qualify as service animals if Plitz were "blind or deaf."

Neither the ADA nor Denver law makes any such stipulations for service animals says Edwards. "Federal law defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability," she says.

Because of the pending litigation, Kelley said he couldn't comment on any of the cases. But he notes that there is no national program or database of service dog certification and the open-ended language of the ADA makes it difficult for local agencies to determine if a service animal is legitimate under federal law. "We need to see some type of documentation that this is a bona fide service animal," he says. This would be in the form of a doctor's letter stating the patient would benefit from a service animal or papers showing that a particular dog was trained specifically to help with their owner's disability. (In a phone call to Denver animal control separate from Face the State's interview with Kelley, a staff member explained to this reporter that the division "does not accept letters from doctors saying you need a service animal. We only take documents from certain training agencies." The staff member was unable to say which agencies, just that "we know them when we see them.") And if the service dog in question is a pit bull, the issue gets an even closer look from the city attorney's office to make sure they stay on the right side of the the ADA.

But it may be Denver's policy that needs a closer look. Multiple court rulings have held that businesses or other entities cannot demand proof of an animal's service training as a stipulation to allowing individuals to keep their animal.

While Kelley says he gets occasional calls from people asking if the city will allow them to bring their service dog pit bulls into the city despite the ban, he says he has never officially refused a Denver service animal license application because the dog was a pit bull. "We've never had any requests," he says.

Contact the author at jared@facethestate.com or 720-279-9870 x106.