Saturday, November 14, 2009

Rogues or rescuers? Depends who you ask

BY PATRICK WHITTLE

patrick.whittle@newsday.com

Critics say the group shows up uninvited at places where abuse is suspected, and uses intimidation in dealing with people Rescue Ink members believe might be animal abusers.

Rescue Ink is a media-hungry nuisance group that plays to the cameras of its reality TV show and interferes with those in the business of protecting animals, says Roy Gross, chief of Suffolk County's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Rescue Ink is a bunch of tough guys with hearts of gold, says Wendy Culkin, president and founder of Center Moriches-based Katie's Critters Small Animal Rescue.

Conflicting opinions about Rescue Ink - back in the news last week after sparking a shouting match by co-opting an SPCA news conference to accuse the agency of dropping the ball on a high-profile case of alleged dog abuse in Selden - are echoed by other animal rights groups, law enforcement agencies and pet owners who have encountered the brawny, tattooed animal lovers.

Critics say the group shows up uninvited at places where abuse is suspected, and then intimidates those it thinks might be animal abusers.

Rescue Ink's Joe Panzarella does not dispute the characterization.

"These are the things that rescue groups do," he said in an interview early last week, adding, "We're street guys."

Culkin said the group is good-hearted and unfailingly helpful. Rescue Ink helped Katie's Critters in early 2008, she said, by publicizing a request for donated cages she needed to house dozens of guinea pigs seized by authorities from a Syosset home.
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"Did we ever need help, and they offered us assistance," she said. "I've never had a bad experience with them at all."

Rescue Ink has received accolades for recovering lost pets and intervening on behalf of animals living in substandard conditions, such as at a Moriches house where the group helped remove 180 cats in January.

But some law enforcement groups think Rescue Ink ought to leave animal rescue work to the professionals. Last year, when Rescue Ink was in the news for its work on dog-snatching cases, Suffolk police spokesman Tim Motz told Newsday that police "don't encourage people to take the law into their own hands" and that "doing so could lead to charges against yourself."

Motz's advice: "Let the proper authorities handle" animal abuse situations.

Panzarella said Rescue Ink is more concerned with results than perceptions. The group's work puts pressure on law enforcement to be more aggressive about animal abuse, he said, and not get bogged down in bureaucracy before acting.

"We're actually forcing them, fighting with them to do their jobs," he said. "We would not be needed if everybody did their job."

The group's actions sometimes create run-ins with law enforcement. Suffolk SPCA officials called police last Monday after Rescue Ink members interrupted an SPCA news conference to accuse the agency of mishandling the Selden case. A shouting match ensued between Panzarella and Michelle Curtin of Farmingville-based Second Chance Wildlife Rescue, all captured by the TV show's cameras.

Curtin was furious. The group's members turn a routine animal seizure into a "media stunt," she said, and are as interested in publicizing themselves as saving animals.

Suffolk police escorted Rescue Ink out of the pet store hosting the event, though no one was arrested.

Rescue Ink members can be aggressive, said Roseann Trezza, director of a Newark, N.J., humane society chapter. But she said she has viewed the group favorably since a year ago, when Rescue Ink passed on a tip about a neglected pit bull living in a Newark backyard. Now, she said, she refers cases to them regularly.

"It seems they have an imposing figure and get to the bottom of it," Trezza said. "If they get the job done, I'm happy."