When Pets Attack

Harry and his dogs at their lot on 36th Street.Photo: Eugene Richards

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 aswell.”

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.

The author and Bonny.Photo: Eugene Richards

“What you’re dealing with is selective law enforcement,” says Marie Mar, an attorney and a board member of the animal-welfare agency United Action for Animals.

And here’s the unsettling thing: Dog experts will tell you that dogs who attack other dogs often go on to attack people around them as well. “Dog packs hone their hunting skills in a series of escalating attacks,” says Kenneth Phillips, an attorney and the author of several books on dog-bite laws. “They start with other animals, then often turn to humans, which means this could easily result in a dead adult or child and probably will.”

My neighbor Andrew Lauffer is the man who filed the bite complaint against Harry’s dogs with the Health Department. “There were so many of them I couldn’t see the ground around me,” he says. “They were all biting me, biting my dogs.” Harry’s pack cornered Bob Lee on an icy sidewalk, and ripped his dog’s flank. And 67-year-old Richard Foster was surrounded on his stoop. “Fourteen of them came out of nowhere,” he says. “They knocked me over and pinned me down so I couldn’t move.” Then they went after his dog. In response to the attacks, Bob, Richard, and at least ten other neighbors formed a group called the Neighbors Concerned With the Dog Pack Attacks. They spent two and a half years fighting to get Harry’s dogs taken away. They complained to the city and testified at community-board hearings in front of the Health Department (and Harry), but in the end they got sent in the same circles I did. Eventually they gave up.

One morning after Bonny came home from the hospital—after 87 stitches, more than a week in intensive care, and $7,000 in vet bills—my doorman called and said, “Don’t come downstairs—Harry’s dogs are pacing out front.” I grabbed my cell phone and ran downstairs, but they were gone. I called Animal Control. “Where are the dogs now?” the dispatcher asked. “I don’t know, but they can’t be far,” I said. “They’re probably headed for the lot.” Sorry, he said, “We can’t come pick up the dogs unless they’re loose and you know where they are.” Bonny was covered neck to tail in bandages, bruises, and stitches; she couldn’t walk; my neighbors were afraid to let their children outside, but no one would do a damn thing about the dogs.

That’s when I ran back to my apartment and did something most people can’t do. I called press offices, saying, “Hi, I’m a reporter writing an article about a pack of dangerous dogs that’s been roaming the streets attacking people and dogs for years. Numerous people have filed complaints with your organization, and I’d like to find out why nothing has been done.”

Suddenly, people paid attention. Sort of. Mainly, they made excuses: Budget problems. Not enough officers. Not our jurisdiction. When I called Ed Boyce, head of the veterinary branch of the Department of Health, I mentioned the relevant law, and he said, “I’m aware of it. I can only tell you that dog-to-dog attacks are not enforced by the Department of Health.” Who does enforce them? “No one enforces dog-to-dog.”

Okay, I said, so how about going after dogs because they bite people? Nope, he told me: The people who were bitten don’t count because they were with dogs, so the pack was probably going after their dogs and the people just got in the way.

“So you’re saying you’d rather wait until they maul a person?”

“That’s what you’re saying,” he told me. “That’s not what I’m saying.”

Elizabeth couldn’t talk about the attack until weeks after it happened. She and Bonny had been walking down 36th Street when three big brown-and-white hound dogs pushed open the gate of Harry’s lot and charged them. One grabbed Bonny by the head and lifted her off the sidewalk; the others took her hind legs and pulled in opposite directions. Elizabeth kicked the dogs and pounded their faces, yelling, “Somebody help—they’re ripping her in half!” No one responded. Five other dogs ran from the junkyard and latched onto Bonny’s face, tail, stomach, and throat. Harry eventually hobbled from behind the fence saying, “Don’t make trouble for me, I have a bad heart.” Somehow Bonny slipped away, flying up 36th Street toward home, her body torn open and bleeding, with eight dogs on her tail. That’s when she ran into the courtyard, where the pack cornered her until Ralphie came along with the two-by-four.

I replayed that scene in my head for weeks as I watched Harry’s lot, hoping his dogs would get loose so I could call 911 like everyone said I should. But it didn’t happen.

So instead I called Channel 2, the local CBS affiliate. That night, the evening news showed pictures of Bonny after the attack and me lamenting the city’s inaction. It showed the rickety latch on the junkyard and Harry saying the reason his dogs attacked Bonny was because “somebody opened the gate.” Most important, it showed Harry, standing in front of his lot, smirking and saying this: “If somebody opens the gate by mistake, they might attack somebody else.”

Still nothing changed. I called the mayor’s office again, the community board, the city council, you name it. They told me they’d look into it and call back. They didn’t. People started saying I should sue Harry. But for what? His rusted hot-dog carts? An injunction that would take years to get, and that he’d probably ignore?

So Harry’s pack is still going strong. A few weeks ago, a neighbor told me they cornered a group of children playing in front of the Javits Center. They barked and lunged until people heard screams and ran them off. A few days later, they tore apart another dog and attacked its owner, Hal Caplin, who ended up in the emergency room with twelve stitches in his face. He called the Health Department and the police and got the same old story. As have others. The Times recently ran an article about a group of neighbors on the East Side who’ve seen their dogs get attacked and beheaded by two Rottweilers, but the city gives them the same we-don’t-do-dog-on-dog line they give me. Maybe I’ll call them next, to see about challenging the city together.

So yes, I’m still obsessed with Harry and his dogs. I’m furious about what they did to Bonny, but this is about more than my dog. It’s about the city needing to fix a law—and a law-enforcement—problem. (Last week, City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz introduced a bill that would close the dog-on-dog loophole, but it remains to be seen if it will be voted into law.) It’s also about an autopsy I did ten years ago on a Rottweiler who killed a young girl. I had to sort through that dog’s stomach and take inventory: One long blonde braid with scalp attached. One child’s ear. That dog had a history of mauling other dogs. Just like the Florida pack that killed 81-year-old Alice Broom in her front yard days before Bonny’s attack. They’d terrorized Alice’s neighborhood for months, attacking people, mauling other dogs. Neighbors complained to authorities but got nowhere.

A few weeks ago, as Bonny and I walked up Ninth Avenue with my friend David, I saw four of Harry’s dogs trotting toward us. They were two blocks away, weaving through pedestrians during rush hour. Harry was a good half-block behind the dogs. Bonny didn’t see them; if she had, she’d have been gone. Because here’s the thing: After months of nursing, she walks and runs just fine. She may never regain full use of one hind leg, but other than that she’s fine, physically. Mentally is another story: She recently started wrestling with me again, but full contact terrifies her. And dog barks send her into a panic—she screams and flails, struggles to escape from her collar or bite through her leash so she can run home. So when I saw Harry’s dogs coming toward us, I handed David the leash. “Those are the dogs,” I said. “Take her across the street.”

As David and Bonny crossed Ninth Avenue, I stood in the middle of the sidewalk, facing Harry’s dogs, watching them run toward me. And I did what every city official said to do: I called 911.

“Are they attacking anyone right now?” the dispatcher asked. “No.”

“Sorry,” she told me. “Try Animal Control.” I called Animal Control, the Health Department, and the mayor’s office. I talked to a traffic cop, then called 911 again. Guess what they said: “Are they attacking anyone right now?”

“No,” I said, as Harry’s dogs ran past me toward the junkyard. “Would you rather wait until they do?”

When Pets Attack