Animals dancing for pennies are regulated. Panhandlers’ animals are not.
NEW YORK, N.Y.––Is Joseph Ramos, 70, also known as Joseph Noal and Joseph Noah, a street corner animal exhibitor, or just one of the longest active and most controversial panhandlers using animals as an adjunct to begging in downtown Manhattan?
Joseph Ramos a.k.a. Noal/Noah represents multiple here-and-now dimensions of an ancient and ubiquitous problem.
How to untangle the distinctions among animal exhibitors, beggars using and misusing animals, and homeless people who keep animals, while trying to re-establish themselves in life, appears to have perplexed municipal governments for as long as cities have existed.
Elephants, snakes, bears & monkeys
The issues surrounding Ramos-Noal/Noah, complicated as they are, are simple compared to similar issues percolating in parts of the developing world.
There, the problems associated with street corner animal acts and panhandlers are compounded by mahouts who lead elephants into town, seeking either work or alms, snake charmers who may release snakes into homes in order to be hired to remove them, traveling dancing bear acts (now illegal in most nations) and pickpockets who work with trained monkeys.
The focal problems throughout the world, and throughout history, are cultural conflicts between concern for animal welfare and public safety, on the one hand, and sympathy for human underdogs and the civil rights of all citizens on the other.
Right to keep animals
In New York City, as throughout the U.S., the right to keep animals is constitutionally protected, albeit subject to “reasonable regulation” according to a long tradition of jurisprudence,
The U.S. Supreme Court has also accepted begging as constitutionally protected free speech.
Thus, if a panhandler keeps and uses animals, within the same constraints that apply to any other animal keeper, the panhandler has every legal right to do so.
But if the person keeping and using animals is an animal exhibitor, that person must possess local and perhaps also state and federal permits, depending on whether the animals involved are federally regulated species, covered by the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, or (rarely) the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Even animals normally kept as pets, such as dogs, cats, rodents, and parrots, if used in public performances, tend to come under multiple levels of regulation meant to protect public health and safety.
Is Ramos-Noal/Noah an exhibitor?
Ramos-Noal/Noah has been widely known, indeed notorious, for at least 15 years for displaying an altar-like menagerie mingling living, plush toy, and wooden animals at locations mostly on Lexington Avenue between 56th and 60th streets, and around Grand Central Terminal.
“People love what I do,” Ramos-Noal/Noah told Kate Briquelet of Modal Trigger in June 2012. “I’m paying my bills the honorable way — out here with my own talent,” purportedly collecting $40 to $50 an hour.
Recounted Briquelet, “There’s Anna the cocker spaniel, Baby the terrier mix, two cats named Blackie and Kitty, and three guinea pigs, all sharing the name Guinea. Ramos, wearing a worn suit and tie, yells, ‘Camera, camera! Picture, anybody?’ in between readings from the Bible. The guinea pigs sit so still on a shoebox that people touch their noses to see if they’re real.”
Ramos-Noal/Noah “said he had been addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine for more than 16 years before finding God — and the idea for his own version of Noah’s ark,” Briquelet wrote. “Ramos said he lives alone with the pets in his West Farms, Bronx, apartment. He started out panhandling with a poodle and a cat before using his funds to buy more pets for his sidewalk display.”
“They call this cruelty,” Ramos told Briquelet. “Does it look like they’re being mistreated? I give them love; they give me obedience.”
By claiming the use of “talent” to obtain “obedience,” Ramos-Noal/Noah in the Briquelet interview appeared to identify himself more with the now seldom seen tradition of sidewalk organ-grinders with cup-handling marmosets to collect coins than with panhandlers who merely beg. Elsewhere in the interview Ramos-Noal/Noah described what he does as “work.” He made clear that he is not homeless.
Other accounts of similar vintage document both the growing numbers of animals involved in Ramos-Noal/Noah’s exhibits and ongoing concern among passers-by about what he is doing.
“Police in the Midtown South precinct are aware of the concerns,” wrote Jill Colvin of DNAinfo in October 2011. “Commanding officer Dennis DeQuatro said that officers recently issued Noal a summons for aggressive panhandling, and had also reached out to the American SPCA,” but nothing much came of the ASPCA investigation.
Meanwhile, “Camped out on the corner of Fifth and 40th Street on a recent afternoon, some of Noal’s animals were perched atop cages draped in colorful towels,” Colvin reported, “while others were leashed to a nearby street lamp and garbage can.
“The three dogs eagerly greeted Noal when he pulled a package of treats out from his front shirt pocket, and the two guinea pigs rested lazily, nuzzling a tiny stuffed toy dog, even when a restless black cat climbed right over them to reach Noal.
Stuffed, or not?
“All of the larger animals wore collars with name tags, and a water jug outfitted with a hose sat nearby. A water bowl lined with dollar bills served as a collection pot for donations from passersby.”
Observed the blog “When Nutmeg met Basil” about a month later, “The two dogs in the center of the frame in front of the yellow bird cage are stuffed animals, and the birds in the cage are merely colorful wooden replicas of the real thing. But the other animals are very much alive––although the two guinea pigs to the left of the birdcage move so infrequently that it took me a few moments of staring to ascertain whether they were stuffed or not.
“The strangest part”
“The strangest part of the scene was this: nowhere could I locate the owner, proprietor, or caretaker of the animals. Yet none of the animals looked concerned or scared. The guinea pigs lounged lazily. The dogs cantered as long as their chain-link leashes would allow them, loudly greeting oncoming canines and straining to follow them. The cats under the bird cage were the only ones who seemed slightly preoccupied at their situation, as if they were stranded on a high-up precipice with no escape route in sight. They were fine for the moment, but should imminent danger present itself, they had nowhere to go–and they knew it.”
As of July 2012, wrote “Women of Mystery” blogger Claire Toohy, “To the sounds of a boombox playing classic Motown tunes, from left to right, there’s a gray-black dog, then two similarly colored cats placidly sharing the same cat bed. On the raised dais in back are three guinea pigs also behaving themselves admirably. The fatter ones below them are stuffed versions, as is the parrot in front of the green milk crate. But it takes a minute to figure all that out, since the live versions are so still. There is another dog in front who actually does a little sit-stay and what have you.”
Otherwise, Toohy observed, “This show is like an animal version of living statues.”
“Appeared barely alive”
Longtime New York City animal advocate Irene Muschel took up the Ramos-Noal/Noah question in August 2017, after observing him with “a minimum of 16 animals–at least one dog, at least two cats, multiple exotic birds, multiple guinea pigs, and multiple rabbits,” Muschel wrote to a variety of public officials.
“Aside from the one somewhat alert dog who was attached to the table by a leash, all the other animals were unattached to anything, sitting open in space — and all appeared to be drugged,” Muschel opined. “They were not moving at all. They did not respond to people petting them, screeching traffic, approaching dogs from passersby, or to any other external stimuli. They barely appeared alive. One cat had a white bird on his/her back and did not appear to be aware of the animal. Another cat appeared comatose with his/her head draped over the surface on which he/she was lying.
“Thought guinea pigs were dolls”
“Most people thought the guinea pigs were dolls,” Muschel said, “and the only way to determine if they were alive was when one of them blinked. People were giving the man money. The man appeared to gain pleasure out of having created this still life, this tableau of seemingly dead animals.”
Muschel quickly found at least 20 other witnesses making similar observations. ANIMALS 24-7 found many more.
Does Ramos-Noal/Noah sedate his animals?
The ASPCA, which has vetted and sterilized some of the animals, has claimed repeatedly over the past seven years to have found no evidence of sedation––and told Muschel that, too.
Responded Muschel, “If a large number of people have contacted the ASPCA over what they perceive as drugged animals, it is troubling that the ASPCA did not pursue focusing on that central aspect of the animals condition. It is wonderful that the ASPCA offered assistance to these animals–spaying and neutering, vaccinations, etc., but without blood or urine tests at the time of their drugged appearance [on the street], the central aspect of all these complaints remains unaddressed. Are all these people wrong in what they saw?
“What were the comments of the veterinarians,” if the ASPCA actually sent any, “who visited the animals on the streets and saw their comatose state? Did the veterinarians think the animals were behaving normally?
Did any behaviorists visit?
“Considering the ASPCA has animal behavior specialists on its staff, did any behaviorists visit the animals in their comatose states while they were on the streets? What was their opinion?”
“Does the ASPCA have any record of how frequently this man gets new animals and what happens to the ones that are no longer with him?” Muschel asked. “Do they live a normal life span?”
One inconclusive photo appears to show Ramos-Noal/Noah giving a guinea pig an oral syringe––or maybe just feeding the guinea pig a carrot, with the carrot held in an unusual manner.
Another explanation for the motionless behavior of some of the animals may be a phenomenon called “induced tonic immobility.”
Explained Daniel Enger in the March 2014 edition of Popular Science, “Laboratory studies of “animal hypnosis” were fairly common in the 1970s and the 1980s. One paper defined its subject as ‘a state of prolonged, reversible immobility which is brought about by different types of sensory stimulation and is characterized by passivity and lack of responsiveness.’ The researchers go on to give an easy method for producing this phenomenon: Just hold the animal in a fixed position on its back or on its side until it stops moving. When you release your grip, the animal will persist in a trancelike state, unresponsive to other stimuli and somewhat impervious to pain.
“This is not so much a case of animals being hypnotized as playing possum,” Engber wrote. “Going limp while under threat makes predators lose interest and move on to other prey.”
Induced tonic immobility is known to occur with a variety of animals including rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, ducks, and numerous cold-blooded species.
Sedation is not illegal
Regardless of how Ramos-Noal/Noah achieves immobility among his animals, and as much concern as the sedation issue raises, sedating animals for any purpose is not illegal if the animals are otherwise healthy and the sedative is something that has been legally acquired and used.
Further, animals may not be impounded to test for sedation without the impounding agency first obtaining a search-and-seizure warrant, which requires some evidence of a crime having been committed.
A stronger legal tool than anti-cruelty legislation to restrain or regulate Ramos-Noal/Noah might be the New York City Health Code.
Permit required for “exhibition or use of any animal”
By law, a permit “is required for the exhibition or use of any animal in New York City for commercial purposes,” according to the city Department of Health & Mental Hygiene web site. A headline appears to limit the requirement to “exotic” animals, but the accompanying text does not, and the language “any animal” appears to mean just that: any animal.
“This includes animals used in theatrical performances, circuses, or in demonstrations by wildlife rehabilitators,” the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene web site continues. Exhibited animals must be under direct control and supervision of handlers at all times.”
The Department of Health & Mental Hygiene web site prescribes that “There can be no direct public contact with these animals. Animals and animal waste must not create a public health nuisance. Each animal must be housed in a cage of adequate size for that species with proper ventilation, so as to cause no obvious discomfort to the animal,” and stipulates that “Any changes in exhibition schedule will invalidate permission to exhibit,” meaning that the public exhibitions of animals must be according to a set schedule.
Concludes the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene web site, “Exhibitors assume all responsibility and liability for personal injury, illness, harm or property damage caused directly or indirectly by the animals in the exhibit. Exhibitors agree to hold the City of New York harmless for any resulting personal injury or property damage alleged to have been caused by the Department’s granting of permission for the exhibit or use of animals.”
If the relevant regulations were to be strictly enforced, and Ramos-Noal/Noah was to obtain an exhibition permit, his sidewalk displays would have to be insured to affirm compliance to the permit conditions.
Ramos-Noal/Noah and his animals have apparently not been involved in any incidents involving “personal injury, illness, harm or property damage,” but other New York City panhandlers have been. A child, for example, was mauled on June 30, 2016 by a pit bull belonging to a panhandling couple at the the Queens Center Mall in Elmhurst.
In August 2015 an East Village man suffered a severe injury from a homeless man’s pit bull, just four days after another homeless man’s pit bull killed a pug belonging to photographer Roberta Bayley in almost the same location.
Las Vegas bans animals from the Strip
Several such incidents, and the typical inability of panhandlers to pay for the damages to others, even if they are not actually homeless, caused the Clark County Commission to exclude all animals from the Las Vegas Strip between noon and 5 a.m. in 2012.
Within a matter of weeks, however, many panhandlers were back to working the strip, now contending that their pit bulls and other pets are “service animals,” exempted from exclusion under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, while applying only to dogs and miniature horses, prohibits asking people who claim to have service dogs or miniature horses for proof either that the people are actually disabled, or that the dogs or miniature horses actually are trained to perform any sort of service.
The cities of Eugene and Salem, Oregon, adopted similar legislation in March 2017.
Bummer & Lazarus
Many other cities, however, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Denver, have programs specifically designed to help homeless people keep pets, which tend to help panhandlers as well, homeless or not.
San Francisco appears to have the longest unbroken tradition in that respect, having famously tolerated the eccentricities of the once wealthy speculator-turned-panhandler Joshua Abraham Norton (1818-1880), better known as the Emperor Norton, and the dogs Bummer & Lazarus, who were associated with him from 1860 to 1868, though Norton never actually claimed they were his. The dogs are memorialized by a statue standing in front of the San Francisco City Hall.
Puppies for panhandlers
Beginning in June 2012, wrote Heather Knight of the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco initiated an “attempt to lure panhandlers to give up their cardboard signs and metal cups in exchange for a small stipend to foster problematic puppies at the city’s Animal Care and Control center, making them ready for adoption.”
Explained Knight, “Animal Care & Control will screen applicants to ensure they’re a good fit. They must be living in supportive housing and not on the streets; the city has anecdotal evidence to suggest the majority of panhandlers are housed, but supplement their income through begging or just don’t have anything else to occupy their time.
“The applicants must also show they are not severely mentally ill, are not hoarders, don’t have a history of violence, and are seeking treatment if they have addictions. They also must pledge to forswear panhandling, and if they are caught begging with the puppy, the animal will be taken back to the shelter.
$50-$75 a week
“In exchange, they will receive $50 to $75 a week, and several training sessions provided by an animal behavior specialist at Animal Care & Control as well as regular check-ins by that person, and all the dog food, toys, leashes and veterinary care they need.”
Opposed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the grant-funded San Francisco Animal Care & Control program to foster “problematic puppies” with former panhandlers did not actually get started until 2014, and is no longer listed among the San Francisco Animal Care & Control programs and services.
Breeding pit bulls on the street?
A storm blew up in Los Angeles in September 2014, recounted by Gale Holland of the Los Angeles Times in an article headlined “Hounding a homeless man into giving up his dogs,” after activists alleged that Gerrick Miller, 52, had bred 10 pit bull puppies for sale.
Downtown Dog Rescue founder Lori Weisse eventually persuaded Miller to surrender the pit bull puppies to Los Angeles Animal Services, which rehomed them, while Miller was arrested on a drug charge and sentenced to spend a year in a rehabilitation program.
Partly in response to the Miller case, Los Angeles Animal Services, Downtown Dog Rescue, and the Inner City Law Center in August 2016 initiated a program to provide legal assistance to indigent pet keepers and their animals.
Stole dog from homeless man
A year later, in July 2017, a comparable fracas erupted in Manitou Springs, Colorado. Local artist and entrepreneur Don Goede offered to buy food for a starving and sickly dog he saw with a homeless man, he told the Colorado Springs Gazette, but the homeless man allegedly told Goede he was “starving the dog to teach it a lesson.”
Goede then stole the dog.
“Most commenters hailed him as a hero, the kind of guy they’d wish for––as an owner and champion––should they be reincarnated as a dog,” the Colorado Springs Gazette recounted.
“The Pikes Peak area is home to multiple programs and services for needy pet owners, including access to free and low-cost food and veterinary care,” the Colorado Springs Gazette added. “Animal abuse and neglect are illegal, but the law says a pet owner need only provide adequate food, water, shelter and veterinary attention if the animal is ailing.”
Further requirements apply, however, if the animal is used for public exhibition––but panhandling appears to be exempt.