Locals React to HBO Show on Vicious Haddonfield Dogs
"I used to tell my children to climb up in the magnolia tree in front of our house if their dogs got loose."
It was a well-known story to many locals that was shared last week with the nation.
HBO's One Nation Under Dog: Stories of Fear, Loss & Betrayal featured the Taffet family of Haddonfield. The first 22 minutes of the hour-long cable TV documentary chronicled nearly 10 years of struggles neighbors in this tony community had with a pack of Rhodesian ridgeback dogs owned by a renowned surgeon, Dr. Robert Taffet.
Despite his medical brilliance, Taffet failed to understand his dogs had become a menace to his neighborhood here and at a farm he owned in Salem County.
Taffet spoke exclusively to Haddonfield Patch last April, hours before he euthanized Duke, one of his four ridgebacks. The ridgeback breed was originally bred for lion hunting in Africa. Some of the Taffet's neighbors in the 100 block of Upland Way said they were scared of the dogs.
Duke had survived an incident in 2009 in which he tore the ear off of Claire McVeigh, a 3-year old girl, at a Salem County farm the Taffets owned. The Taffets finally decided to destroy him last year after he bit a teenage girl visiting their Haddonfield home.
“It has to be done,” a grim-faced Taffet said then. “Nobody’s happy about it.”
A call for comment last week to Michele Taffet, the doctor's wife who also spoke exclusively to Haddonfield Patch last year, was not returned.
HBO filmed the Taffets crying on over the corpse of Duke after he was euthanized.
Despite the tears, three other Haddonfield residents who appeared in the film say their views of the Taffets and the ordeal their dogs caused was not changed.
"I feel I was too close to the story," said Shelly Castorino, whose daughter Jackie, 22, was bitten by one of the Taffet's dogs eight years ago. "I just felt it focused on the dogs and not the victims. I actually asked people I knew who knew nothing about the situation to watch it to let me know what they thought."
Castorino said her daughter has has several cosmetic surgeries to hide the puncture wounds on her left shoulder from Rocky, Duke's father in a pack of dogs that once reached six that the Taffets owned.
Rocky was cited in five biting incidents in Haddonfield that led to him being declared a "vicious" dog by the borough. That designation required the Taffets to fence in their sprawling property, add signs warning neighbors of a dangerous dog on the property and take out $1 million in additional homeowners insurance.
Rocky died earlier this year, but a neighbor said she has seen several new dogs, Turkish kangels, romping around the Taffet property along with the ridgebacks.
"Dog owners love their dogs," said Mario Iavicoli, the Haddonfield solicitor who prosecuted the Taffets for the "vicious" dog ruling. "They're like parents who are in denial that their kids are doing stupid stuff."
Iavicoli said he was surprised about the notoriety of this case. He joked that he was the least telegenic person interviewed. But he admits the Taffet situation was no laughing matter.
"Haddonfield did what it had to do to enforce the law," he said.
The Taffets only had one of their dogs registered in Haddonfield. The others were licensed in Salem County. New Jersey law only requires them to be registered somewhere in the state.
Susanne Principato, a neighbor of the Taffets, also knows the dog situation there was no joke. She was also featured in the HBO film talking about countless incidents she and her family had with the ridgeback packs, whom she said regularly roamed the neighborhood until Taffet fenced his property.
Principato was no stranger to television. Known then as Susanne LaFrankie, she was a tough-as-nails reporter at WPVI TV-6, Philadelphia's ABC affiliate, for 11 years. She wasn't shy about detailing the problems she has had with her neighbor.
"I used to tell my children to climb up in the magnolia tree in front of our house if their dogs got loose," she said. "We were hoping the documentary would focus on the fact that some dog owners are irresponsible. It's our contention that all of these attacks could have been avoided if our neighbors had been more responsible dog owners."
Principato said she and her husband are leading an effort to change the current state statue on irresponsible dog owners to hold them criminally liable for the actions of their dogs.
"I think that was lost in the documentary," she said. "It showed their story and our story, but we had hoped it would be more focused on irresponsible dog owners."
The HBO special, which is still airing on the cable network, examined America's love of dogs in three segments.
"Americans have always had a love affair with canines, but lost amidst the pampering are unpleasant truths about dog ownership, care and commerce," according to the HBO website. "One Nation Under Dog: Stories of Fear, Loss & Betrayal offers an eye-opening, three-part portrait of America’s complex relationship with dogs."
Principato knows all about the complex relationship. She cuddled, pampered and played with her dog, Charlie, a King Charles spaniel poodle, on a recent weekday at her home. She played in her front yard with Charlie, just a stone's throw away from the Taffet compound across the street, with "Beware of Dog" signs posted on the fence.
"It's always heartbreaking when a dog, a pet, has to be euthanized," Principato said softly. "It made me sad for the dogs. There were four of them that were not neutered, which fosters a pack mentality and makes them much more aggressive. They're beautiful animals. I often felt times felt so sad for those dogs."