Sep 13, 2012 10:37 PM by Andy Koen

Family pet or public threat?

Kristine Helgeson owns, breeds and trains American Pit Bull Terriers. She's taken many of them to competitions and feels like they are great dogs that are greatly misunderstood.

"I think that people are in fear of this breed and a few other breeds of dogs," she said.

And yet it would be illegal for her to own the dogs if she lived in Denver, Aurora, Castle Rock, Fort Lupton, Commerce City or Louisville. In fact, some 650 communities across the US have breed specific bans or regulations in place. Pit bulls and Rottweilers are also specifically banned from all Army and Marine Corps housing as well as many Air Force and Navy installations.

So, why pit bulls? The Denver ban, enacted in 1989, singles out the breed for being electively bred for dog fighting and for having characteristics which make them a hazard to humans and other animals. The ban has been challenged and twice upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court, even after a state law was passed to restrict city governments from creating bans based on dog breed.

Pit bulls also seem to be responsible for a greater share of the fatal attacks on humans by dogs. The public education website reports of the 31 dog bite fatalities recorded in 2011 in US, 22 (or 71%) were attributed to pit bulls.

The issue is receiving renewed public interest this week after a local man was severely attacked by an unrestrained dog as he was walking in Memorial Park on Labor Day. John Castle, 77, told animal welfare officers that a brindle colored pit bull ran up from behind him and bit his leg, knocking him to the ground. The dog then lunged for his throat but Castle put his hand out to protect himself.

"It was terrifying because that animal's eyes said kill him, kill him," he said.

Castle's hand has permanent nerve damage and needed reconstructive surgery. He would like to see a county-wide pit bull ban enacted locally.

"If we could get protection for people in this county that don't have to worry about the fear of going for a casual walk."

Local animal shelters don't think breed bans are the right answer. The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, All Breed Training and Rescue and others make up the Southern Colorado Animal Coalition.

Lauren Fox, a member of that group said, "we take dog attacks seriously and we sympathize, for sure, with the victims of that, but we also believe that a specific breed ban is not the answer."

Fox and Hegleson both say breed bans are hard to enforce because not every dog that looks like a pit bull really is one. This poster created by the National Canine Research Council shows 16 images of mixed breed dogs that look like pit bulls but only three have the DNA of the breed.

"I feel that a lot of people see a big stocky dog and automatically assume it's a pit," Helgeson said.

She and Fox also feel that our current leash laws aren't strictly enforced and that steeper penalties should be implemented to persuade more dog owners to follow the law.

Fox also feels that any type of animal control reform should follow the model presented by the City of Calgary, Alberta in Canada.


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