Mariah's Promise provides sanctuary to pit bulls outlawed in Denver due to breed ban

As soon as Sonya Dias heard that the city and county of Denver was going to reinstitute its Draconian pit bull ban in May 2005, she picked up her phone, called her real estate agent and put her Denver condominium on the market.

There was no way she was going to live there without Gryffindor – "Gryffie" for short – an adorable, young pit bull she’d rescued the year before when she found him chained to a backyard fence in a city down south. She believed he might have been used as a bait dog to train fighting dogs and he had the scars to prove it. She talked his owners into selling him to her and gave him a brand new life filled with love, hugs, warm blankets and treats. Now, he was family. And even though he’d never hurt a soul in his life, he was no longer allowed to live in Denver, which bans any dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier "or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of these breeds."

Living in fear

Gryffie had become an outlaw simply because of his breed. Sonya’s condo didn’t sell overnight, and for a while she and Gryffie lived in hiding. She panicked every time her doorbell rang. It wasn’t unusual for animal control officers to come calling and just cart people’s pets away to the local animal shelter. Many never came back home.

Mariah’s Promise, a no-kill sanctuary

Luckily for Sonya and Gryffie, Toni Phillips came to the rescue. Toni, a wisp of a woman with a very big heart, and her husband, Mike, run a no-kill sanctuary called Mariah’s Promise in the mountains of Divide, Colorado. They also own their own business making custom range hoods.

"Toni provided my beloved dog with a safe haven at her beautiful mountain property south of Denver," Sonya said. "She gave Gryffie a nice roommate/snuggle buddy, Cisco, who was also a Denver refugee. She fed him, socialized him and cared for him while I was back in Denver working with a group to end the ban. Her sheer kindness is extraordinary."

Pit bull lovers' lawsuit against city of Denver

Gryffie stayed at Mariah’s Promise for a couple months until Sonya sold her condo and moved to another Colorado city where he’s welcome. Sonya and other pit bull lovers have filed a lawsuit alleging that the city of Denver violated their constitutional rights.

Gryffie is just one of many Denver dogs who found refuge at Mariah’s Promise. Thirty-one dogs live inside Toni and Mike’s home, while others live in harmony in small groups in roomy Priefert runs on the property. Some are up for adoption while others are just staying until their people sell their homes and move out of Denver, or the ban is lifted.

Tough times for dog sanctuary

At one time, Toni and Mike had more than 100 dogs at their sanctuary, and in their first two years of operation, they never had one complaint. Major news organizations like CNN and the Los Angeles Times even traveled to Mariah’s Promise to cover Denver’s exiled dogs. Then in September 2005, an article appeared in the nearby Colorado Springs Gazette. Although the article was very positive, neighbors started to complain about the dogs barking. It was ironic, especially since Toni and Mike often heard dogs barking in the subdivision across the street while their dogs were quiet. Last year, a court ordered them to reduce their number of dogs to 50, a number that includes Denver refugees as well as their own dogs.

Toni and Mike held an adoption event and found homes for 35 of the dogs; others went to rescues. Keeping the number of dogs at 50 hasn’t been easy. Toni receives calls every day from individuals and other rescues asking her if she’s got room for just one more. She’s often their last hope.

"There’s no place for these dogs to go," Toni said. "Everyone is inundated."

An economic downturn coupled with dwindling donations following Hurricane Katrina prompted the couple to sell 40 acres of property located behind the three-and-a-half acre property on which they live and operate.

Two weeks after closing on the property, Toni and Mike discovered they had a "clouded title" that prevented them from refinancing their smaller property, where they had planned to build a new shelter to comply with a court order. Because they missed the court-imposed deadline of July 2007, a judge ordered them to vacate their home along with their dogs by the end of October. They went shopping for a new attorney, who is challenging the order. A hearing has been scheduled.

Legal bills have made a big dent in Toni and Mike’s finances. Their monthly food bill alone is $900. But Toni says there are no plans to close down. They still plan to build a new shelter, though it might be smaller than the one they originally designed.

Meanwhile, Toni continues to work hard to find new, loving homes for as many of the dogs up for adoption that she can. Not long ago, she found a new home for Tootsie, the first Denver refugee she took in. Tootsie, a blind pit bull, had been found tied to the front door of the Max Fund, a no-kill shelter in Denver, shortly before the breed ban went back into effect. The Max Fund was already overflowing and called Toni, who took Tootsie in.

"Tootsie was one of our trooper girls," Toni said. "I’m happy for her to have a home, but she’ll still be greatly missed."

On a recent day, she received a call from the Best Friends Animal Help Department, which was looking for a safe place for a Colorado Springs pit bull who was just hours away from being euthanized. Toni said to bring him on over and today he’s thriving at Mariah’s Promise. Another life saved.

Sonya and others say they don’t know what they would have done if Toni and Mike hadn’t come to their rescue.

"Toni saved I don't know how many dogs from the ridiculousness of these Denver-area breed bans at great personal financial and emotional cost to her and her family," Sonya said. "But still she did it, and Gryffie’s and my life are better for knowing her. She welcomed him, as she did so many dogs, with open arms and an open heart."

Photos by Molly Wald

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