DENVER — 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.