Victory for US anti-BSL campaigners
Buddy with Benjamin Wilson's son Nick
BUDDY, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier under sentence of death after being seized by Dog Wardens in Denver, Colorado, USA as an illegal Pit Bull Terrier was dramatically freed last week, after the State Governor signed a new dog control bill effectively outlawing breed specific legislation in the state of Colorado.
The law under which the Denver Wardens seized Buddy related to the City of Denver only and dates back to the late 1980s, prompting accusations from anti-BSL campaigners that the wardens’ act was one of spite against the new state legislation being pushed by the American Canine Foundation in its ongoing nationwide battle against BSL.
As reported previously, Denver dog wardens seized Buddy from the home of Benjamin Wilson on Thursday, April 8th. This was Buddy’s second seizure as a ‘Pit Bull’, despite the fact that he is a pedigree Staffordshire Bull Terrier. As with the UK’s own 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, the Denver law merely requires that a dog is of the pit bull ‘type’ to be deemed illegal. On the previous occasion, Buddy was returned to Mr Wilson, but this time the City authorities indicated that they intended for Buddy to be destroyed within the next 24 hours.
Mr Wilson immediately emailed the American Canine Foundation – an organisation that fights BSL for help. A sympathetic State Senate representative (akin to an MP), the aptly named Debbie Stafford, took up Buddy’s case. ACF called their attorneys in Denver and placed a three way between them and Mr Wilson. The attorneys stated that if Buddy were destroyed, then they would sue the city of Denver because of pending State litigation that would be changing the city’s BSL laws.
The litigation in question is the ACF's own constitutional challenge which was filed on March 1, 2004 against all forms of BSL in the state of Colorado, placing the emphasis on punishing the deed, not the breed, being designated as an official Bill, HB1279. Stafford had been working hard to get votes for HB1279, and has been using ACF statistics and ACF through both local consultants in Colorado and from Seattle.
Debbie Stafford offered to adopt Buddy, whilst the ACF called the Denver Animal Control Shelter and the media.
ACF President Glen Bui told OUR DOGS: "We were told by them that they would most likely be putting him down soon, so Debbie rushed down to the Denver Animal Control Shelter bringing the press with her on Friday April 9th, 2004. The media attention caused the City to stay Buddy’s execution until Monday April 12th, 2004. At that time upon advise of ACF Mr Wilson filed a request for a hearing for Buddy, they set the date for May 2, 2004, although Buddy's execution date had been postponed only until April 30 2004.
The media picked up on Buddy’s story and the alleged false information surrounding the original breed ban. Senators in Denver Districts who were opposing HB1279 are now supporting it and Denver was clearly losing its power to stop HB1279. The bill itself was christened ‘Buddy’s Law’ by the media and gained public support over the course of last week.
On the morning of Wednesday, 21st April, the Bill completed Senate House passage largely unopposed and Stafford rushed the measure straight to Governor Bill Owens, who signed it at 11:46 a.m., thus making the law come into effect immediately. By late afternoon, Buddy was being freed from the Denver animal shelter, along with seven other dogs held as illegal pit bulls.
The new law is tough on dog attacks and makes owners liable for injuries the first time a dog bites. Previously, victims were prevented from recovering damages until a dog attacked twice.
Now, victims of dog bites are entitled to seek civil damages "regardless of the viciousness or dangerous propensities of the dog or the dog owner's knowledge" of those tendencies, the law says. And a court can order a dog to be destroyed if the owner knew it was dangerous.
Crucially, however, the Bill forbids cities and counties from outlawing specific breeds of dogs.
While Denver City Council members met Wednesday afternoon with a city attorney before deciding to free Buddy, opponents of dog breed bans exulted.
It’s the Buddy law," quipped ACT Vice President Glen Bui. He called the legislative triumph in Colorado "the biggest battle for canines in the last 10 years."
After some debate, Denver decided to release any dog with a known owner that was "held purely on the basis of its status as a pit bull," according to a statement from city Environmental Health Manager Nancy Severson.
In a complete about-turn from the city’s previous hard-nosed stance, Severson said the animal shelter also would try to relocate 14 stray pit bulls with no identified owners and would temporarily stop impounding dogs solely on the basis of breed.
"I'm elated," said Ben Wilson, Buddy's owner, as he drove home with his dog sitting beside him.
Wilson said he supports the new law that penalises irresponsible dog owners, and he recognises that some people train pit bulls to be vicious.
But Buddy is basically a lap dog, he said, a dog who can be trusted with his newborn baby and two year-old son.
"This is really a good day for us and our family," he said, "and a good day for the state of Colorado. I just can’t thank the AVCF. Debbie Stafford and all the anti-BSL campaigners around the world enough. We have all been so very touched by the sheer scale of support for Buddy. Thanks to you all."
Buddy was the star of the show as far as the media were concerned and Channel 9 news filmed Wilson collecting Buddy from the animal shelter, both owner and pet clearly overjoyed and being reunited. Unfortunately, the news report referred to Buddy as a ‘Pit Bull’ throughout, although Buddy was quite obviously a Staffie when shown in comparison to some of the other dogs being held.
It later emerged that the City of Denver is going to fight and will not be repealing the pit bull ban from the statute books, but instead only temporarily stopping enforcement. Because the City has home rule and they have an existing Supreme Court ruling made in 1989 that says their law is constitutional they could ultimately prevail.
Glen Bui of the ACF commented: "We knew this already and will be deciding on filing in federal court against Denver or to leave the challenge in the Municipal Court. ACF has been in touch with the Denver City Council to offer them an alternative Bill along the ‘punish the deed’ lines, but we feel they will argue their law is constitutional, so we will most likely sue Denver in Federal Court and prove the Pit Bull is not a dangerous animal. Denver believes their breed ban has stopped fatal attacks, they fail to recognise all the severe dog maulings they have had from other breeds and the fact that there are more Pit Bulls in Denver now than when they passed the breed ban in 1989.
"We have access to 900 names of people charged in the last few years under the breed ban, 75% are from minorities (racial profiling) and Denver is facing serious equal protection issues among other things.
"We have two law firms willing to work together on constitutional issues and the State law. We have reviewed all the evidence used in the 1990 challenge and as our lawyers put it ‘it was a farce’.
About 410 ‘pit bulls’ were impounded and put down in 2003, according to city figures, while 240 were returned to their owners.
The city estimates there are 4,500 pit bulls being kept illegally in the city. Those same figures show that PBT bites accounted for two percent of the 655 dog-biting incidents last year.
Denver banned the breed in 1989 after a 54-year-old local minister was attacked and mauled by a pit bull. A five year-old had been killed by a PBT the year before.
"The fact we haven't had fatal attacks in years indicates it (the ban) may be working," Assistant City Attorney Kory Nelson said, in what appeared to be a desperate attempt to justify the Denver law which, ACF claim, was passed on the basis of spurious and incorrect information about pit bulls.
"We want to preserve our right to run Denver," said Rosemary Rodriguez, one of 10 council members sponsoring the resolution. "The legislation signed into (State) law is forcing us into this position."
An Open Letter to the ACF from Ben Wilson, dated 23rd April 2004 (reprinted with permission):
‘Dear Glen and the American Canine Foundation,
‘I want to personally thank you for your unrelenting commitment to ending breed bans across the country. I will support your organisation in any way I possibly can - sweat equity, personal financial support, fundraising - to shine the bright light of TRUTH on this issue.
‘You lifted me up when I lost hope for Buddy in the face of this draconian local legislation. Today, Buddy is alive thanks to your tenacity and hard work with the fine members of the legislature and Governor of the State of Colorado. Let's build on this success.’