A Haddonfield surgeon whose prize Rhodesian ridgebacks have caused a public outcry again avoided having to put down one of his dogs when a Salem County judge ruled Wednesday that the animal that bit off a 3-year-old girl's ear was not vicious.
Pilesgrove Municipal Judge Nicholas Lacovara ruled that while the injuries were significant, the bite, which occurred last year on Robert Taffet's Alloway Township farm, constituted a "minor attack."
"Duke nipped the ear, and as the child fell, it made the injury much worse," Lacovara said. "Had he been vicious, God forbid, the child might not have survived. Duke is a very large dog."
The decision followed a two-day trial that included testimony from an animal behaviorist and repeated attempts by Taffet's attorney to cast doubt on whether Duke, one of four dogs in the vicinity at the time of the attack, was the one that bit off the ear of Claire McVeigh of Pennsville.
That line of argument did not hold much sway with Lacovara, who found middle ground in declaring the dog potentially dangerous, a legal designation that requires the owner to keep the dog in an enclosure and muzzle it in public.
Outside the courtroom Wednesday, Cindi and Dennis McVeigh, the victim's parents, expressed dismay that the dog would not be euthanized.
"I don't see how anyone can see the result of this and call it this a minor incident," Dennis McVeigh said. "We really don't want to see this happen to anyone else."
The Taffets are well-known in Haddonfield, where another of their dogs was involved in a series of earlier attacks. In March, a New Jersey appellate court found that dog potentially dangerous after a 2002 attack on a man walking his dogs off-leash in a Haddonfield park.
Richard Klineburger, Taffet's attorney, said he had not decided whether to appeal Wednesday's verdict, but he called it "fair and rational."
"It's not an easy decision to make if you look at the injuries the child received," he said. "But it was something that happened in a matter of seconds."
Since the attack, Claire McVeigh has undergone multiple operations to reattach her ear and still suffers pain, her parents said. They plan to file civil litigation against the Taffets, said their attorney, Randy Greene.
The Taffets and the McVeighs had known each other for years. Cindi McVeigh coached at a swimming club to which Taffet's daughter belonged. At one time, the McVeighs briefly took in the runt of one of Taffet's litters of Rhodesian ridgebacks.
Taffet declined to comment, but another member of his legal team, layer Frank Hoerst, called the McVeighs friends of the Taffets'.
The dog attack ended what had been a social visit to the Taffets' country home, a chance for Cindi McVeigh and her two children to see their new goats and puppy.
Cindi McVeigh recounted Wednesday how the dogs' jumping and barking had made her nervous when she arrived, but said Taffet had reassured her.
"He said, 'I'm the alpha dog, and I'm the master of them,' " she said.