Most animal sagas are really about humans. How people treat, or mistreat, pets can have an emotional effect on bystanders.
So it's no wonder the dog lovers occupying a quiet Haddonfield cul-de-sac recoiled last month after a young neighbor who adored his pit bulls departed abruptly for North Carolina, leaving three dogs alone inside a dark, dilapidated rancher.
For the first few days, shocked residents logged the barking and pestered police, fearing the worst amid the scratching on doors of a house with no electricity.
After a tense week, it became clear that someone was dropping off food. But no one saw evidence of the dogs being let out to relieve themselves. And their all-night wailing had grown women sobbing.
"Haddonfield Police and Animal Control are working within the law to help these dogs," neighbor Christina Bozarth fretted, "but everyone seems to have their hands tied."
Residents in the borough's Fargo section had long endured the three-bedroom eyesore where the dogs lived. But their ire over suburban blight paled next to the heartbreak for pets sentenced to such suffering. As Bozarth said, "We want to get them out of their misery."
When human hands are tied
Haddonfield Police Lt. Edward Wiley is a dog owner who says residents voiced "well-founded concern" over the apparent animal abandonment Sept. 17. Wiley repeatedly visited the home on Coles Mill Road, dodging overgrown brush and trash to peer in windows and leave notes on doors.
"We can't forcibly enter a residence," he explains. "We can't get in there unless there's a reason."
The dogs howled so loudly, they woke Linda Garrett's husband, who, she says, "sleeps like the dead." At 11:30 p.m. Sept. 29, Tina McGovern rushed outside fearing that a "pitiful, wailing cry" was a neighbor's daughter in distress.
It turned out to be Layla, in heat. "She must have felt so lonely," shudders McGovern, eying her own dog, Fergie, a sheltie mix.
Animal Control officers taped a warning to the door Oct. 1 after eyeballing a fresh wound on a pup seen through the window. Still, the animals were deemed in acceptable condition, unworthy of rescuing.
"When I say 'cared for,' it wasn't much more than [feeding]," Wiley cautions. "They appeared healthy."
After prodding from police, the dogs' owner vowed to return Oct. 4. He arrived a week later, on Oct. 11.
Free at last
Elliot Hayes can't imagine why he or his dogs are news.
"They're my babies," he grumbles when we meet. "It doesn't matter what people think, that they called the cops. They're my children. They were taken care of."
Hayes insists a friend was letting the dogs out nightly "after he got off work at 1 or 2 a.m."
Neighbors up at all hours swear to the contrary, so I ask Hayes to take me through the house to prove it wasn't ravaged - and rendered uninhabitable - by 25 days of canine confinement. He declines.
I spy one of the "babies," called Chino, inside a rusted blue Subaru. Hayes says he cried as he reluctantly surrendered the two others to the Animal Orphanage, a nonprofit no-kill shelter in Voorhees.
Layla and Mr. Wiggles, I learn from director Christine Todd, arrived in good spirits but suffering from fleas and scratches. The dogs will be spayed, neutered, examined, and vaccinated, then given a "temperamental evaluation."
The orphanage will spend hundreds feeding and preparing the dogs for a new family, a burden the concerned Haddonfielders hope to relieve with donations.
"They seem very friendly," Todd says of the pit bulls. "I think they'll be very adoptable."
Hayes, a hospitality worker, cared for his grandmother, Olga Coffin, until her 2011 death. Public records show the house he's driving away from remains in Coffin's name. The rancher is assessed at $245,000, but is saddled with a puzzling $510,000 reverse mortgage.
Hayes admits the house has so deteriorated, it will need to be demolished. But not, he insists, because of anything that happened inside during the month his dogs lived there all by themselves.
Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670 or myant@phillynews.
To donate food, money, or supplies to the Animal Orphanage, go to www.theanimalorphanage.org.