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When Pets Attack

Sure, crime is down, but have you heard about the pack of wild dogs? A Border collie’s near-death experience, and the stubborn loophole that makes the streets of Manhattan a dog-eat-dog world.

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Harry and his dogs at their lot on 36th Street.  

Eight months ago, if you’d told me I’d be obsessed with a little old Greek guy and fantasizing about killing his dogs, I’d have said you were nuts. If you’d said a little old Greek guy’s pack of eight junkyard dogs had been roaming the streets of midtown for years attacking people and tearing apart their dogs while city officials said, “Sorry, that’s not our problem,” I’d have called you a conspiracy theorist. A pack of wild dogs? In Manhattan? Never happen. Boy, would I have been wrong.

Here’s how I know: The Sunday before Christmas, I woke up to my friend Elizabeth pounding on my door. She was staying at my apartment, and had taken my dog, Bonny, out for a walk. When I opened the door, Elizabeth stood clutching Bonny’s empty, bloody collar, screaming, “Something happened!” I grabbed my coat, a blanket, my cell phone, and a credit card, and ran out the door, barefoot. Ralphie, my maintenance man, pointed toward a courtyard behind the building. “A pack of dogs,” he said. That’s when I saw the first puddle of blood and a fist-size chunk of Bonny’s muscle on the sidewalk. “They eat her,” Ralphie yelled. “Don’t look.”

I used to be a veterinary technician. In ten years, I went from general practice to performing daily autopsies in a veterinary morgue to being an adrenaline-pumped emergency-room tech who did CPR on dying dogs. I’d seen animals bigger than Bonny torn in half by packs, I’d seen missing limbs and decapitations, I’d done autopsies on dogs who’d eaten children, and I’d documented the contents of their stomachs for police reports. Which is to say, when I heard the phrase “pack of dogs,” I had clear visuals of what I was about to find.

I ran into the courtyard and saw Bonny curled in a pool of blood behind a small bush, eyes wide, intestines hanging out through a hole in her side. I scooped her up, wrapped her in the blanket and lowered her onto a picnic table. That’s when the vet tech in me took over. I didn’t feel my bare feet in the snow; I didn’t feel anything. I just lifted the blanket, checked her heart rate, pupils, and the color of her gums. I thought clinical terms like lacerations and puncture wounds, but the reality was, they’d bitten her so many times it looked like she’d been sprayed with machine-gun fire. They ripped her body open from hip to armpit on both sides. They slit her throat so deep I could see her jugular vein. They pulled her legs in opposite directions, detaching her muscles from her bones, until Ralphie heard the screams, grabbed a two-by-four, and ran outside swinging. When he got there, Bonny had the biggest dog by the throat, but its jaws were twice the size of hers, and wrapped around her neck. No mistake: They were going to eat her.

A few months before my 17th birthday, my best friend and I went to a grocery store for some coffee and eggs and came home with Bonny. We adopted her in the parking lot, straight from a cardboard box in the trunk of a rusted-out Chevy with a sign that said FREE PUPS. Her littermates climbed over each other, but Bonny stared straight at us. She was maybe three pounds, with ears so big and pointy they met in the middle of her head. We named her after a hilly area outside Portland, Oregon, where we lived—Bonny Slope.

Now she looks like a jackal. She’s lithe and graceful as a greyhound, a 35-pound lapdog who loves full-contact wrestling, even at 15. She’s part Border collie—a breed known for having eyes so intense they can lock on to a stray bull and maneuver it back into a herd. Bonny’s got that stare. As we walk the streets, she’ll lock those chestnut eyes on mine like, Don’t ask questions, just follow, then she’ll put herself between me and whatever she doesn’t like, and steer me home.

“Dog experts will tell you that dogs who attack other dogs often go on to attack people around them as well.”

Minutes after the attack, I held Bonny in the backseat of Elizabeth’s car and screamed at her to ignore the one-way signs and red lights. After crawling through 46 blocks of Christmas-week traffic to get to the hospital, and after Bonny went into the surgery doctors said she probably wouldn’t wake up from, I did two things: I looked down at my blood-covered self, still barefoot, and I actually laughed. It was a deep, disturbed, this-isn’t-really-happening kind of laugh. Then I lost it.

The next thing I remember is Elizabeth saying we should call the police, and me thinking, Damn right. She called 911: “Sorry,” the dispatcher told her. “We don’t handle dog-on-dog complaints. We can’t do anything unless they bite a person. Call Animal Control.” So she did. “Dog-on-dog attacks aren’t our jurisdiction,” they told her. “Call the ASPCA.” So she did. “We don’t handle dog-versus-dog attacks,” they said. “Call Animal Control.” Elizabeth laughed: They just told me to call you. “Okay, then call your police precinct.” Elizabeth got the 10th Precinct on the phone and said she’d like to file a complaint. “Sorry,” the officer told her, “you can’t file a complaint for a dog. Call the Department of Health.” So she did, and guess what they said: “We don’t handle dog-on-dog complaints. Call 911.”

Later that night, with Bonny still unconscious after hours of surgery, I walked into the lobby of my apartment and overheard two neighbors talking. See the blood on the sidewalk? they said. Harry’s pack did it again. This time they killed some dog named Bonny. I stopped. “Excuse me, did you say Harry’s dogs?” “Yeah,” one neighbor said. “That homeless asshole’s crazy pack of dogs has attacked a bunch of people and mauled, what, a dozen dogs?” The other neighbor nodded. “At least.” “They’ve been attacking people for years,” my doorman said. “The city won’t do anything about it.”

Harry Theodore was born Theocharas Paleologos on a Macedonian goat farm and raised in Greece, where he trained Doberman pinschers to hunt and kill wild boar. He came to America at 18 with dreams of becoming an engineer, then went from factory job to longshoreman to hot-dog vendor. Business never did take off because his cart was always surrounded by a pack of German short-haired pointers. He got his first two dogs as a gift in the sixties, then bred and inbred them until he had more than 50.

Harry’s in his late sixties now, five feet five inches tall, with a leathery face covered in gray stubble. He and his dogs live on 36th Street just east of Eleventh Avenue, a few blocks from my apartment, in a junkyard full of rusted hot-dog carts, car parts, and piles of garbage he scrounges from neighborhood markets to feed the dogs. The lot was part of a shantytown until the city cleared it in 1997; Harry moved in later that year when he got kicked out of an abandoned house on the East Side. He used to sleep in a wooden shack in the back of the lot, but it burned down years ago. After that, neighbors say, he started sleeping in a gutted van.

I’ve never talked to Harry—almost everything I know about him comes from the New York Daily News and New York Times. Five years ago, the Times ran a profile of him, a colorful and quintessentially New York character, a poor homeless man who could barely feed himself, yet opened his heart to the countless dogs he kept healthy, happy, and leashless—like “[a] shepherd . . . watching his flock.” The thing is, that shepherd’s flock would soon start attacking people and dogs.

The morning after Bonny was attacked, I started what would become months of calls to the same string of organizations: the NYPD, the Department of Health, the ASPCA, Animal Control, and the mayor’s office. A number of the people I spoke to already knew about Harry’s dogs. Officer John Baldino at the 10th Precinct told me, “I know who you’re talking about. Those dogs are bad—I don’t know why they don’t stop them.” A woman at the ASPCA said, “Oh, yeah, we get complaints about him all the time.” (Just days before Bonny was attacked, the group had opened a neglect case; they’ve since opened another.) The Health Department had a report noting that Harry’s dogs had recently bitten a man. Others hadn’t heard of Harry, but they all said the same sorts of things: “There’s no law against dogs attacking dogs.” Or, “We don’t handle dog-on-dog crime.” My best bet, they said, was to get Harry’s dogs picked up as strays. If I saw them loose, I should call 911 or Animal Control.

Dangerous dogs (i.e., dogs that should be contained or confiscated) are defined in the New York City administrative code as “any dog with a known propensity, tendency or disposition to attack when unprovoked, to cause injury or to otherwise endanger the safety of human beings or domestic animals.” Sounds straightforward. But the problem is, not all relevant city and state laws list biting domestic animals as an offense. Even if they did, dogs don’t qualify as domestic animals in New York—they’re considered property. The inconsistent laws and the definition of domestic animal in effect create a loophole. City organizations can point to them and say, “See, there’s no law against dog-on-dog attacks.” The truth is, the city could tackle dog-on-dog crime under any number of laws—public nuisance, leash laws, destruction of private property, imminent threat to humans. But it doesn’t.


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