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Bitch Noone Wanted
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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.

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.

An 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.
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.
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 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 [email protected] or 720-279-9870 x106

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