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Panhandler's Animal Collection Raising Cruelty Concerns

By Jill Colvin | October 26, 2011 10:49am
Joseph Noal's guinea pigs rest on a stuffed dog toy.
Joseph Noal's guinea pigs rest on a stuffed dog toy.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MIDTOWN — Commuters are raising alarms over a notorious panhandler who travels around Midtown and the East Side with enough animals to open a zoo.

Joseph Noal, 63, spends his weekdays camped out near Grand Central Terminal, asking for money with the help of his well-trained critter crew, which included three cats, three dogs and two guinea pigs on a recent afternoon. He said he and his flock live in an apartment in the Bronx when he's not looking for cash in Manhattan.

But while many tourists and kids get a kick out of the display, some have been raising red flags, calling in complaints to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

“I think that it’s terrible to leave any animals out in the elements all day long ...and subject to Manhattan street traffic,” said concerned Westchester resident Brian Damiano, who works near Grand Central Terminal and said he’s seen the animals half a dozen times since 2009, both during winter's freeze and during sweltering summer days.

Damiano, 33, who owns guinea pigs, said he knows how sensitive the animals are to the elements, and says their treatment is “indisputably cruelty” and that the ASPCA must act immediately.

“I think it’s really inhumane to take advantage of defenseless animals,” he said. “Someone needs to speak out for these animals because they can’t speak for themselves.”

Police in the Midtown South precinct are aware of the concerns. Commanding Officer Dennis DeQuatro said at a community council meeting last week that officers recently issued Noal a summons for aggressive panhandling, and had also reached out to the ASPCA.

Bret Hopman, a spokesman for the society, said that while they have not received any formal complaints from police, they sent a team of agents from their Humane Law Enforcement department to the area around Grand Central Sunday to investigate the situation, but couldn’t track Noal down.

Still, Hopman said that, in general, it is not illegal for homeless people or other panhandlers to have animals or carry them around the streets, as long as there is no evidence of animal abuse or neglect.

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, 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.

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.

The only minor incident DNAinfo observed was when the short-haired black cat darted away through the crowd on Fifth Avenue, forcing Neal to chase him down.

“Blackie, back to work!” he said, before scooping up the animal and returning to his post.

Joseph Noal's pets gathered on a set of cages covered in blankets on a recent afternoon.
Joseph Noal's pets gathered on a set of cages covered in blankets on a recent afternoon.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

A video of the team posted on YouTube shows a more hectic scene, with two of the dogs barking frantically and one darting partially into the street.

But Noal defended his treatment of the animals and said they’re all well taken care of and extremely well-trained.

“In this kind of work, there’s always someone complaining,” he said. “Other people like what they see.”

Anyone who witnesses or suspects that animal cruelty is taking place anywhere in New York City is encouraged to report the incident to the ASPCA’s Humane Law Enforcement department at (212) 876-7700 ext. 4450 or enforcement@aspca.org.