Before Rebecca Skloot published the bestselling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, she wrote magazines stories about science and about animals. You may remember her New York Times magazine piece “Fixing Nemo,” about goldfish surgery, and her O, the Oprah Magazine story on the neuroscience of why it’s so hard to change. In one of her most memorable stories, “When Pets Attack,” Skloot wrote about the experience of nearly losing her pet Border collie mix, Bonny, to a pack of wild dogs—in Manhattan. The visceral, personal piece called out New York City on the loophole that allowed years’ worth of attacks. We’ll go ahead and tell you: the piece—the subject of today’s annotation—is tough reading, but with a happy ending.
Quick questions to start:
Storyboard: We know how you came to do this piece, because the story tells us, but how do you get most of your story ideas?
Rebecca Skloot: Pretty much every story idea I’ve come up with has come from what I call “what” moments—moments that make me stop and go, Wait … what?! One of my favorite examples of this was the story I wrote about goldfish surgery. There’s a whole world of veterinary medicine devoted to caring for people’s pet fish—you can get them MRIs, cat scans, tumor removals, you name it. I found that story while sitting in a vet clinic with my dog. A vet walked into the room and a woman asked how the surgery went, he said, “Great, patient’s up, swimming around.” Then he started to walk into the back. I was like, “Wait, what? You did surgery on a fish? What kind of surgery?” He said, “I removed a tumor from its nose,” and I was off, standing there with my dog, bombarding him with questions: How do you anesthetize a fish? Who pays for that? Why? I can trace most stories in my career back to those sorts of moments. Like: Wait, what do you mean there’s a woman with a seeing eye horse? And what’s an agoraphobia assistance monkey? I could go on, but the first and most meaningful example was when I was 16 and I said to my biology teacher, Wait, what do you mean there are cells that are still alive decades after the woman they came from died? For me, finding stories is all about taking the time to stop and follow your curiosity whenever something sparks it. That’s sometimes harder to do than it sounds (you’re busy, you’re tired, you’re doing something else, etc.), but it’s so essential.
How do you work? What are your most important tools?
When I’m writing, I work at a treadmill desk, which has become essential for me in terms of keeping both my mind and body going when I’m writing and when I’m not. When I’m reporting in the field: My audio recorder, which is always on when I’m out reporting. My camera, with which I take absurd numbers of photos while reporting (the rooms I’m in, the people I talk to, the weather, the scenery, you name it), because you never know what details a photo will catch that will be valuable to you later. Of course a good pile of pens and notebooks.
You’re working on a new book. What can you tell us?
It’s hard to explain at this point (I’m not being coy; it would take me probably an hour to explain, just as The Immortal Life did in the early stages), but it goes back to my lifelong passion for animals. When it comes to finding stories, in addition to following my curiosity, as I mention in the annotation, I’m a big believer in following unique passions — the things you’re obsessed with. My next book (as with my first) is one of those. In some ways, it started more than 20 years ago, in the freezer in the morgue of the vet school where I worked as a veterinary technician. The first story I wrote for my first creative writing class was about that freezer and the questions it raised for me about our relationships to animals. But really, this story is something I’ve been obsessed with since I was a small child.
The short summary, which doesn’t do the story justice, is that it’s about the role animals play in our lives and in science (two things that can’t actually be separated). It’s about humans and animals and ethics. In some ways, it’s also about how I became the person who wrote The Immortal Life. That isn’t the focus of the book — it’s not a memoir. But underlying the questions in this book are the questions that led me to become a writer and to notice the story of Henrietta Lacks in the first place: What is the value of one individual life? How do you draw the line between the progress and benefits of science and its cost? But it’s also about so much more. If you’re curious, you can hear me explain the book in a bit more narrative detail in this interview (below). (And talk about it in this Q-and-A.) The portion where I talk about the new book starts at about the 20-minute mark. At the 11-minute mark you can hear me talk about what a derelict kid I was.
“When Pets Attack”
by Rebecca Skloot
New York magazine
Oct. 11, 2004
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. One of the hallmarks of this story is its conversational, accessible, edgy voice. And your word choices – obsessed, fantasizing, nuts – ground us in the idea that we’re kind of in for a wild ride. How much did the opening line change from draft to draft, or was this always the way you began? This opening line came out pretty much as-is the first time I wrote it, which is unheard of for me. I’m a compulsive rewriter, to the point where I usually rewrite every sentence many many times between the fist and final drafts. But I’d written this opening line so many times in my head before starting the story, it just kinda poured out.
If you’d said a little old Greek guy’s Nice repetition of “little old Greek guy” – how did you arrive at that choice? I used “little old Greek guy” because that’s what people in the neighborhood called him … in part I think his little-old-Greek-guy persona was one of the reasons he’d been able to get away with neglecting his dogs for so long, and why he’d never gotten in trouble when they attacked other people’s dogs. He was just the cute little old Greek guy everyone in the neighborhood knew, the funny guy with the hot dog cart and, oh yeah, a bunch of dogs. That’s how he’d been described by the New York Times, the New York Post, etc. He was a colorful quintessential Manhattan figure and people loved that about him. 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. The whole story is contained in this lede. It allows you to unpack from here. We know we’re getting a public-policy issue, an animal-versus-animal issue – obstacles, which are so important to narrative. Knowing you, this was your plan. Discuss. Indeed it was. I never write ledes like this one. I’m not a fan of nut graphs or telling the whole story up front. I’m a big show-don’t-tell person: I like to just put the reader in the action from the beginning, which is why most stories I write begin in the middle of a scene. But that wouldn’t have worked with this piece. Audience-wise, this was one of the most challenging stories I’ve ever written, because it was pretty much set up to alienate all readers from the start. For the animal lovers, the problem was Who wants to read a story about a poor innocent dog getting torn apart? For the non-animal lovers it was, So your dog got hurt, bummer for you, why should I care? For me, the job of this lede was saying: Trust me, keep reading. I needed to broadcast that this wasn’t just a sad story about a dog you may or may not care about; that I’m not a cop hater or an over-the-top bleeding-heart animal lover who’s just upset because her dog got hurt; that I wasn’t going to be melodramatic or gory—that in fact, I might even maintain a sense of humor while facing an awful thing. But really, the biggest messages of this lede was: You really want to keep reading, even if you don’t care about dogs, or you care about them so much you can’t stand knowing about bad things happening to them, because this story is about much more than my dog—it’s about humans and animals and public policy and your life and your safety and the safety of the city. Hence this first paragraph: a rollicking overview of everything that was coming in the story without mentioning my dog at all. That was my way of showing everyone how the story related to them before saying, oh, by the way, that guy’s dogs nearly killed my dog.
Here’s how I know: Voice again. You have always written in a highly accessible style, which is part of what made The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—a complicated narrative about human cell culture, commercialism, medical ethics and race—an international bestseller, and it’s what helps distinguish your science writing. How did that develop over time, or did you always write this way? I’ve always written like that. I think that comes in part from my background: I was a science major who started writing about science before studying literature or creative writing. I skipped all the high school classes where people read the classics (long story), then spent most of my college years studying things like biochemistry and neuroanatomy instead of English. So my literary education was pretty lacking. I didn’t even know that different writing styles like conversational vs. formal existed. I just knew there were science stories I wanted to tell, and when I sat down at my keyboard, they came out just like they would have if I’d been on a barstool telling the story aloud. I didn’t realize “conversational writing” was a thing until grad school, when I found Elmore Leonard’s famous rules for writers, which included this: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” I cut that out and taped it to my computer monitor where it stayed for many years. As I became a professional writer, my belief in the importance of conversational writing only grew stronger. Accessibility is so important when you write about science, ethics, and policy, and I want my work to be accessible to the broadest range of readers regardless of their backgrounds in science or literature. So for me, writing conversationally is about doing my best to let as many readers into the story as possible.
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. Walk us through these instincts, if possible. Plenty of people in this situation wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to be so precise with the go bag. Did a background in veterinary training come into play? Oh yeah, my background in veterinary medicine helped in this situation (though it may be a chicken/egg situation—perhaps I ended up working in veterinary emergency rooms because this sort of reaction comes naturally to me … who knows). Having been through a lot of emergency veterinary situations, I definitely have the ability to shut down my own fear and emotions to focus on saving the animal. This has allowed me to help animals in some pretty crazy situations, but has also led to me nearly getting killed a few times (picking up injured animals on busy interstates, scaling a cliff to rescue a dog who’d gone over a long drop, that sort of thing; just recently, in fact, I nearly impaled myself while jumping the fence into my neighbor’s yard to do CPR on one of his dogs—she’d suffocated when her playmate got his jaw under her choke collar then twisted his head several times, creating a tourniquet around her neck). In terms of my instincts in the Bonny situation, clearly I wasn’t 100 percent coherent with them; if I had been, I probably would have grabbed shoes, given that it was snowing. Also, one thing I didn’t mention here, because I was trying to avoid seeming too crazy, was that I was wearing a rather short nightgown when Elizabeth knocked on the door. I put my down jacket over it and spent several hours going around NYC in and out of cabs and vet clinics wearing a nightie, a down jacket, and no shoes. Eventually my dear friend Erik, who’s Elizabeth’s husband, went and got me some shoes and clothes.
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.” How—and why—did you decide to write about what happened? The moment I realized this was a real and broad story (dangerous dogs not being dealt with, legal loopholes, a city not enforcing laws, etc.) I knew it was an important one to tell on a local level, but also nationally, because things like this happen all over the country. Also: I was pissed. Because of my veterinary experience, the vet let me do Bonny’s IVs and many other treatments at home instead of leaving her in the ER for weeks, so I was just there, cooped up in my 500-square-foot apartment, nursing Bonny (who was covered neck-to-hip in bandages and couldn’t be left alone), calling various city officials in a maddening loop trying to get them to do something about the dog pack (which had taken to pacing outside my apartment waiting for us to go outside). As city officials told me over and over that there was nothing to be done, it’s safe to say a significant amount of rage and determination built up inside me. Writing the story was definitely traumatic, because I had to live and re-live the attack and its aftermath, but it let me feel like I was doing something, anything, to fix the situation. In the end, it was cathartic.
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 don’t know if you want to talk about it just yet but this reminds me of a conversation we had the other day about your new book project, on animals/pets. Note to readers: I’m not pimping out Skloot’s new book here. I’d like to think that what we’re doing here is exploring how writers come up with story and book ideas, and how we sometimes follow the better (or louder) angels of our nature into subject matter. What you told me may or may not make it into the new book but it involved having to bear witness to – and participate in – things that most pet owners and animal lovers could never bear to see. Why are you drawn to such stories and to animals in particular, and how has that made its way into your work? What’s narratively interesting to you about this material? I’m going to invoke John McPhee here, as I like to do: He once looked at everything he’d written in his career, and he found that most of it could be traced back to something he was interested in (perhaps even obsessed with) before he turned 18. The same is true for me (and many other writers). Pretty much everything I’ve ever written has to do with animals, ethics, science, policy or some combination of all of them. I tell stories about the complex and often ethically sticky situations that arise when those things meet everyday life. The root of some of this is pretty clear to me: My father got very sick when I was 16 and ended up enrolling as a research subject in a drug study that didn’t go well. (I’ve written about that and its connection to my first book here under “What sparked your curiosity about Henrietta Lacks”). So I’m sure that’s where my interest in science and research ethics and policy came from. I’ve also always been into animals and the ethics of our relationships with them. From the time I was 5 I was sure I was going to be a veterinarian; I later worked as a nurse for animals in general practices, research labs, shelters, even a veterinary morgue. There was a lot of beauty and humor in my work with animals. But I also found myself in some pretty shocking and ethically complicated situations, in part because I tended to work in places where animals ended up when they needed help but didn’t get it. Those stories are important ones that most people never hear; they’re the reason I started writing. (The first story I ever wrote was about the freezer in the morgue at the vet school where I worked, which was filled with pets who died at the hospital, but more so with dogs and other animals who were used in teaching and research). Those stories have never let me go. I’m a big believer in the importance of paying attention when a story grabs you. I’ve learned at this point that if I can’t shake a story, I have no choice but to tell it, even if telling it is the hardest path to take. That’s where The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks came from, and it’s where all of my animal stories come from. My challenge is finding a way to tell those stories that works narratively, that allows the public to read stories that are sometimes upsetting while still enjoying them (because those stories are sometimes funny, uplifting, or inspiring, even in their sadness). My goal is for readers to get so caught up in the story that they get to the end and realize they learned quite a bit of challenging material, but getting there didn’t hurt too much. I have no idea if that answers your question. I guess the bottom line is that it’s less that I find these stories narratively interesting at the start and more that I simply have to tell them, so I look for the most narratively interesting way to do that.
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. Gruesome; painful to read. How could you be sure you wouldn’t turn off the reader? You can never be sure, but my hope was that at this point between the use of voice and story structure, I would have won the trust of the reader enough to do this. Though I’m still being very careful—it’s a scary image, but pretty tame compared to what it could have been.
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. The structure of this story is part of what makes it so compelling and bearable. You leave the reader hanging on the question of whether Bonny will or won’t survive—you’re sort of giving the reader an out—and take us into her (and your) past, letting us see both of you as characters. How did you arrive at this structure? I wanted the story to be a fast-paced straightforward narrative, and the pacing just came naturally as I wrote it. I knew I couldn’t linger for very long on the attack story at any point because I’d risk losing people, so I knew I had to jump around pretty quickly to give readers a break from it, and to keep the tension building. We adopted her in the parking lot, straight from a cardboard box in the trunk of a rusted-out Chevy Great detail. How did you remember that it was a Chevy? We had a photo of it, which I kept for many years. But also the car was just always part of Bonny’s story from the beginning: Where did you get her? The back of a 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. Interesting. “Jackal” echoes the pack of attacking dogs and keeps that terrible thread alive in the reader’s mind. Funny, that’s true, but totally unintentional. We always called her Jackal as a nickname because that’s what she looked like.
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. I love this detail because it tells us she was a confident, capable dog, and not bait. Was that your intention? In part, yes. But also, this was just the essence of who she was as a character, and an important part of showing our relationship. She was a herding dog and I was her herd. She was always watching over me, taking care of me. A lot of my drive to help her, and write this story, came from that. She’d recently seen me through a divorce and the death of my other dog, who I’d had since I was 16—this was the first time in her life that we’d been alone, just the two of us. She had always been devoted to caring for me. It was my turn.
Minutes after the attack, I held Bonny Now we’re back in the straight narrative, action. 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. I’m glad you didn’t give us the details of you losing it. Why didn’t you? I left this out for the same reason I deleted that licking detail in the previous scene, and the nightie earlier. It was essential to my credibility as the narrator: in control of the larger story despite the intense emotions of the experience. I needed and wanted to keep the readers’ trust; part of doing that was keeping my promise to not make this a story about me and my emotions. One of the most crushing moments for me that’s not included in that scene, and was hard to leave out: I was in the back seat yelling about the stop lights, cradling Bonny in my arms, holding her body together with a quilt my mother had made. In the midst of her cries, Bonny looked up at me in a moment of complete serenity and kissed my nose. The whole way to the ER, she alternated between screaming in pain and licking me, reassuring me, still taking care of me, even in a moment when she was in such desperate need. That detail was in an earlier draft, but I deleted it as part of maintaining that voice of balance and emotional control I set up with the lede.
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.” Clever and highly readable collapsing of time/process in this graf. Discuss. Ha, thanks. One sure way to make readers glaze over is a bunch of back and forth phone calls with endless talk of organizations and acronyms. So I wanted to get through it all quickly because of that, but also to show readers what this felt like in the moment: A fast blur of blah blah blah calls from blah blah blah agencies all saying something totally confusing that I didn’t want to hear.
Later that night, Nice, small move that pushes the narrative forward. 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. We’re about to learn how you got Harry’s story. Can you walk us through the different kinds of reporting you did for this piece? Much of it is observational, obviously, but I’m guessing you also relied on public records/documents. Yeah, I looked at court documents, public records—particularly those from earlier community hearings where he and neighbors testified when problems first started with his dogs; I read every media story that had been written about him, I talked with all of his neighbors, the people who owned the property he and his dogs lived on, etc.
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 How come? I had a very clear agenda with this story—get Harry’s dogs out of my neighborhood, get the city to do something about the larger problem his dogs represented. I couldn’t ethically go to him as a journalist and interview him without identifying myself as the person whose dog his dogs had most recently mauled. He didn’t want to talk to me, and I didn’t want to talk to him. I was so angry I probably would have just screamed at him rather than asking him any journalistic questions. I didn’t feel like it was necessary for the story, but I did feel it was necessary to make it clear that I hadn’t talked to him, and where my information came from. —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, Now back to straight narrative. 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. Now we’re moving into policy/exposition, i.e. structure.
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. Again, voice: accessible without being condescending. 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.
“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. A fact that elevates the story significantly. Now everyone – not just animal owners – could or should care about the issue. “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.” And boom, a whole different kind of urgency.
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. Wow – did you know about this before you started reporting the story? No, I found this out after Bonny’s attack, when I started doing research into Harry and his dogs. I’d only moved into the neighborhood about two months before the attack. If I’d known about this history, I would have figured out where he lived and made sure Bonny never went anywhere near his lot. And I probably would have started digging into it as a journalistic story.
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 I appreciate that you don’t go into detail about Bonny’s surgery, intensive care, survival, etc. – you simply move the narrative forward without sabotaging the momentum with cheap melodramatics. Was that your approach all along or did some of the middle ground get cut? Yes, like with the licking-in-the-car detail and saying “Then I lost it” rather than actually showing me lose it, this was all part of the same conscious effort to keep the promise I made to readers at the start that this was not a story just about my dog getting attacked and how upsetting it was. I’m a big believer in telling personal stories not for the sake of telling them, but as a vehicle to get at larger issues that aren’t about the person telling the story at all. That’s what I tried to do here. —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.” Oh was this when you went into reporter mode? Like you said earlier, we’re always in reporter mode. It never really gets turned off. I’d been taking reporter-level notes the whole time, documenting everything with photos and tape recording conversations, but this was the moment that I realized I was writing a story about it immediately, and that it was a story about this big city/policy problem. (This was very soon after the attack, so I think somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I’d write about all of this at some point, but I didn’t know when.)
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, Good clear no-nonsense voice again. How long did you work on this piece, by the way? Bonny was attacked December 2003. I started pitched the story to New York Magazine in January 2004 and got the actual contract for it in July 2004. It was published Oct. 11, 2004. In the midst of this I was also trying to write my book, pay the bills (including all the vet bills, etc). 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. Smart decision, putting the details of the actual attack itself this deep into the story. Discuss. I knew from the start I wanted to use the chronological story of the attack as the frame for this piece, but that I couldn’t start with the actual attack, which would have horrified the animal lovers and non-lovers alike. The fact that Elizabeth couldn’t bring herself to talk about the details of the attack until later was a bit of a narrative gift to me (sorry, E!), because it allowed me to tuck the actual story of the attack late in the story without manipulating the structure to deal with putting it in as a flashback. John McPhee wrestled with this same issue of strategically burying gore while structuring his story “Travels in Georgia,” which involved people collecting and eating road kill. They find some road kill in the first scene, but through various tricks of time and structure, readers don’t see them eat that very road kill until very late in the story, and by that time they’re already hooked and are going to keep reading to the end even if they get freaked out. That was my thinking with this structure as well.
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. Ugh. You handle this beautifully, though. A lesser writer might have played out the gory details or resorted to sentimentality. Restraint is the way to go, and conveys just as much power. Did you find yourself having to scale it back as you moved from draft to draft? Thanks. In general, I always write long and then cut later – I can’t write if I try to edit myself as I’m doing it. So I put as much in as I need to, then I’m ruthless about editing (I refer to it as the Vomit Then Clean It Up method). I know some writers find it hard to cut their stuff, but for some reason I’m unfazed by it. For me the hard part is getting the first draft out on paper, the rest is when the real writing starts.
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. How’d you find out about Caplin? He was my neighbor, and others pointed me to him when I started asking questions about Harry and his dogs. 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, Great timing for the piece. Serendipity or strategy? Total serendipity. 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. Oh dear God. This is like the Big Twist. Just when we think we’ve learned everything we’re going to learn about this situation, we get an unexpected backstory. What restraint, saving it for now. Discuss? This is another one of those “Travels in Georgia” situations – it was important not to throw this out early, because it could have freaked readers out. But it was an essential detail for me both in the story, and in my motivation to write it, so I wasn’t going to leave it out, I just had to include it carefully.
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. Shocking – and of course relieving – that this story has a happy ending for Bonny. In fact, she lived for years after this incident, right? She did indeed – she lived almost six very happy years after the attack. She died peacefully at home just two months shy of her 20th birthday.
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?” What has become of Harry and his dogs, do you know? In response to this story and the outpouring of reader responses, the mayor’s office condemned the lot where Harry lived, spayed and neutered all his dogs, and sent all but two of them to a shelter in Pennsylvania. They moved Harry into public housing in the Bronx, where he now lives with two of the eight dogs that attacked Bonny. I lived in that apartment with Bonny for about four years, very relieved we no longer had to worry about Harry’s dogs. Several years after we left, in a pretty heartbreaking development, I got an email from a woman who lives in the building the mayor’s office moved Harry into – she found this story after Googling for information about Harry and his dogs; she reports that he’s built his pack back up to 20 dogs again and, according to her, News12 “reported” it but “distorted the story.” So it seems nothing really changed in the end. I’ve been considering doing some sort of followup at some point. It’s really a national problem – since the story was originally published 10 years ago, I have gotten a steady stream of emails from people who’ve had similar experiences in towns and cities all over the country. Their dogs get attacked, authorities don’t do anything, then they Google, find my story, and email me asking if any of the laws have changed. They haven’t.