Tattooed and massive, the bikers from Rescue Ink look as hard as nails but turn gooey at the sight of a neglected kitten. Melissa Whitworth goes on patrol with America’s unlikeliest animal welfare squad. Photographs by Librado Romero
On a chilly autumn morning in Freeport, a blue-collar town in Long Island, three huge motorcycles roar into a railway station car-park. Mike Tattoo, a shaven- headed former bodybuilding champion, Big Ant, a 22-stone man mountain, and Joe Panz, an unlikely-looking part-time mortgage broker with a neck like the trunk of an oak, prop up their bikes and remove their helmets.
Two SUVs, one with a large dog cage inside, pull up. One belongs to Johnny O, a former celebrity bodyguard and martial arts expert. He has a snake, a tiger, a dragon and a crane inked up his right arm. Six more men arrive, including Batso – at 75 the oldest among them – who has a garland of barbed wire tattooed around his neck and cobwebs on his face. These are members of Rescue Ink, a 10-man animal welfare team who have been rescuing dogs, cats, guinea pigs and other creatures in New York’s Tri-State region for the past two years.
Greetings and small-talk out of the way, they turn to today’s business: they are investigating three reports of animal abuse. A veterinary college student telephoned about her neighbour – a school headmaster – who, she believes, has been keeping a dog locked in a bathroom. The smell of animal faeces has become unbearable. The dog, she explained, has never been seen outside, but had been heard barking until recently.
‘BECAUSE WE PULL UP LOOKING LIKE WE DO, PEOPLE USUALLY THINK, “I’D BETTER TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY”’
At a wooden clapboard house a short drive from the station, six of the men pull up to investigate. There is no one home, so Mike Tattoo and another member of the team, Biagi, go to the back of the house, to the ground-floor bathroom window, which is open a crack. There is a terrible stench, which one of the men says smells like a dead body. Someone taps on the window, but the dog – if there is one – makes no sound. The landlord won’t let Rescue Ink in to investigate and they have no rights to enter, and no powers of arrest or repossession.
Frustrated, they call the local branch of the ASPCA, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. One of its officers arrives 20 minutes later bearing the appropriate paperwork. Though only the police have the authority to seize the animal, if it is still alive, the smell is bad enough for Dave Simon of the ASPCA to try to gain emergency access. After a few further phone calls, the landlord arrives with a set of keys. Once inside, the team find a five-year-old French bulldog cowering in the corner of a bathroom next to a filthy lavatory. There is a thick layer of excrement on the floor and the clearly undernourished dog is covered in sores from sitting in her own urine. She is frightened and unresponsive to calls and offers of food. From her sagging belly it is obvious that she has been bred from many times, and is probably being kept so that her owner can sell her puppies – French bulldog pups sell for up to $1,500 in Manhattan. Biagi, whom the group refer to as their ‘dog whisperer’, finally manages to give the bulldog half a tin of dog food, but they cannot remove her from the property until the police arrive.
Meanwhile, in a neighbour’s garden, Des the Cat Man, the group’s feline specialist who looks like one of Tony Soprano’s heavies, has found two feral kittens hiding under a porch. He cradles them like babies in hands adorned with huge skull- shaped rings. Filling a cage with torn-up paper, he pops the kittens inside, before setting it on the bonnet of his car to keep the animals warm.
Tattoo is angry: ‘This dog’s owner is the principal of a school. It just shows that how you are perceived on the outside doesn’t tell the whole story.’
The four founding members of Rescue Ink met at hot-rod and motorcycle conventions about nine years ago. Big Ant runs an auto shop for hot rods in Long Island. Johnny O is a personal trainer. Rob Missari used to work in corporate hospitality and runs his own catering firm. Though bikers have a tough image, Missari says that ‘the guys we meet in biker circles are more likely to care for animals than not’. Joe Panz is a part-time mortgage broker and owns a pawn shop. He grew up in a rough Italian-American neighbourhood of Queens in New York, and was regularly in trouble with his mother for bringing home stray dogs and hiding them in his bedroom. ‘I’ve always been protective. In the school lunchroom all the kids who were picked on would come and sit by me. I was pretty big and they knew nobody would bother them if they were with me. I always stuck up for the underdog.’ He bears scars from the bullet wounds and stabbings he sustained in his youth.
BATSO, AGED 75, A FORMER POWERLIFTING CHAMPION, MILLS HIS OWN SOAP WITH MINT GROWN IN HIS GARDEN
The men realised that they had more in common than tattoos and bikes, and would share stories of animals they had rescued, and abuse they had witnessed. Before long, if one of them heard about an animal that was in trouble, they would go and investigate together.
After reading a harrowing account of a pitbull whose owner tied him to a tree and set fire to him, Missari decided that instead of being a rag-bag of animal lovers, they needed to become more organised. ‘We thought, if we could donate a little time – a few hours a week – to investigating reports of animal abuse, that would be great,’ he says. ‘It immediately turned into a near full-time gig.’ He set up the Rescue Ink website and hotline, and word of mouth quickly spread. Now, they receive up to 250 calls and emails a day, which are fielded by Bruce Feinberg, the group’s coordinator, who joined two years ago. Feinberg explains that, unlike him, most of the team use only their first names, or abbreviations of their surnames, otherwise people go to their homes and dump unwanted animals on their doorsteps. Biagi once woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of barking. Someone had tied up four dogs in his front yard. None of the men draws a pay cheque from Rescue Ink, and they depend entirely on public donations to fund their work. Their main costs are petrol – they drive hundreds of miles each week – and pet food. Missari estimates the group needs at least $1 million a year to operate at the level they would like – which would include running TNR (trap, neuter and return) programmes for feral cats, pitbull awareness courses and animal housing workshops. He says he could easily hire another 5,000 members, but doesn’t have the resources to vet potential applicants. For now, additions to the group are few and far between, and tend to be friends of existing members.
Batso joined up in late 2006. He bows his bare head forward to reveal a Buddha tattoo on the crown. An ex-powerlifting champion, he practises martial arts for two hours a day, and mills his own soap with mint grown in his garden. In January, Batso’s 47-year-old son died and his rescued pitbull/labrador cross, Inky, has helped him cope. ‘I take my dog to church with me,’ he says. When he visits his son’s grave the dog lies down on the ground where his son is buried. ‘My wife and I had her blessed. I am so in love with this dog.’ His appearance can give people the wrong impression, he says. His neighbours sold their house because they took exception to the ‘batmobile’ – a souped-up hotrod – that he kept on his front lawn.
Mike Tattoo (unmarried, vegetarian) got his first tattoo when he was 14 years old. ‘I went to that “bad guy in the basement”,’ he says. ‘I would knock on the door and have to say something like, “Goldilocks sent me, I’m here to see the three bears”. You had to know the code.’
It is easy to imagine how the men of Rescue Ink might be persuasive – all they have to do is show up and, nine times out of 10, they get what they want, they say. ‘Because we pull up looking like we do,’ Tattoo says, ‘the person usually thinks, “I’d better take this seriously.” We are careful about not being accused of vigilantism. We deal with people logically, simply and legally. We give them options, but either way, we are going to rectify the situation.’
They won’t cross a case off their books until the matter is resolved, often returning again and again. ‘We have to get the animal out of there. And we have to take into account what is going on mentally with the owner: is he on drugs, an alcoholic? It’s up to him how he wants to play it, but we’re not going to fight nobody. It’s not our style. If they start throwing punches, getting violent, we call the police. You’ll never see us throwing punches. Not that we couldn’t. But you’ve really got to be out of your mind to start a fight with us. Unless you’ve got weapons.’
So, what about guns, I ask. ‘We worry about it all the time,’ Tattoo says. No one has been injured yet, he says, but there have been some close calls. Rescue Ink operates in areas with heavy gang activity where gun crime is common. Once, they were surrounded by 20 members of a dog-fighting ring, before talking their way out of trouble. Another time, they were threatened by a knife- wielding pitbull owner (Missari managed to defuse the situation and later built a doghouse in the owner’s backyard).
Rescue Ink’s aim is not simply to take vulnerable pets away from abusive owners. ‘If we can help the person as well as the animal, we will,’ Tattoo says. In many cases, they will assist with veterinary bills, pay for the pet to be neutered and buy pet food for families that can’t afford it. Recently, they helped seize a chihuahua from a woman in the Bronx. They later returned to her apartment to drop off food and groceries, paid for out of the team’s own pockets. ‘She was down and out,’ Tattoo says.
Rescue Ink’s broader mission is to change legislation in America – they want the punishment for animal abusers to be more severe. ‘I would like to see the owners of pitbulls bred for fighting get five years in prison,’ Missari says. Members also participate in a ‘school visitation initiative programme’, where they talk about the value of pets, what it means to take care of an animal, and how to spot instances of abuse and neglect.
‘We are taken very seriously in the rescue world now,’ Tattoo says, ‘because everything we do is done carefully and by the book.’
‘WHEN WE GET TOGETHER, NO ONE TALKS ABOUT BIKES – IT’S ALL ABOUT ANIMALS AND THE CASES WE’VE COVERED’
On a rainy Friday in November, Feinberg drives me in his beaten-up Toyota to Island Park, about 50 miles outside Manhattan, to see what will become the organisation’s new headquarters. Until now the men have worked out of their homes, and they often get together in car-parks and drive-through restaurants. A friend of Rescue Ink has just donated a small, derelict house that sits on three quarters of an acre overlooking a creek. There is a disused boat warehouse that Feinberg wants to renovate so that animals can be temporarily housed there if the local laws will allow it (they are waiting to hear). During the men’s down-time they have been clearing the house of debris and repairing what they can. The wooden steps up to the door have rotted away. Inside, on an old fridge, someone has written the group’s motto in big black letters: you abuse, you lose. There will be an office here, one of the bedrooms will, they hope, be used to house kittens and puppies, and there will be a sitting-room where the men can hang out between jobs. ‘When we get together, no one is talking about sports or motorbikes any more – all the guys talk about is animals and the cases they have covered,’ Feinberg says.
We drive to today’s meeting place: a McDonald’s restaurant in a small town called Valley Stream, eight miles away. As happens every day, the men are given the day’s itinerary by Feinberg: today’s tasks include the transport of a sweet-natured, apricot-coloured miniature poodle who was rescued from the Bronx after his owner died. He will be driven by a new member, Eric, to a shelter in Port Jefferson 60 miles away before, hopefully, being rehoused.
The rest of today’s case file is less straightforward. In the town of East Northport, an elderly man has been reported to Rescue Ink for allegedly torturing and killing wild animals. He has been seen setting traps in his garden and then killing the rabbits and other creatures he captures. One neighbour set up a video camera and has footage of the man strangling the animals with his bare hands before throwing the corpses into other gardens. Joe Panz, Big Ant, Bruce Feinberg and Eric arrive to find a two-storey house covered in do not trespass signs, and posters that read: i’m a member of the NRA and Bitter Gun Owner. A Confederate flag flutters on a pole near the front door. Despite these warnings the men knock on the door. After a few minutes the owner starts yelling out of a first-floor window. Panz asks him to come down and talk to them as several neighbours come outside to watch. The owner eventually comes downstairs with his phone in his hand. He has his lawyer on the line – it later transpires that he has six lawsuits pending against him for animal abuse. The men decide they will return once they have discussed tactics with the local police precinct, and they roar away on their Harleys. The case against the man continues.
The French bulldog, which the group named Freesia, spent three days with a vet, where she was treated for malnutrition, dehydration, sores and parasites. She was then transferred to the local chapter of the national French Bulldog Rescue Network, where she will be in rehabilitation for several weeks before the network – with the help of Rescue Ink – will find her a new permanent home. The owner received a court summons but didn’t show up. Instead, he signed a form legally surrendering the dog to Rescue Ink, and will face no further punishment. ‘Getting that dog out of there? That makes my day,’ Biagi says.
Des the Cat Man and I shared a train ride back to Manhattan one evening after a day of rescues. He once lost a job as a software developer because he was paying too much attention to his cats, he says. Now he works freelance so that he can devote as much time as possible to Rescue Ink. ‘Someone once said to me, “Rescue work is the road to poverty” – and they were right. But some nights, when I get home, it just feels really good.’