A Dogfight in Haddonfield

Rocky is a Rhodesian Ridgeback, bred in Africa to hunt lions. Rocky has bitten three people and could bite more. Would you be comfortable living next door to him?

They came out of the night, out of nowhere, two big black snarling shapes, as Michael Harkins walked his golden retriever, Gryphon, along the path through Crow’s Woods park in Haddonfield. Harkins recognized them; he’d had a run-in with the same dogs earlier that same year, 2002. He’d warned their owner then that the pair was dangerous, and shouldn’t be let off the leash.

Too late now. Growling and snapping, the dogs — unneutered male Rhodesian Ridgebacks, originally bred in Africa for lion hunts, weighing a hundred pounds each and as tall as a kitchen table — chased Gryphon into the darkness. Harkins ran after them, and heard his dog wailing in terror. When he caught up to the Ridgebacks, they had Gryphon pinned to the ground, one at his neck, one at his flank. Harkins screamed at the Ridgebacks and tried to pull them off. One slashed Harkins’s left forearm with his teeth; Harkins yanked free, only to have the other Ridgeback gnash his right arm. Finally, the Ridgebacks’ owner appeared. He kicked his dogs away from Gryphon, got them under control.

“Is your dog okay?” he asked Harkins. “I don’t know,” Harkins responded, “but I’m bleeding from where your dogs bit me.” That’s when the other owner — like Harkins, a doctor — offered to take care of the wounds. Harkins told him exactly what he could do with his dogs and tugged Gryphon to a lit parking lot, where he called 911. He ended up in the emergency room at Our Lady of Lourdes, where he was given intravenous antibiotics and got 20 stitches in his left forearm and 10 in his right.

The dog-owning doctors — Harkins is a cardiologist; the other man, Bob Taffet, is an orthopedic surgeon — were both cited by police for having their dogs off-leash and being in the park after dark. Two days later, Harkins filed a municipal court complaint accusing Taffet of “having possession of a vicious dog.” Two days after that, Taffet fired back with his own complaint, written in a bold, slanting hand: “I allege that Dr. Harkins [sic] dog is vicious, instigated the fight, and should be leashed at all times!!!”

So far as Harkins was concerned, though, his 30 stitches were proof Taffet was the Neighbor From Hell, a guy who got off on holding an entire town hostage to his gung-ho alpha-male ego. With dogs bred for lion-hunting living down the street, you’re forced to trust an owner’s vigilance or his electric fence or just dumb luck that a stroll around the block doesn’t put you in the hospital. Or worse. Harkins’s adventure in the woods was only the first chapter in a tale of how easily the sweet refuge of suburbia can tip over into nightmare — even in Haddonfield.

ON A GLORIOUS spring day, the broad, curving side streets of Haddonfield are banked by swaths of azaleas and studded with magnolia trees in blossom. The sun warms the fronts of imposing fieldstone homes set on lots that are just a bit too small to show them at their best. A woman walks a cute little terrier along a sidewalk. The air is filled with the buzzing and bleating of leaf-blowers and riding mowers manned by the army of landscape crews spread out across the neighborhood where Upland Way meets Colonial Ridge Drive.

The property at 133 Upland must be hell to mow.

It’s an oddly shaped parcel, more frontage than back-age, and the house that sits on it has been added onto with garages and patios and extensions until there isn’t much grass left. What lawn there is slopes downward to a solid-looking fence set a few feet back from the sidewalk. At intervals along the fence are bright red signs that say BEWARE OF DOG. It’s the only fence anywhere around.

The fence hadn’t yet been erected on the November day in 2004 when Jackie Castorino, a high-school freshman, came over to visit her friend Elizabeth, the eldest of Bob and Michele Taffet’s four children, at 133 Upland. It was the first time Jackie had been to the Taffets’ house. Jackie, who loved dogs, was kneeling on the floor in Elizabeth’s bedroom, petting Rocky, one of the Taffets’ four Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Elizabeth started out of the bedroom to use the bathroom. That’s when she heard a commotion behind her. Rocky had just sunk his teeth into Jackie’s left shoulder.

Jackie called her mom, Shelly, at home, to say she’d been bitten by the Taffets’ dog, but Dr. Taffet would take care of it. Fine, Shelly thought; let him apply a Band-Aid and a little Neosporin. A while later, she got another phone call, telling her to go to Dr. Taffet’s office in an hour. The office was only five minutes away.

When she got there, after-hours, a clerk waved her back toward the darkened treatment rooms. At the far end, Shelly glimpsed a light. It was an examining room. Inside, Jackie was lying on a table. Dr. Taffet had a stick stuck in her shoulder and was filling the stick with a substance of some kind. Michele Taffet and two of her younger children were looking on.

Jackie saw Shelly in the doorway. “Mom, don’t look. It’s gross,” she warned. “You’ll get sick.” Clearly, the bites were much worse than Shelly had thought. Dr. Taffet explained that they were two puncture wounds, deep ones; he had to hold them open with gauze so they’d heal from the inside out and not get infected. He gave Shelly a prescription for antibiotics and told her to fill it immediately.

He also said that if Shelly went to the police, the dog would be put down. There had been other incidents. … He gestured toward his kids. You don’t want to upset them, he said. Jackie started crying. “Mommy, please,” she told Shelly, feeling sorry for the dog.

Dr. Taffet told Shelly he would take care of everything for Jackie so long as she didn’t go to the police. Shelly agreed. So Taffet came by Jackie’s house several times, unpacking her wounds, rubbing liquid out of them, packing them with gauze again.

Michele Taffet came by once as well, with her young son Sam and some skin cream. She explained that Rocky had just nipped Sam’s face, but that the cream was helping his wound heal. She thought it might help Jackie, too.