Residents in areas with the highest number of pit bull calls share vastly different opinions on the breed

Talk over the pit bull ban is coming to a head as City Council considers overturning Mayor Hancock’s veto today.
4 min. read
Zelle the pit bull was set to be transferred out of the Denver Animal Shelter, Jan. 17, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Jordan Barnaby has no problem saying it: He owns several pit bulls in Denver. They include Chapo, a dog he trusts around his one-year-old son.

"None of them are going to run up to you and attack you," he said in between bites of tacos at a restaurant on Morrison Road. "You would walk up to them by yourself. They would not attack you. They would run up and lick you, just like any other dog."

Barnaby, a Barnum resident, said he was chased by a pit bull once. But the only dogs that have ever bitten him are Rottweilers and Chihuahuas.

Like other Denverites who've kept pit bulls as pets, Barnaby supports getting rid of the city's decades-old pit bull ban. Controversy over the ban resurfaced after Denver City Council passed a bill effectively repealing it this month -- and continued after Mayor Michael Hancock vetoed the repeal. Council is expected to vote tonight whether to overturn Hancock's veto.

Denver Animal Protection director Alice Nightengale said during a January city council committee meeting on the bill that three zip codes make up half of all calls reporting suspected pit bulls. Those zip codes -- 80219, 80204 and 80239 -- cover areas including Barnum, Montbello, Westwood, West Colfax and Villa Park. Between 2016 and 2019, the department received 256 calls about pit bulls in the 80219 area code, 242 calls in 80239, and 197 calls in 80204.

A map of Denver's <a href="">most-registered pet breeds</a>, overlaid with outlines showing zip codes 80219 (bottom-left to top-right), 80204 and 80239.

"Those dogs are very dangerous," Montbello resident Maria Hernandez said in Spanish. "If people were more careful with their animals, it would be a different case."

Hernandez supports Hancock's veto. She said her brother-in-law was bitten by one while he rode a bicycle in Denver about two months ago.

But the problem isn't just with pit bulls. Montbello residents who spoke to Denverite described biting incidents and other violent encounters involving dogs that weren't wearing leashes.

Denver Animal Protection recorded 518 dog bites in 2019. The breed responsible for the highest number of dog bites were labrador retrievers, with 54 reports; pit bulls were the fifth most-common breed, with 38 reported dog bite cases. At least 42 cases involved dogs whose breed was unknown.

Hernandez, who has a German Shepard-Belgian Malinois mix, said she keep dogs for protection. Montbello 20/20 co-chair Pam Jiner, a vocal proponent of the ban, said dogs like pit bulls are often used this way in communities of color.

"They're guard dogs," Jiner said. "They do what they do, and that's keep people away from their house."

Jiner has been cataloging off-leash dogs in her neighborhood, keeping photos of them on her phone. She recently photographed an off-lease dog near an elementary school in Montbello.

While she opposes repealing the pit bull ban, she said that if they were legal she would want registration and microchipping offered for free. The bill vetoed by Hancock would have created a special license for pit bulls.

"You should not have that pet in the community if you cannot register it and if you cannot be responsible for its behavior," Jiner said.

Karen Norman, a Montbello resident who spoke against the bill at City Council, has been walking and jogging in the neighborhood for more than 25 years. She and her husband have been charged twice by dogs. Norman said the dogs were not pit bulls, but she opposes the bill that would have allowed them in the city.

"I don't think we have proper animal control here already," Norman said.

While visiting Barnum Dog Park last week, Villa Park resident Emila Traina told Denverite she has friends who are active in the fight against the ban, an effort she also supports. She used to live with a roommate who had a pit bull mix.

"They've been branded a scary, dangerous dog in the media," Traina said. "If you don't have actual experience with that breed or with any scenario that you're hearing about from another source, then you're going to be influenced and biased no matter what."

Barnaby, the Barnum resident, said he's had pit bulls his whole life.

"You love that dog and you be nice to that dog, that dog ain't gonna do nothing to you," Barnaby said. "You don't mess with that dog, it ain't gonna do nothing to you."

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