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Pit bull ban stirs emotional debate in Castle Rock

Town could repeal breed ban, replace with behavior-based system

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At an open house in Castle Rock last spring, residents filed into town hall to offer comment on the town's animal code. Issues ranged from backyard chickens to pet licensing.

One issue, however, came to the forefront of discussion. The town was floating an idea to repeal its breed-specific dog ban, which prohibits pit bulls, and replace it with a system regulating a dog's behavior, not breed. Castle Rock's ban on pit bulls was put into place in 1992, a few years after Denver instated its ban following the death of a 3-year-old in a pit bull attack.

Staff is now officially recommending Castle Rock repeal the breed ban, saying it's difficult and costly to enforce. There's no date set for town council to review that recommendation, but already, debate is swirling on the issue.

Under the proposed system, dogs that bite people or domestic animals would be classified in one of two categories — “potentially dangerous” or “dangerous” — based on the severity of the victim's injuries.

The Town of Castle Rock declined to comment on the proposal, but documents and information presented at open houses show officials tout the behavior-based system allows officials to handle incidents on a case-by-case basis, using the two categories and individual circumstances around an event to make decisions.

They also argue breed-specific bans are difficult to enforce.

Determining if a dog falls under a banned breed requires authorities to visually inspect the dog and measure 27 different attributes, such as height, weight, eye shape, bite, neck length and gait.

“A dog may look like a dog subject to a breed ban, but not have the DNA of a banned breed,” reads town documents. “Or, a dog may not look like one subject to the breed ban, but might have the DNA of a banned breed. This is particularly true where a dog is not purebred.”

The documents say it's unknown how many pit bulls may live in town.

Drive began in 2017

In January 2017, Castle Rock resident Jen Dudley spearheaded a campaign dubbed “End Castle Rock BSL” in support of repealing the ban.

“I'm totally against breed bans. They're a violation of personal property rights and responsible dog owners,” she said. “The government has no right to come into your home and tell you what kind of domesticated dog you can have.”

Dudley is advocating for diverting taxpayer money currently spent on enforcing breed-specific bans to promoting leash laws and funding programs that teach responsible dog ownership.

She's also in favor of the behavior-based system Castle Rock is proposing.

“I believe that every dog should be judged by its individual behavior,” she said. “Taking a dog that hasn't done anything doesn't increase public safety.”

Still, the proposal has met fierce opposition from those who support breed bans. Nearly a year ago, Red Hawk Townhomes resident Michael Forti confronted the town about a neighbor's pit bull, angered over the dog's presence and the town's slow-going in removing it.

Castle Rock Police Chief Jack Cauley said then that authorities normally allow dog owners time to relocate a pit bull. Most violators say they were unaware of the town's ban. When the Red Hawk Townhomes dog owner failed to remove his animal, officers cited him. It was then officers learned the dog was an emotional-support animal.

The case was moved to the municipal court and town legal staff began researching precedent for such a scenario, but the situation became one more reason the town said it was reviewing its animal code and the breed-specific ban.

Forti says as a victim of a pit bull attack, the issue is personal. He can still recall how, more than 10 years ago, he was at work as a paint contractor in an Aurora townhome community when a pit bull escaped its yard and attacked him. Bystanders were able to pull him away from the dog, but memory of the incident remains vivid.

“Then all of a sudden, I'm living at Red Hawk Townhomes,” he said, “and the same exact thing was happening, except no one got mauled.”

Forti explained in light of his own experience, he considers the breed “silent but deadly.” There was no warning before he was attacked, he said, and he fears allowing pit bulls into town would enable similar incidents to happen.

Forti asked: “Are we waiting for somebody to get mauled and somebody to get hurt?”

Dudley has a response to the victims of pit bull attacks.

“Anyone who is attacked by a dog is a victim,” she said.

But she also believes attacks are more often a result of irresponsible ownership, something Forti also acknowledged, and not a dog's breed.

From Forti's perspective, however, irresponsible dog ownership paired with a breed capable of inflicting severe injury is a recipe for disaster, and good reason for a breed ban.

“There's always going to be opposition, and that's fine,” Dudley said. “I say to them, come to the open houses. Talk to animal control.”

Comments pour in

For those on either side of the debate, pit bull bans are often an emotional issue. Pro-ban and anti-ban groups are each armed with statistics and research they say proves their side of the issue.

The potential repeal of a breed ban in Castle Rock has also garnered widespread attention, making it difficult for town staff to sift through public comment it has received on the topic.

In a Dec. 5 memo, staff said more than 400 comments concerning the animal code have poured in online, through the mail and at open houses. The majority focused on the breed-specific ban, but it was at times difficult to determine on which side commentators stood, and in some cases, whether they were town residents.

Results were further complicated, staff wrote, because the 128 comments in favor of lifting the ban could have been submitted by the same individual through more than one platform, as could the 30 comments in favor of keeping the ban in place.

The issues surrounding public comment are one reason Castle Rock resident George Hager said he intends to petition for a special election, so the “divisive” matter can be decided by voters.

Hager was unhappy with mailers sent by the town of Castle Rock, which he said didn't contain the words “dog” or “pit bull,” and didn't adequately inform residents that lifting the breed-specific ban would mean allowing pit bulls into town.

As a father of three, Hager said he's pro-ban but would respect the results of an election. He sees that as a better alternative than letting council consider the proposed two-tier system. In order to place issues on the ballot, citizens can petition or ask town council to refer the measure to the voters.

“I think it's useless. If a dog has to attack or maul somebody in order to be considered dangerous, the damage is already done,” he said. “I'm not trying to sell, 'Keep the ban.' I'm trying to sell, 'Let the people decide. Let the people vote.' ”

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