DENVER — During a recent Sunday drive here, Sonya Dias had one thing on her mind: Get out of the city limits as quickly as possible without letting her cargo be seen. In the back of her Toyota RAV4, she was carrying Zena, a pit bull, whom she hoped to keep from city officials - and possible death.
Ms. Dias is part of an unusual "underground railroad" intent on transporting Denver's pit bulls to safety before city officials can impound and euthanize them. Last month, the city renewed one of the most sweeping bans in the nation against the breed and, since May 9, more than 150 pit bulls have been put down.
Denver's move lies at the center of a growing controversy over how far cities should go in protecting the public from potentially dangerous dogs.
Across the country, serious or fatal attacks by pit bulls continue to generate public concern. The issue is raising basic questions about the balance between public safety and owners' rights and whether the problem lies with the breed or their handlers.
Not surprisingly, pit bull supporters say the controversial dogs are unfairly stereotyped: They see them as loving and well-mannered. "[The ban is] the equivalent, to me, of saying, 'You have to give up your children,'" says Dias, a 30-something mortgage banker who is helping lead the opposition to the city ban.
Supporters are becoming increasingly vocal against the ban, signing petitions, staging a protest, and volunteering to drive dogs 100 miles away to an animal sanctuary in the south Colorado mountain town of Divide.
The Denver City Council, meantime, is standing by enforcement of the pit bull ban.
"The problem is when you have a specific breed used for dog fighting and to protect drug premises," says Councilwoman Carol Boigon, "and they're trained to be rough."
From 1984 to 1989, according to the city's website, Colorado saw 20 pit bull attacks. In Denver, that included the 1986 death of a 3-year-old boy, and the 1989 mauling that left 59-year-old Rev. Wilbur Billingsley with over 70 bites and two broken legs.
In 1989, the City Council passed a resolution banning the dogs from Denver.
Municipalities across the nation have wrestled with how to balance crackdown protests from dog owners and keeping public spaces free from dangerous dogs. A handful of cities have outright bans like Denver's. Georgia and New Mexico have recently introduced bills that would ban the breed statewide.
However, 12 states - including Colorado - have passed legislation to prohibit breed-specific bans, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
In 2004, Gov. Bill Owens signed a bill prohibiting local governments from regulating a specific breed - which applied to pit bulls, although technically they are not a single breed.
Denver suspended enforcement of its ban, but successfully challenged the state law and resumed enforcement of the ban last month. Dog advocates fear Denver's recent action will prompt other cities to follow suit.
Even supporters of the ban, such as Councilwoman Boigon, say that the problem does not include all pit bulls. But they note that generations of breeding the animals to be fighters have imbued the dogs with unpredictable violent tendencies.
"This is a strategy we have for managing a breed that is being encouraged to be aggressive," she says.
The Humane Society of the United States opposes breed-specific bans such as Denver's because the organization says many factors, including how the dogs are treated, determines violence.
"Breed is one part of what can go into whether a dog will bite," says spokeswoman Stephanie Shain, "but pulling out that one piece of five or six things just does not make sense."
Statements by some city officials that indicate pit bulls are favored by drug dealers and gang members have also stirred debate that the ban unfairly targets minority pet owners.
"We hear that a lot," Kelley said of the racism charge. "We get pit bulls from all over the city. Nobody is targeted. The majority of pit bulls we pick up are a result of people calling us."
The number of pit bulls living within Denver's city limits is hard to determine. In 1989, when the city passed the ban, Denver counted 224 registered animals. But the number of impounded pit bulls has been steadily rising over the past few years, from 103 in 1999 to 652 in 2003.
"If you judge the success of the program by the number of pit bulls we're impounding, then we're getting more success," says Denver Animal Control Director Doug Kelley. "If you judge by the number who keep choosing to have pit bulls and break the law, then we're not."
The misdemeanor penalty for owners harboring an illegal pit bull is a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in jail.
In response, Denver-area pit bull supporters started their underground railroad to stay one step ahead of city dogcatchers.
They have passed out flyers and made phone calls to inform dogowners of the rescue network and potential safe houses until dogs can be relocated. If an animal control officer comes to the door before that, owners are urged to ask for a search warrant.
Volunteers estimate they have driven or referred about 20 pit bulls to the Mariah's Promise Animal Sanctuary, including Zena and Dias's own pet, Gryffindor.
She hopes it's only a temporary measure and that she'll be reunited with Gryffindor soon.
Meanwhile, Dias is undertaking an extreme measure of her own: Her stylish loft in the Capital Hill neighborhood is on the market for $259,000 so she can scoot out of town.