Bikers with a cause

By Steven Schnarr

On a dark evening in early July, Monica Ryan, a volunteer animal transport, was taking a Chihuahua to a better home.

The dog had been the abused pet of a convicted serial killer, she said.

Ryan had picked up the dog through a series of transports from southern Illinois. She was delivering the dog to its new home at 69th Place and Stony Island Avenue.

Her cell phone was dead, and she could hear gunfire, she said. She stopped at a KFC to use a restroom, and someone asked her if she was lost. She said she responded, “No, I’m supposed to meet someone here. They’re picking up a dog.”

She wished the dog were something bigger so that it could protect her, she said. But the dog was no Siberian husky-it was a Chihuahua.

“A lot of protection you’re going to be,” Ryan said to the dog.

The dog was delivered to its new caretaker. Ryan drove home safely but not without having thoughts of the serial killer escaping from prison and trying to track down the dog.

Ryan, who by day works as a project manager for an electrical contractor, is just one member of a group of volunteers who transport abused or neglected animals to better homes. But one thing that gives the group a different angle than just saving animals is that the group is for animal-friendly bikers.

The Foundation of Animal Rescue Motorcyclists recently held their second meeting on Sept. 21 in Naperville, Ill., where they discussed the dynamics and mission of the organization. The founder, Beau Harasti, wanted to start a biker gang that got together but didn’t drink and start fights. Rather, they would prevent cruelty to animals and stop needless euthanizing.

When he couldn’t find a similar group based in the Chicago area, Harasti, a resident of Downers Grove, Ill., decided to create the Foundation of Animal Rescue Motorcyclists.

The Foundation of Animal Rescue Motorcyclists consists of mostly animal lovers and volunteers of local shelters. Though they do not typically rescue animals with their motorcycles, what links them is that they all love animals and ride bikes. They use their biker group to raise charity funds for animal shelters and raise awareness about animal cruelty. The organization’s goal is to create a network of supporters who will contact the group when they find an animal without a home. The group will try to find a home for any animal they hear about, either from a neighbor, a shelter or a passer-by, because, typically, animals that are left at shelters for too long will often be euthanized.

To avoid euthanizing animals, the group is working to create a network of people who know of new homes for pets. They sometimes transport pets to their new homes if the owner can’t get it themselves. As well as dogs and cats, Harasti said they will work to find a new home for any type of animal.

The group is not alone in its animal saving efforts. Brother and sister organizations exist across the country. Bikers for Best Friends, Rebels for the Paws, Bikers Against Animal Cruelty and Rescue Ink reach from coast to coast. Though they may not all bear the same name, they fight for similar causes.

Rebels for the Paws is a local chapter of a nationwide organization based in Utah, called Best Friends Animal Society. The website for Best Friends has more than 50,000 members consisting of shelter volunteers, animal rescuers and supporters alike, more than 100 of which are in the sub group Bikers for Best Friends. Bikers collect money riding through pledges for the length of the ride, and also from street donations. The money goes to support an animal sanctuary in their area.

Rebels for the Paws, an event starting in Denver, hosted a charity ride on Sept. 20 with 110 bikers, organizer Mark Stefanowski said. The goal of the ride was to raise money for local animal shelters and events that often do not have enough money to fund themselves. The group also tries to create awareness about stores that sell animals from puppy mills-large-scale dog breeding facilities that operate under unsafe and sometimes cruel breeding conditions for profit. Often the puppies are sold directly to the public via the Internet, newspaper ads or at the mill itself. In other cases, they are sold to brokers and pet shops across the country, according to the Humane Society’s website.

“If there’s a store that’s selling dogs from puppy mills, it’s cool to get 15 or 20 guys to ride in on Harleys to a pet shop and protest,” Stefanowski said.

John Larson, a biker of 35 years and an electrician, said at one time there were five dogs and more than a dozen cats in his house. In the past two years, he has actively fostered animals and found good owners for them. He enjoys supporting a good cause by being a part of the Foundation of Animal Rescuing Motorcyclists because he has stopped riding with certain bikers who ride aimlessly, he said.

“You go on these runs, and you go 80 miles away, but you’ve stopped at four bars on the way,” Larson said, explaining the stereotypical biker gang. “Now you’re three hours away from home and you’re half in the bag. You’re white knuckling it all the way home, afraid of killing somebody or yourself, or getting busted.”

The stereotypical biker gangs are being replaced by constructive gangs. This trend seems to be followed by other groups and events, as well.

Bikers Against Animal Cruelty is based in Connecticut. The group, founded last year, now has about 25 members, said organizer Jessica Miller, but there is a huge network of people, bikers and non bikers alike, who work together for animals.

“We don’t go in and rescue the animals physically, but we will if we have to,” Miller said. “This isn’t a vigilante firm or anything.”

A lot of the animals are brought in off the street or rescued from dog fighters or similar things. When the group hears about an abused animal, they typically go to the local animal facility first, even though they are not huge proponents of the law, Miller said.

When these groups are transporting animals, they often use cars or trucks. The motorcycles come into play by bringing the group together in a positive environment. Also, bikers draw a lot of attention from the public, Miller said.

Another group that Miller said is better known, Rescue Ink, is located in New York City. Though the group isn’t specifically bikers, they have the looks, she said. They are a dozen or so burly guys covered in tattoos. The group has a hotline that anyone can call to report animal abuse.

One reason many animals need to be rescued and brought to new homes is the lack of thought process that goes into getting a pet, said Thomas Tourtellot, who attended the second meeting of the Foundation of Animal Rescuing Motorcyclists.

“I see a lot of people who don’t have control of their animals [because they] get them on a whim,” Tourtellot said. “They get up on a Saturday and put the kids in the car and go down to the local pet store-that’s an accident waiting to happen.”

A common strategy among animal rescuers is finding the right pet for the right owner. Without understanding how certain dogs behave, people often end up with the wrong pet.

“[A prospective dog owner will] pick out the cutest dog there is, but it might turn out that dog will be the most problematic,” Tourtellot said. “Too many people go out and get a dog, and they end up being turned right back in somewhere else.”

Harasti, who has been an animal lover all his life, also sees this problem happening often.

“It’s all fine and dandy to go buy a $400 puppy,” Harasti said. “But then six months later when the dog is too big, they end up getting rid of it. Then there’s a perfectly good dog, that if it had a little bit of love and attention, it would be well-behaved.”

Robyn Vesely, Harasti’s fiance, said she and Harasti own three dogs, which is the maximum allowed in Downers Grove without a permit. Their dogs, named Floppy, Diva and Chanel, all sleep in the bedroom, sometimes on the bed.

“They’re not just dogs,” Vesely said, “they’re family to us.”

Harasti agreed. “If I were homeless, and someone gave me $2, then I would spend it on getting them something to eat.”