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Justice Rescue Plays It Tough to Save Mistreated Animals

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When Tim and Renee DiFilippo-Gilbert began searching online for a new family pet three years ago, they immediately fell in love with pictures of a 3-year-old boxer mix named Chili. He’d been discovered in the middle of a Philadelphia street, emaciated and within seconds of death. Three months later, he was theirs. “He can be a big goofball at times, and he also thinks he’s a lapdog,” says Renee. “But he has an amazing personality and loves to play.”

Chili is alive thanks to Russ “Wolf” Harper and Karl “Crash” Sangree, a pair of tattooed bikers who founded the nonprofit Justice Rescue in 2011. Harper once worked as a corporate consultant, and Sangree is a software engineer. Now, they’re “dog soldiers,” targeting abused animals from high-risk areas and taking concrete steps to help educate others in an effort to prevent further cases. Professionally trained boxer Gary “Knuckles” Watts rounds out this Delaware County brotherhood.

For the Justice team, the bad-boy image acts as a shield in dangerous neighborhoods. “We work in the underbellies,” says Harper. “We go anywhere at any time. People have tried to run us over and pulled guns on us.”

For good reason, Justice keeps the location of its Chester County headquarters confidential, and the group hasn’t been completely free of controversy. Harper and Sangree were arrested and accused of stealing a pit bull in 2013, but the charges were later dropped when it was determined that the owner legally surrendered the animal. “We helped this dog when no one else would,” says Harper. “We put animals first, regardless of political opinion.” 

Last year, Harper spent a little over two months as the interim executive director of the Chester County SPCA, before he was unceremoniously dismissed. “It came down to operational differences that were too strong for us to continue,” he says.

Many Justice rescues come from Chester city. Some, says Harper, are championship-level fighters, with street values of up to $250,000. “Dogfighting has become more popular than ever,” he says. “When the economy tanks, it goes up.” 

Depending on the state of the animals when they’re rescued, Justice will spend what it has to. “Four years ago, we were called by law enforcement to rescue six puppies suffering from severe cases of mange,” he says. “The total bill was $17,000. I cashed out my 401(k) and sold all my cars.”

Around that time, Justice wisely created a Facebook page, which now has almost 90,000 followers. Those looking to adopt must go through a strict screening process that includes interviews and home checks. But it sure beats a pet store. “The puppies you see in stores are most likely coming from puppy mills,” Harper says. 

As rewarding as Harper finds his work, he worries he’s not doing enough. “We’re the only ones who do what we do,” he says. “That’s a huge weight on our shoulders.” 

Tim and Renee know that Chili wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Harper and Sangree, who hand-fed the dog and nursed him back to health. “There’s nothing more satisfying than rescuing a dog from a shelter,” says Renee. “They look at you and thank you every time.” 

Justice Rescue’s Karl Sangree with a new friend//photo by Fred Troilo

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