“Reality TV” & Rescue Ink Unleashed

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2009:
“Reality TV” & Rescue Ink Unleashed
National Geographic Channel: 10 p.m. Fridays. Debuted September 25, 2009

After the success of Animal Precinct, Rescue Ink Unleashed
was inevitable. Since the beginning of television, each successful
series theme has been followed by variations, trying to emulate the
aspects of the prototype that captured an audience, while adding
twists that the producers hope might attract even more viewers.
Typically the successful prototype is a gritty realistic
drama. After knock-offs exploit that approach to the point of
running out of ideas, caricatures follow. Some are forthrightly
cartoons: The Flintstones (1960) followed The Honeymooners (1955).
Others are merely cartoonish in live-action format: Charlie’s Angels
(1976), for instance, was a distant descendant of the cop show
format pioneered by Dragnet (1951).

So-called “reality” TV scraps the costs of scripting,
choreographing, and hiring professional actors, in favor of editing
impromptu footage into something with enough semblance of a plot to
hold viewers through the commercials. Yet, despite the pretense of
being “real” because it is unrehearsed, “reality” TV tends to
closely parallel the conventions of scripted TV, which evolved in
the first place because those conventions work.
Early “reality” crime shows, like Animal Precinct, which
debuted in 2001, follow actual law enforcement personnel on their
actual rounds. After Animal Precinct became a smash hit came virtual
copies: Animal Cops Detroit, Animal Cops Houston, Miami Animal
Cops, Animal Cops San Francisco, Animal Planet Heroes: Phoenix,
Animal Cops South Africa, and Animal Cops Philadelphia.
Then came cartoon time. Much as the private detective genre
follows the cop show, with protagonists who have more liberty to
violate the constraints of real-life law enforcement, the Rescue Ink
rescuers aid animals without having to observe warrant requirements
and carefully maintain a chain of custody of evidence. Instead of
being neatly outfitted and clean-shaven public servants, the Rescue
Ink characters are tattooed bikers, with the muscle-bound bodies of
power lifters. Rather than driving mundane animal control vans,
they are shown with flamboyantly painted motorcycles and hot rods.
At times they use language that animal control officers cannot use on
the job.
Mostly, on camera at least, they do things like feed pit
bull terriers whose person is hospitalized, drive animals to
sanctuaries, take animals to be sterilized, and talk about how they
feel about animals. The image they project, however, constantly
cultivated by the voice-over narration, is that they are vigilantes
on behalf of abused animals, who at any moment might knuckle a bad
guy’s head.
Like Animal Precinct, Rescue Ink Unleashed is videotaped in
New York City. Knowingly or not, it follows a tradition begun
locally by ASPCA founder Henry Bergh. On November 21, 1870, Bergh
coordinated a police raid on a dogfight at Kit Burns’ Tavern, the
animal fighting venue depicted in the 2002 Martin Scorcese film Gangs
of New York. One of the raiders, apparently a Captain Allaire,
dropped through a skylight into mid-ring in mid-fight to call an
abrupt halt to the proceedings.
Later renditions of the raid, including on the ASPCA web
site, mis-attribute the plunge to Bergh himself, who at six feet
tall, age 47, probably could not have fit through the skylight and
made the hard landing safely enough to confront the dogfighters.
Bergh loved to tell the story, though, to impress upon animal
abusers and potential donors that if diplomacy failed–and Bergh
himself was a former diplomat–any means would be taken to bring
perpetrators to justice.
The tradition of the tough guy for the animals has played out
through countless variations since, including the quasi-piracy of
Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the
undercover videography of Steve Hindi and SHARK, the nightrider
tactics of various factions operating as the “Animal Liberation
Front,” and the feral cat feeding done by the late New York City
crime boss Vicente Gigante. Though examples exist everywhere, New
York City seems to produce a disproportionate number–at least of
those that get high-profile media attention.
Of note as a possible antecedent for Rescue Ink Unleashed was
The Witness, a 1999 Tribe of Heart video, much aired at animal
rights conferences during the next few years, which dramatized the
animal rescue work of then-Brooklyn building contractor Eddie Lama,
an ex-convict portrayed as a tough guy. Actually a soft-spoken
fellow who acknowledged the decades of work of many little known
rescuers before him, Lama even at the peak of his transient
celebrity tended to stand in the back of the room at conferences and
listen attentively to the other speakers. His most confrontational
activity appeared to be airing animal rights videos to sidewalk
passers-by on a widescreen TV mounted in the back of his van.
Lama and partner Eddie Rizzo, also an ex-convict, in 1998
founded the Oasis Sanctuary in Callicoon, New York. Rizzo died in
2004. Donations fell as The Witness was shown less and less. By
mid-2009 Lama was trying to find other homes for the remaining
animals, and trying to sell the property, after paying $25,000 in
back property taxes. “The plan remains to relocate,” Lama told
ANIMAL PEOPLE in November 2009, “but unfortunately that can not take
place unless we sell some of the property. Our concern is that
unpaid property taxes will once again put our place in jeopardy.”
Animal advocates, frustrated by the slow pace of trying to
bring abusers to justice through often inadequate laws and a clogged,
sometimes indifferent judicial system, tend to like the idea of
tough guys for the animals meting out vigilante justice.
Yet, while this is the image that Rescue Ink Unleashed plays
up, reality is that the show frequently illustrates the limits of
the tough-guy approach. The alleged cat-shooter they confront in the
early episodes is a scrawny apparent immigrant who stands up to them
and calls the police on them. They yell in the man’s face, and
offer him non-violent help to keep cats out of his garden, but
appear to be no more successful in amending his outlook and his ways
than the neighbors who summoned Rescue Ink.
Neither do the men of action accomplish anything
extraordinary in two afternoons of trying to help an animal control
officer catch four free-roaming chickens. Instead of baiting and
netting them all at once, as successful chicken-catchers do every
day all over the world, Rescue Ink chases the chickens all over the
neighborhood. The chickens are finally caught, but only after the
Rescue Ink members demonstrate many ways to stress already frightened
animals–albeit animals who soon receive good homes at a sanctuary.
Polling other animal rescue agencies, Patrick Whittle of
Long Island Newsday found Rescue Ink praised by Associated Humane
Societies of New Jersey chief executive Roseann Trezza and Katie’s
Critters Small Animal Rescue founder Wendy Culkin, but criticized by
Michelle Curtin of Second Chance Wildlife Rescue and Suffolk County
SPCA chief Roy Gross. Rescue Ink members had crashed a Suffolk
County SPCA press conference a few days earlier to denounce how the
agency had handled a major serial cruelty and neglect case, and
argued with Curtin at the scene–in front of local TV news cameras.
Regardless of the apparent sincere intent and efforts of the
rescuers, Rescue Ink Unleashed is more about television than humane
work. But there is also some real-life crime drama behind the TV
scenes, exposed on November 14, 2009 by Mark Harrington of Long
Island Newsday.
“Robert Misseri, 40, has alternately been described as the
executive director, organizer, dispatcher, CEO and principal” of
Rescue Ink, Harrington began.
Rescue Ink itself is nonprofit, but “two separate entities,
Rescue Ink Productions and Rescue Ink Publications, are for-profit
enterprises that pay members for participation in the TV show” and a
book deal, Harrington explained. “Misseri is managing partner of
both companies.”
The book was co-authored by former Newsday reporter and
columnist Denise Flaim.
Misseri told Harrington that he has donated at least $12,000
of his money to the nonprofit Rescue Ink entity, said the production
company pays expenses for the show, including ‘payments to all
participants,'” Harrington added.
“In a 2000 indictment against him and 10 others,” Harrington
revealed, “Misseri was accused by federal prosecutors of directing
the ‘Galasso-Misseri crew’ of the Colombo organized crime family.
But as the case neared trial, the charges against him largely
disintegrated. According to the indictment, a witness had accused
Misseri of being in a car during the 1994 murder of Louis Dorval, an
accused mobster. Prosecutors have since charged a Long Island gym
owner, Christian Tarantino, who was not among the original 11
defendants, with ordering Dorval killed. Tarantino’s lawyer said he
denies it.”
Misseri was also charged with arson. “The arson accusation
involved a fire at the Have-A-Home Kennel in Old Brookville,” wrote
Harrington, “in which Misseri denied any role. A police report made
no mention of him having been in a car of men who confessed to the
crime, court papers said.”
The murder and arson charges were dropped, but Misseri
pleaded guilty to alleged money-laundering in 2002. “In addition to
37 months in prison, Misseri was sentenced to three years supervised
release and ordered to pay $109,349 in restitution, court papers say.
He was given credit for time served, and he says he served 32
months,” Harrington wrote.
Another Rescue Ink cofounder, Joseph Panzarella, allegedly
survived an attempted mob “hit.” According to Harrington, “In court
papers filed in the 2008 racketeering and murder trial of convicted
mobster Charles Carneglia, Panzarella is described by prosecutors in
Brooklyn as a ‘Gambino family associate who was shot in a 1995 mob
conflict. Carneglia, according to the papers, sought to avenge the
shooting of Panzarella by another accused mobster. The court papers
in a footnote describe Panzarella as an ‘unnamed co-conspirator’ in
five racketeering acts of the Carneglia case. He has not been
charged with any crime.”
In April 2000, when Misseri was jailed for five months
awaiting trial, “the North Fork Animal Welfare League recalled [in a
letter to the court] how Misseri and his wife happened to be driving
by when a dog escaped from its kennel,” Harrington noted. The
Misseris helped to slow traffic and recapture the dog.
Thus there is some evidence that Misseri and friends were
always tough guys for the animals. But the most serious work done
against animal abuse in New York City is still done by the direct
successors of Henry Bergh et al, the ASPCA officers featured in
Animal Precinct, who have badges, search warrants, and gather
evidence that stands up in court.

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