Taffets, reporter bound by African dogs, injured children

"One Nation Under Dog," an HBO documentary due out in June, prominently features Dr. Robert Taffet's Rhodesian ridgebacks.
"One Nation Under Dog," an HBO documentary due out in June, prominently features Dr. Robert Taffet's Rhodesian ridgebacks.
Posted: April 27, 2012

It was a combination of things that made me stop pretending, to accept that she was a loveable yet complicated bitch who wasn’t interested in playing nice, who couldn’t care less that her big butt took up my side of the bed.

“She’s never going to be a poodle,” my dog trainer said one day in frustration, shortly before I stopped paying him.

My dog, Bindi, was a South African boerboel, a big mastiff-like beast you’ve probably never heard of who rattled windows with all 140 pounds of her bellowing bark. Her voice always echoed in my head whenever I reported on Robert Taffet, the Haddonfield surgeon whose pack of Rhodesian ridgebacks have been in the news for years for biting people.

I wrote about 10 stories on Taffet, always surprised that I was writing another one, amazed that the cases took me from courtrooms in Camden to Trenton and to the farmlands of Salem County, where his attorneys fought to save his dogs from euthanasia and shift some blame on the victims.

Wednesday might have been the weirdest Taffet moment of them all, as I traveled to New York City to see the doctor and all the familiar players in the world premiere of “One Nation Under Dog,” an HBO documentary about dogs in America, coming out in June. The film was broken into three chapters — Fear, Loss and Betrayal — and Taffet’s story opened after the word “Fear” faded from the screen at SVA Theater. It was the first time I’d seen his ridgebacks.

Articles about Taffet often said that the dogs were bred to hunt or protect people from lions in Africa, but, hell, I always thought, my African dog actually looked like a lion. People didn’t understand why Taffet would own a dog like that, they’d tell me, while I worried whether I’d locked the side gate at my house.

Taffet takes up quite a bit of screen time in the documentary, and some audience members were surprised that he agreed to do it. He laments the loss of his reputation, estimates that he spent enough money defending the dogs to pay for two years at a good college, and says that the whole affair has made him “question” himself.

Taffet and his family felt persecuted, outcasts in Haddonfield.

“None of my dogs attacked anybody,” he said in the film.

But I agreed with Dennis McVeig — whose little daughter’s ear was torn off by Taffet’s dog Duke — when he pinpointed the source of all the pain.

“This is and always has been about Dr. Taffet,” McVeigh, who is also in the film, said last year. “The problem isn’t the dogs.”

It never took a court hearing for me to admit that I had a potentially dangerous dog. I couldn’t have afforded to hire a defense attorney or a doggy shrink to prove otherwise anyway. I understood what Bindi was capable of, that it would be far too late for excuses if she ever busted through my door and pulverized some kid’s arm. Though I may have failed in training her, I kept people from knowing the worst in her. It was my responsibility and she never bit anybody.

Then I got a call last month, just before Easter and had to leave work early. “It’s bad,” my wife said.

An hour later, I was holding my 5-year-old son down as his screams filled the emergency room. My neighbor’s dog had bit him when he stuck his hand over her fence.

An intern probed a wound — a deep gash that encircled his middle finger — with a needle before stitching it up. The next morning, my neighbor brought over a toy for my son. It was clear that she’d been crying all night, literally sick with guilt, and she and her husband were putting their dog down.

Don’t, my wife and I replied, because we believe they won’t let it happen again. If, God forbid, it did, I know they’d handle it the right way and I’d never see their dog again.

Toward the end of the “Fear” segment in “One Nation Under Dog,” Taffet and his wife are at an animal hospital, with Duke. The Taffets fought to save Duke’s life, but when he later bit someone else, they put him down.

“Good boy,” Taffet tells his dog, a tear rolling down his nose.

I can sympathize with Taffet as a man saying goodbye to a dog he loved. But I loved my old, cranky dog, too, and made sure that she didn’t have to die because of a police report, my own lack of judgment or a little girl who lost an ear.

On a Wednesday morning last January, I took a personal day to take Bindi to the vet. She’d lost 25 pounds since Christmas, was having trouble eating and was spending more time in bed, her favorite place. Doctors found a mass the day before and I was taking her back for an ultrasound I couldn’t afford. We laid together all morning and about 11 a.m., after I’d dozed off, I felt Bindi kick my leg, stiffen up, and let out a long, deep breath. Then she died as I held her, on her own terms. n

Contact Jason Nark at 215-854-5916, narkj@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JasonNark.

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