A New York biker, Joe Panz has been a street tough all his life and has faced some dangerous situations. One of the worst was when he was betrayed by people he thought were friends. They set him up and lured him into a bar where he was shot five times before escaping.
“I couldn’t go to the hospital because that’s the next place they would look for me,” he says. “I knew I had to go home, and I couldn’t depend on anyone for help because I didn’t know who was my friend and who was looking to finish the job.”
Joe did have one loyal ally – his Rottweiler. “They’re very keen dogs and know if something is wrong. That dog watched out for me all night. I knew he would protect me, no matter what, if someone came to the door. My friends turned on me, but I could depend on that dog through thick and thin.”
For Joe it was a turning point. He’s always had a soft spot for animals, but his dog’s loyalty in the worst of times sealed his commitment to them. In 2007, along with two other biker buddies, Johnny O and Big Ant, he became one of the founding members of Rescue Ink (rescueink.org), a group of burly tattooed bikers dedicated to saving animals from dangerous and abusive situations. “I’m just paying back the favor,” Joe says. The group will handle virtually any situation where animals are in danger, from breaking up pit bull fighting rings to assisting hoarders. They’ve helped dogs, cats, horses, ducks, chickens, turtles and even fish.
Rescue Ink has a rotating membership, with anywhere from nine to 14 members actively participating at any given time. “We try to keep the group small so it’s agile,” Joe explains. “Guys come and go for different reasons. Some get burned out, some go on to other things. This is rough work, and we risk our lives daily. We never know what’s on the other side of a door or what we might be walking into, but we do whatever is necessary to get an animal out of a dangerous situation.” Rescue Ink also has a “den mother” named Mary Fayet who works tirelessly in the background to coordinate their efforts. She answers phone calls and emails and sends complaints to the appropriate people for investigation.
“We have many other people helping us,” Joe says. “Some are retired from the police force so they can check out individuals. This includes getting photos of them and their cars, finding out their workplace and seeing if they are felons or have weapons or a violent history. We don’t want to get in a situation without knowing exactly what’s going on.”
If the situation warrants it, the perpetrator will get a visit from Rescue Ink and receive some re-education. The group keeps its tactics within the law, but Joe emphasizes, “We can be very convincing. Once they meet us, it usually takes care of the situation because they don’t want us coming back.” Rescue Ink also gets involved in situations that tend to go along with animal abuse, like spousal or child abuse. “A lot of times we find there’s more going on when we investigate animal cruelty,” Joe says. “Abusers like to hone their skills on animals because they can’t talk and it’s easy to hide. They get more comfortable and turn on other helpless victims like women, children or the elderly. Some use the animal to show a woman what they will do to her if she tries to leave, or they threaten to kill the animal if she tries to go.”
Joe says the group hopes to break the cycle of violence by educating abusers. “Kids see violence in their neighborhoods and homes, they grow up and act the same way because they get desensitized. We make sure they know the proper way to treat people and animals. We make a good first impression and let them know we’ll be watching. Believe me, they don’t want another visit.” Rescue Ink also tackles the cycle at its roots by going into inner city and reform schools to educate kids about the humane treatment of animals. “We try to instill that you can be tough and still do the right thing,” Joe says.
The group has a hot rod pet ambulance that started out as a donated clunker. It was converted into a mobile clinic, and veterinarians and vet techs donate their time to provide free services for elderly and housebound people. They also run an animal sanctuary upstate where animals are rehabilitated before adoption. Those that cannot work through aggression or other issues live out their lives at the sanctuary.
Of all the rescues the group has done, one stands out in Joe’s mind. A Humane Society broke up a dog fighting ring in Kentucky and came across a dog that had been used for baiting. Bait dogs are like unwilling sparring partners and are used to train fighting dogs and get them used to blood. The dog was hiding in someone’s garage, eating out of their own dog’s bowls. The Humane Society dubbed him Ribbon because of his torn-up ears. “We told them we would do whatever was necessary to save him,” says Joe. “We were assisted by Animal Rescue Flights, a group of volunteer plane owners who help us out a lot. We brought the dog to New York, had him vetted and nursed him back to health. We were going to adopt him out, but he really touched a chord because he’d been through such rough times and almost lost his life, but he pulled through. He reminded us of our own personal trials. We didn’t want him to ever get in a bad situation again, so we kept him. Now he’s our mascot, and we named him Rebel because we didn’t want him to have the stigma of his old name.”
Rescue Ink is funded entirely by donations and has garnered a lot of media attention. It started with a story in the New York Times that generated a huge response. Viking Books published a book about the group, and National Geographic is producing a television show. Meanwhile, the group is staying busy, both in New York and farther afield, doing whatever it takes to help animals at risk. “We go wherever the need and our funds take us.”