Who Says Tough Guys Don’t Have Soft Spots for Animals in Need?
Tattoos, fast driving, hard drinking. Everyone knows that you don't mess with tough guys. Do not touch their motorcycle. Do not dent their car. And whatever you do, never let them see you hurt an animal.
Between Valentine's Day and our coverage of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, this week has been all about the puppy love. But you don't have to be a show dog handler to adore and truly appreciate canines or other cute and cuddly creatures.
There are plenty of rough-and-tumble men out there who use their muscles to protect and rescue the underdogs, undercats and even underparrots of the world — and they don't care who knows it.
Rebels for the Claws
Despite the intimidation factor they bring to any situation, the brawny guys behind Rescue Ink really care about critters. Their National Geographic reality show, Rescue Ink Unleashed, featured Anthony “Big Ant” Rossano and fellow Rescue Ink cofounder Joe “Joe Panz” Panzarella, along with other members of their Long Island, N.Y.–based animal welfare group, which works to save everything from cats and dogs to chickens and even piranhas.
Panz says that their first tactic when confronting someone who's treating animals in a less-than-ideal fashion is to negotiate — but he admits that some negotiations are harder than others. “We're never looking for trouble," says Panz. "However, we have a job to do and we do whatever needs to be done . . . within the means of the law.” He quickly adds, with a laugh, “That's what my lawyer tells me to say.”
These guys may look like outlaws, but they recently lobbied legislators at the New York state capitol to increase penalties for animal abusers and make them undergo mandatory psychiatric evaluations, as well as add their names to a criminal registry that would ban them from owning pets again.
Big Ant says that his favorite part of rescuing animals is the adoption process, which is why the new shelter that the group recently opened in Long Beach now gets most of his attention. The center is outfitted with indoor and outdoor dog runs, and a cat room that can house up to 20 felines.
“A lot of people would never think this is what we do — they judge before you do anything," says Big Ant. "I don’t care if people judge. All that matters is that the animals are safe.” Adds Panz: “We get the job done.”
Major League Animal Lover
The boys of summer are better known for scratching and spitting than rescuing animals, but most athletes have at least one thing in common with cats and dogs: a love of running after balls. Maybe that's why one former baseball player takes time-outs to give homeless animals another chance at bat.
If you ever see a guy who bears a striking resemblance to former Major League right-hander Dave Borkowski trapping feral cats as part of the ASPCA's Trap Neuter Return (TNR) program, there's a good chance that it actually is Borkowski, who pitched for three Major League franchises during his career.
Whether he's at spring training in Florida, his off-season Ohio home or in Lexington, Ky., where Borkowski is a pitching coach for the Lexington Legends, he finds time to help homeless pets. Even when he and his wife, Jill, take a vacation, they're likely to bring home “souvenirs,” like a pair of stray dogs.
Borkowski estimates that the duo has trapped between 40 and 50 cats. “It doesn't seem like a lot, but if we hadn't, those 50 cats would have turned into hundreds in a couple of years,” says Borkowski, who shares his home with two rescue dogs and a pair of rescue cats.
"If your pet gets fed and receives some quality attention from you, they will love you unconditionally," says Borkowski. "They don't ask for much, and to see the way some of them are treated it is not right. They can't help themselves, so they need the help of passionate people."
Borkowski is not alone in that sentiment. Tony La Russa, a former infielder, is best known as the manager who led the St. Louis Cardinals to two World Series wins. Like Borkowski, La Russa has spent both time and money on his pet cause: He and his wife, Elaine, founded their own no-kill organization, the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF).
It was a frightened feline who inspired La Russa’s animal activism. The cat strolled onto the playing field of a home game when La Russa was managing the Oakland A’s. She scampered around, avoiding capture, until La Russa finally coaxed the cat into the dugout.
When he struck out in finding a local no-kill shelter, he ended up locating a new home for her himself, then founded ARF. Of course, it's not hard to imagine that he'd go out of his way like this: La Russa shares his home with 14 cats, five dogs, one rabbit and five mice.
Army Man Turned Shelter Pet Advocate
A Pit Bull puppy named Cheyenne got the job done for Army veteran David Sharpe, who survived life-threatening situations while serving in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Once back in the U.S., he battled with thoughts of suicide and was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Not long after he adopted Cheyenne, Sharpe was in the middle of a violent outburst when he noticed that the dog was watching him intently — and ultimately helped to calm him down. Convinced that other veterans of military service could also benefit from the comfort of a furry pair of nonjudgmental ears, Sharpe started P2V, which pairs veterans with shelter pets.
When Vietnam veteran Mike Sergeant heard about Sharpe's story, he knew that getting involved with Sharpe's organization was a “no-brainer.” Sergeant, who trained attack and search-and-rescue dogs for the Air Force, is now the head animal trainer for P2V.
“Companion dogs provide comfort to these vets and give them a reason to live and go on,” says Sergeant. “I’m a tough dude, but I’m absolutely blown away by the stories I hear. You can tell a dog anything and never worry about it being repeated.”
Most veterans who come to P2V pick out their own shelter pet, and Sergeant helps them adjust to life together. (P2V also pays for the adoption costs and the first year of medical care.) "One command that we work on is ‘let’s go,'" explains Sergeant. When a vet is feeling overwhelmed, like in a crowded space, he gives the command “and the dog will gently find the nearest exit.”
Sergeant knows P2V can’t help every veteran or even every cat and dog, but he often sees big improvement in the outlook of vets just within three months of adopting a shelter pet. “It’s a real step toward the humanity of two living beings,” he says. “These guys think they’re pretty tough, but I’ll ask them what their pet is doing and they tell me, ‘The dog is on the couch with me. I need my dog fix.’”
The Parrot Whisperer
The Wilson Parrot Foundation is currently home to nearly 50 parrots. Many of the birds came from owners who didn't realize just how much attention and care parrots require. As a result, the birds aren't socialized and are very territorial, says retired firefighter and lifelong bird lover Brian Wilson, who runs the organization based in Olney, Md.
But once they're in Wilson's care, his experiences fighting fires work to his advantage. “I show 'em no fear, and if they gouge me, I show no pain,” he says. “If the fight doesn't stop me, they fly away.” Eventually, as the birds see other parrots interacting with Wilson and gain his trust, the rehab process can really begin. “That's why they call me the parrot whisperer,” he says.
When it comes to who can adopt one of his macaws or African gray parrots, Wilson is tougher than most rescue folk. “People have to volunteer for three to six months with me, and if a bird falls in love with someone, that person can adopt the bird,” he explains. “You gotta find a bird that wants you, not one that you want.”
Wilson’s tough guy cred kicked in at age 15, when he was nearly blown up fighting his first fire as a volunteer fireman. He went on to fight fires and save lives as an EMT in suburban Washington, D.C., for more than 20 years. After retiring, Wilson lectured about fire and gun safety using his three pet birds, whom he'd taught to fall over when “shot,” and drop and roll when “on fire."
In 2002, Wilson took his parrots to an adoption event near Ground Zero. When he realized how close he was to the site, the firefighter in him needed to pay his respects.
One of the workers spotted his birds, and the next thing Wilson knew, he was taking Polaroids of her with his brightly colored birds. Five hours and 14 packs of film later, Wilson and his parrots had met dozens of firefighters and EMTs. After snapping a photo of one of the workers, he told that person, “You're a true parrot head. And parrot heads always smile.”