Denver's Dogged Outlaws

Times Staff Writer

Roxxanne Vigil rushed home from a barbecue one recent Wednesday night to find her back door open and the fugitives she was hiding gone.

Neighbors had called her cellphone, warning that the police were at her house in northwest Denver. The officers had left by the time Vigil returned, but they'd left a notice on the front door. The clock was ticking: She had seven days before the fugitives would be executed.

Vigil, 19, consulted her sister and mother. There was only one hope for the family dogs Baby and Chopper: the pit bull underground railroad, an elaborate rescue network that spirits condemned canines off death row.

Denver's on-again, off-again ban on pit bulls has driven some dog lovers to distraction since it was reinstated in May. The ban requires pit bulls found within city limits to be held for a week. They are killed if they aren't claimed. A dog is released only if the owner finds someone who lives outside the Mile-High City to take custody. If the pit bull is found again in town, there is no second chance. The dog will be euthanized.

Some dog lovers have sold their houses and fled the city rather than part with their pets. One man backed out of buying a house and lives out of a camper shell on his pickup with his two pit bulls. Others have stayed in town but lead clandestine existences, dodging authorities and concealing dogs, dashing across city limits when it's time for a walk.

In the nearly three months since the ban was reinstated, Denver has euthanized more than 290 pit bulls. Baby and Chopper's father, Buck, was caught by Denver's division of animal control and put to sleep last month.

The director of the city's animal shelter, Doug Kelly, said the city had little choice but to impose the ban.

"When pit bulls bite, they can be very, very serious bites which can end up more often than other breeds in serious bodily injury and death, and that's something that the city just can't ignore," said Kelly, who has received e-mails and letters from around the world tarring him as a "pit Nazi."

"The rhetoric can get pretty strong," Kelly added.

Pit bull owners say that's because the city is messing with family.

"It's like, 'You can keep one of your children, but this one is too stocky, too broad a jaw,' " said Sonya Dias, a loan officer who helped found the rescue network. As she gained notoriety for fighting the ban, Dias sent her pit bull, Gryffindor, out of town.

Even though the group adopted a staid name -- Breed Awareness Not Discrimination -- it has been tagged an underground railroad. In addition to rescues, the group, which numbers about 300, stages protests and circulates petitions against the ban, and has joined a lawsuit to overturn it.

Denver is not alone in banning the breed -- cities including Cincinnati, Miami and Lanett, Ala., have outlawed pit bulls. California cities cannot ban specific breeds of dogs, but a bill in the state Legislature would permit them to require certain breeds be spayed and neutered, making them less aggressive. That proposal came after a pit bull that had not been neutered killed a 12-year-old boy in San Francisco in June.

First bred for fighting in the 17th century, pit bulls come in many colors and stand as tall as 2 feet and weigh up to 55 pounds. In rare cases, they weigh twice that. With thick necks and huge jaws, pit bulls are known for their strong bites and a refusal to let go. People hearing about a dog attack on a human often assume it's by a pit bull. It's a reputation that Denver's pit bull lovers are furiously fighting to change.

They argue that pit bulls, like any dogs, attack only if trained to do so or if neglected by their owners. They note that pit bulls were once known as exemplary companions for children and the infirm. They say laws that punish owners for the dogs' bad behavior are more effective than outlawing an entire breed.

Indeed, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after conducting a 20-year study of dog attacks, concluded that laws targeting dog behavior, rather than outlawing breeds, were the best way to ensure public safety. The CDC study did find pit bulls and Rottweilers more likely to be involved in lethal attacks, but noted that that was probably because they were popular breeds.

Nonetheless, Denver officials cite that finding in their arguments supporting the ban. They also note another study from the 1980s that found pit bull bites were more likely to result in fatalities, as well as their own personal experiences -- one councilman was bitten by a pit bull as a child; another's husband was recently chased by one.

"Pit bulls are prisoners of their own genetic code," said Councilman Charlie Brown, who supports the ban. "Their instincts are never far from the surface."

The Vigils never saw any killer instinct in Baby or Chopper.

They settled on pit bulls as family dogs after watching a friend's dog play placidly with a baby and the Vigils' young cousins, nieces and nephews. Roxxanne and her sister Robin picked puppies from that dog's litters last summer and winter.

The only problem, they said, was the dogs' need for affection. "They lick you to death," said Augusta Vigil, the sisters' mother. "They never bit anyone."

The new members of the Vigil family arrived just as a truce was declared in Denver's pit bull wars.

The city had banned the dogs in 1989, after a 3-year-old boy was killed and an influential minister was mauled in separate attacks. The public discussion in City Council chambers was so emotional that, at the time, council members said they feared that some speakers were carrying concealed weapons.

Animal groups long fought the ban, and in spring 2004 the state Legislature passed a law forbidding Colorado cities from outlawing specific breeds of dogs, which nullified the Denver ban. The city sued to overturn it, but for a year, pit bulls were legal.

Then came the District Court's decision in mid-April: Denver had the right to regulate dogs. The ban would return within 30 days.

The Vigils rearranged their lives to hide Baby and Chopper. Robin had been caring for the dogs at her father's house, but it had a chain-link fence. She gave them to Roxxanne, whose rented house had a wooden fence that they hoped would hide the dogs and keep neighbors from reporting them to animal control.

Just in case, Augusta Vigil did a little research. That's how she discovered the pit bull underground. When police arrived that Wednesday night -- tipped off, the Vigils suspected, by a neighbor who heard Baby and Chopper barking -- Augusta called the underground's Rita Anderson.

An animal rights activist who lives in the famously liberal university town of Boulder, 35 miles northwest of Denver, Anderson is known as the woman who gets dogs off death row. By her count, she has saved more than 30 by signing agreements to take them out of Denver.

City officials welcome her help. "We want them to get pit bulls out of Denver," said Kelly, the animal shelter director.

Anderson's day job, which included a recent campaign against monkey experiments at the University of Colorado, normally absorbs all her time. But when Dias became overwhelmed with calls from pit bull owners, she turned to her activist aunt, Anderson, who agreed to assist the rescue network. Now Anderson is swamped with calls for help.

"This is people calling saying I need to get my dog out of here or he'll die," she said. "It's not like you can say 'I'm busy, I'll call you back in four days.' "

Thirty-six hours after Baby and Chopper were confiscated, Anderson, Dias and the Vigils strode into the squat concrete bunker in southwest Denver that housed the city's animal shelter.

With dogs yelping in the background, Anderson and Augusta Vigil read and signed a sheaf of papers. Dias, a public notary, was there to certify the signatures.

An animal control officer then led the Vigils into the heart of the shelter -- a vast yellow room packed with cages, each adorned with a mug shot of its inhabitant. In the back, behind a locked gate, were the pit bull cages, including those holding Baby and Chopper.

The officer let Chopper out. A hefty brindle, Chopper pranced up and down as Robin slipped a leash and muzzle on him.

"Chopper!" called Augusta, smiling and slapping her knee.

Next out was Baby, a lean, brown pit with shimmering blue eyes. Robin -- who wore a black T-shirt with Baby's image stenciled on it -- also muzzled him. The Vigils walked them out to the parking lot, tore the muzzles off and embraced them.

The dogs were implanted with microchips that would allow animal control to identify them as pit bulls that had already been detained. Baby and Chopper couldn't stay in town anymore. Their next home would be Mariah's Promise, a 43-acre dog refuge beneath Pike's Peak founded by Toni and Mike Phillips, who operate a sheet-metal business in Colorado Springs.

The couple's kitchen features a poster, printed by a Los Angeles-based dog group, portraying three hooded Ku Klux Klan members marked "Denver" looming over terrified-looking pit bulls.

Mariah's Promise sheltered a dozen or so dogs as well as the Phillips' four cats -- until Denver's pit bull ban was reinstated. Now the property is dotted with spacious, open-air kennels holding more than 80 dogs, half of them pit bulls. The refuge's one requirement is that the dogs be neutered.

The couple is trying to build an enclosed shelter to house the dogs when the mountain winter arrives in October.

"There's an emotional investment in these dogs by their people that is causing them to take the radical measure of taking them here," said Toni Phillips, wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt and jeans as she strolled between the kennels of barking dogs one recent afternoon.

Plenty of dog-lovers are defying the ban.

A 29-year-old graduate student keeps her pit bull, Jack, inside her house with the blinds drawn. She removed the mailbox from her front porch so the postal carrier would not be tempted to peek in.

The student, who did not want her name used for fear of losing Jack, said that when she drives across city limits to take him for a walk, she inevitably passes police cars and prays that her outlaw dog stays down in the back seat. "I don't know how people on the lam do it," she said. "It's stressful."

Rich, who did not want his full name used to avoid being caught, deals with even more stress because of his extreme measures. When the ban was first in place, the 38-year-old sound technician hid his two pit bulls for four years while he lived in a rented house in Denver, sneaking outside the city for their regular walks. After the ban was lifted, he came out in the open. He walked the dogs in the city's parks and was about to buy a house when the city announced it would resume rounding up pit bulls.

Rich backed out of the house deal, losing thousands of dollars. "Anything's better than being stuck in Denver and not being able to have my kids in my house," he said.

"I love the city of Denver. I wanted to settle here and they chased me out."

Rich had nowhere to go; his work was still in the city. So he jammed a mattress and a small propane-powered stove and refrigerator in the camper shell on his pickup and became a vagabond.

On workdays, he parks in the shade and leaves his pit bulls in the truck with a cooler of ice and the sunroof open. He crosses city limits at night to shower at friends' homes, walk his dogs and sleep with them in the pickup. Meanwhile, he is looking for a house in the suburbs.

In the Vigil household, Robin also was trying to find a new place in the suburbs, so she could live close to Denver with Baby and Chopper.

In the meantime, she planned to take the pit bulls to Mariah's Promise.

Then, at the last moment, her grandparents drove to Denver from their mountain home and offered to take the dogs. Baby and Chopper now live in Fairplay, about 85 miles southwest of Denver.

They will stay there for some time. In the past month, two cities near Denver have also proposed pit bull bans.

The uncertainty has stalled Robin Vigil's dreams of reuniting with Baby and Chopper. She has halted her apartment search because she does not know what town may outlaw pit bulls next.

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