THEY met on the local hot rod scene. They saw one another at tattoo conventions around the area, comparing bikes. They looked like heavies, a band of Hells Angels, with nicknames equally tough: Mike Tattoo, Big Ant, Johnny O, Batso, Sal, Angel, Des.
They meant no harm. Clad in leather, inked to the hilt in skulls and dragons, with images of bloodied barbed wire looped about their necks, they shared something else — a peculiar tenderness for animals, and the intensity needed to act on the animals’ behalf when people abuse them.
“I’m a vegetarian,” said Mike Tattoo (real name Mike Ostrosky), a former bodybuilding champion with a shaved head, great arms covered in art and a probing clarity in his blue eyes. “And Big Ant has in his backyard three guinea pigs, a couple of rabbits, birds, cats — and fish everywhere. But just because a person has tattoos, they wouldn’t come running with us.”
The group became a little larger over the course of about 15 years, with various animal-loving, tattooed bikers in the New York area joining the conversation. One member, Angel Nieves, a 47-year-old retired city police detective, grew up in the projects on West 125th Street and remembered taking in strays from the streets as a boy, as did many of his cohorts. He owns a tiny, white bichon frisé named Cris.
Having run in crowds where animal abuse was rampant, often involving pit bull fights, the men volunteered at shelters and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Toward Animals, and they tried to solve cases of missing or abused animals that other organizations had neither the time nor the resources to address.
Next month, the bikers will begin a program in the city’s public schools to educate children about being kind to all animals, even the less attractive breeds. They will be accompanied by Elwood, a small, hairless Chihuahua mix judged in an annual California contest to be the World’s Ugliest Dog.
A man named Robert Missari pulled everything together. Mike Tattoo met Mr. Missari about 18 months ago at a hot rod convention called the Rumbler. Though Mr. Missari is not inked — he works in catering — he loves animals and broached the idea that the bikers should become more than just friends bound by a commitment to a common cause; he wanted them to become an organization. About a year ago, they took up the name Rescue Ink, and now work full time investigating cases of animal abuse.
Mr. Missari is the executive director and the dispatcher for this biker brotherhood, working from his office in Manhattan, where he spends some of his time phoning in leads to the men on the road (“Yo, we got a report of five pit bulls living in 55-gallon drums”). He gets up to 250 calls a day.
One case: On Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side, a woman left her pedigreed Maltese, Mao, in her car as she stepped away to get something to eat. When she returned, the window was smashed and the dog was gone. Rescue Ink put up fliers and checked the street’s video cameras.
“It was a crackhead,” Angel said, “sold the dog for a few hundred dollars, drug money to a woman walking down the street. We got a tip. Someone said they had bought the dog on 129th Street, I think it was. We picked the dog up from somebody else, on First Avenue.”
The men rescue pedigreed animals sold for a pittance to buy drugs, animals used for fighting and bait, and colonies of feral cats that angry neighbors have tried to shoot or poison. They have received calls from Australia (“Dingoes, I guess,” Angel said) and reports of a serial cat killer in Pennsylvania.
They hand cases of criminal activities to the police. “That’s not our specialty,” Mr. Missari said. “We specialize in getting the abuser away from the dog. We truly work with the abuser. We go to a house; if it’s really cold out, we see two dogs in the back, we build them a doghouse.”
Slower days begin like this one. Setting out from their meeting site at the stables in Van Cortlandt Park, in the north Bronx, a band of four rode in Angel’s S.U.V. on a warm morning in mid-August. All but 3 of the 11 members of Rescue Ink live scattered around the boroughs. Each day begins differently, with any number of men traveling in any number of vehicles to help any number of species.
The first stop was Elmhurst, Queens, where a caller had reported that five pit bulls were caged in the back of a used-car lot.
A large man with dark hair and a tidy goatee, Angel is built like a bouncer who might ruin someone’s night. A retired police detective with 20 years on the force, he investigated killings, narcotics and larceny, and speaks with the clipped cadence of a good film noir.
“It’s a big extreme between homicide and a stolen dog,” he said. “Homicide is an A felony, and a stolen dog is larceny. But the comparison here is that person can’t tell no tales. Neither can a dog.”
In the back seat, Nick Maccharoli, who goes by the name Batso, chatted with Desi Calderon, known as Des, the Cat Man. Batso, 74, who holds a record for power lifting in Connecticut, wore a Fu Manchu mustache and a pointed beard. His head is shaved as bald as a snow globe, except for a skinny black ponytail. Tattooed spider webs creep about the back of his neck, a snake coils over an ear, and where the ponytail begins, the two wings of a huge bat conjoin. On his left calf, Jesus hoists a barbell.
As the men reached the Major Deegan Expressway, Des took a call about strays found on 141st Street in Manhattan, writing the details in neat script on his pad. Soft-spoken and gray-haired, Des held a gym bag on his lap. When the call ended, he looked over his notes, then unzipped the bag to produce a tiny kitten, which had been sleeping on a newspaper.
“What the——!” said Batso. “He’s got a cat back here! Why you got a cat with you, Desi?”
The kitten clambered over Des’s leather wristband and gnawed at his spiked silver ring. With one finger, Des stroked the pale underside of its neck. He had been carrying the cat everywhere for a week and a half.
“This little guy has to eat every few hours,” he said, “He’s a he, but I keep calling him a she.”
Speeding across the Triborough Bridge into Queens, the S.U.V. pulled into the parking lot of a McDonald’s on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst. There, Big Ant, also known as Anthony Missano, was waiting, reclining on his Harley, along with Mike Tattoo on a 1959 Honda.
Big Ant, “a little guy,” as the others describe him, is a little more than 6 feet tall and around 320 pounds. He was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and sunglasses with small orange lenses. The tattoo of a red lightning bolt sliced down his enormous arm.
Other members of the squad arrived, among them Johnny O (John Orlandini), a former bodyguard who once waded waist deep into a pond near a sewage pipe to rescue a duck; and Biagi, who is to dogs what Des is to cats: a psychic force.
Bruce Feinberg, the group’s organizer, distributed copies of the day’s schedule. A middle-aged woman who had alerted Rescue Ink about the first case on the list stood awkwardly among them.
The group was joined by a man from the Humane Society and an investor from Canada, a tall, slim figure with gelled hair who saw Rescue Ink on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in May and flew down from Vancouver to ride along and talk about branding.
The used-car lot around the corner at 76th Road and Queens Boulevard was the place they had come to investigate. The men approached from the back, across a sidewalk that was under construction. The workers stopped their jackhammers and stared as a half-dozen tattooed men followed a nervous woman wearing a floral blouse.
Several of the men climbed up a stack of concrete slabs to peer over a wall into the lot. In a large enclosure behind a chain-link fence, four pit bulls stared back at them, tails wagging, coats sleek and mouths wide open, like smiling crocodiles. As it turned out, they were not confined and in fact had ample space.
“We get calls from everywhere,” Mr. Feinberg said as they walked around to the front of the office. “They’re more often false alarms. We get a call: ‘There’s a fish in the ocean!’ ‘What’s the matter with it?’ ‘It’s wet!’ ”
Inside was a female pit bull. A litter of pups yelped in a room behind her. Batso rubbed the dog’s head, and she wagged her tail. He fed her a treat from his pocket and patted her neck. “Aw,” he said, “she’s O.K., she’s a good girl.”
Like a gust of authority, Biagi, who uses only his last name for security reasons, strode over. “This is no good,” he announced. “You see that? You see the saggy teats? She’s a breeder. It puts a big strain on the dog.”
When members of Rescue Ink reached the owner by phone, they asked if he needed help placing the puppies. Big Ant adopted one, and the owner agreed to let the bikers take the mother and the other three female dogs to be spayed and returned to him at no cost.
Next on the schedule came reports of two German shepherds being kept as guard dogs in a wooden cage with bars in Long Island City, Queens.
“You know how old I am?” Batso announced as they headed toward the site. “I’m 75 next month. Born in 1933. Yesterday, I ran two hours on the treadmill, and then I did 120 minutes on the rowing machine. And you know what else I can do?” he said. “I can pull 100 pounds. With my neck.”
At an auto shop on Queens Boulevard and 37th Street, in a small shed with a corrugated iron roof, dogs barked and lunged at the bars around their enclosure. Biagi spoke with four men who stood nearby, smoking cigars.
“These dogs get out?” he demanded, his huge arms folded across his chest. He was assured that yes, the dogs got out at night.
“You need anything for these dogs,” Mike Tattoo asked. “Food? Shots?”
Big Ant was examining the angle that the sun struck the roof of the shelter.
“Is there a way you can move the roof over a bit?” he asked. The men shrugged. One placed an electric fan in front of the shed. “When the angle of the sun changes,” Big Ant explained, “it gets them.” Before they left, he added menacingly: “We’ll be back. To check out your construction work.”
The S.U.V. pushed on, following the Harley and the Honda, a formidable cavalcade that prompted heads to turn at every stoplight.
Soon, they pulled in at an old-fashioned diner below the No. 7 train on Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside and piled in. Des removed the kitten from his bag and dabbed ointment on its chin. Batso mentioned that he often took his dog with him to church. The investor from Canada talked about how he might help the men turn news media attention into money, like a music manager discovering the next big boy band.
As the day wound down, they pursued a follow-up matter. Recently, they had encountered a man selling puppies, possibly for fighting, out of his car, and had warned him they’d be back. And so they returned to Thompson Avenue and 30th Place, in Long Island City, where they first saw him.
“A lot of people think a pit bull fighting is millions of people sitting in a ring cheering,” Big Ant said. “It’s not. It goes on in an abandoned box truck. A van is perfect. Just two guys. They throw the dog in the back; then one guy goes in there and says which dog is dead. Two teenagers that think they’re tough.”
The men see a lot of pit bull fights in the city, most of it unreported. Mainly, they say, the fighting is organized by teenagers or young men, often in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Sometimes gentler breeds are used as training bait, their mouths duct-taped shut so they cannot fight back.
Rescue Ink works closely with law enforcement agencies, as members are quick to point out when they are accused of vigilantism. While they may get rough, they never break the law. “If Option A doesn’t work, we go to Option B,” Mike Tattoo said. “If that fails, there’s always Option C.”
Since they started doing this work, which takes up more time than most full-time employment, two of the men have lost their construction jobs. They spend their nights researching and making phone calls, and spend fair amounts of money on pet food and vet bills.
En route to the final stop, an undercover investigation of illegal exotic animal sales, the men got lost on Northern Boulevard. Following the bikes, laughing, meowing at Des, bouncing around the S.U.V. like 18-year-olds, they looked around and realized that the signs on the stores provided little help.
“They’re all in Chinese!” someone cried out.
“It’s Korean,” Des said. “You’re so uncouth.”