Backstory: Giving every dog its day

It's the thought of their fear that troubles him most. Homeless dogs are Randy Grim's passion. Whether caged in shelters or running wild on the street, the dogs consume most of his waking hours. At night, he says, he often can't sleep because "their faces haunt me." They're afraid almost all the time, Mr. Grim says. "And when I look at them, I see me."

Grim, founder of St. Louis-based Stray Rescue, is a most unlikely crusader. "I'd actually rather be a recluse," he cracks.

A self-described "poster boy for panic disorder." Grim is made anxious by new faces, public spaces, elevators, and driving. He worries about germs on doorknobs and is subject to panic attacks in crowded stores.

But when it comes to dogs, fear has no sway. Grim cruises regularly through the kind of urban blight armed police officers prefer to avoid. When necessary, he tosses harsh words at street toughs. And several times daily, he kneels among packs of stray street dogs - dogs with gunshot wounds, dogs missing limbs, dogs bleeding from open wounds. He offers them bits of hot dogs, cubes of cheese, and - to any who will allow it - gentle caresses of love.

He has been bitten, but not often. It's harder to get close to most of these frightened strays than to be bitten by them, he insists. And even the aggressive ones, he believes, are remarkably responsive to a kind and fearless approach.

Grim says he can't pinpoint an exact moment when rescuing dogs became his life's work. He began saving stray dogs and cats as a child and, in a way, it's just always been with him. He worked for a time as a flight attendant, then quit to open his own dog-grooming shop. But, distracted by the sight and thought of stray dogs, he couldn't keep his mind on business. Soon, it became his cause. He discovered where they lived, and learned to watch them, woo them, and, when necessary, trap them.

By 1998, Grim was working full time for Stray Rescue, his own nonprofit organization and shelter. Insisting he has no organizational skills, Grim says, "I have no idea how I did it."

But despite his plea of incapacity he now heads up a network of two no-kill shelters, 200 volunteers, and five employees. He appears on TV, has been the subject of a book - "The Man Who Talks to Dogs" by Melinda Roth - and has written one of his own, "Miracle Dog."

Much of this has been excruciating, he says, for a man who detests hearing himself praised and who mostly yearns for a place to hide. But, he reminds himself, public exposure and the support it has brought have been key to his ability to rescue more than 5,000 stray dogs since 1991.

In August 2003, a friendly but homeless young basenji mix with pointy ears and melting eyes was given a lethal dose of gas at St. Louis's city animal shelter. For reasons that no one understands, the dog survived - although the other dogs in the gas chamber with him perished.

Stunned shelter workers offered the dog to Grim, who named him Quentin. The next morning, Quentin appeared on the Today Show. Adoption offers poured in from as far away as London and Tokyo. But Grim decided Quentin would stay with him and become a "spokesdog" for his unwanted brethren.

And so he has. Photogenic and poised, Quentin is a celebrity attracting broad audiences to whom Grim can recite facts he longs to make better known: In the US between 5 million and 12 million dogs and cats are euthanized yearly. Fewer than 1 in 3 animals in shelters find a new home. Adoption, spaying, and neutering of pets are the answer, say animal rights supporters.

Yet as grateful as Grim is for the wave of compassion that made Quentin a star, it's hard for him not to be bitter that almost none of Quentin's 700 would-be adopters were interested in other dogs - and Grim has plenty to offer.

No topic inspires Grim's passion more than strays that live on city streets, both former pets - who often eventually revert to a wild state - and dogs born on the street.

Feral dogs in the US are so little studied that no reliable numbers exist. But Grim insists that every large and mid-sized US city is plagued by the problem, one that he believes escalated in the 1980s with the rise of gangs and their penchant for using dogs for fighting, protection, and status - and then abandoning them.

In 1999, LA County officials estimated there were 45,000 stray dogs on the streets.In the St. Louis area, Grim puts the number at 40,000. He tries to feed and visit as many as he can daily, and to pick up the injured and imperiled (the only ones his shelter has room for).

What troubles him most about street dogs is that even if they're "true ferals" - dogs that have never had contact with humans - genetically they're domestic dogs with no hunting skills or other survival instincts. They can only scavenge and beg. Rarely can they survive more than a couple of years and their brief existence is generally harsh and full of fear.

Last Monday morning, there were at least 60 strays seen wandering the streets of impoverished St. Louis-area neighborhoods. On a three-hour tour of the junkyards, burned-out buildings, and abandoned factories where these dogs tend to congregate, Grim fed, cajoled, observed, and pondered which ones absolutely had to be picked up.

Along the way, he scooped up a chow-mix with a broken leg that he named Big John, a pregnant beagle mix he dubbed Marjorie, and Cha Cha, a pup he just couldn't leave behind.

Then, just as he was about to head home, a ghostly creature emerged from the weeds - a starving female dog. Her bones poked through skin half bald with mange. Although Grim is fairly sure she's entirely feral and probably terrified of humans, she doesn't move when he kneels next to her. Too weak to resist, she allows him to lift her gently into his truck.

At a nearby veterinary clinic, pet owners gasp as Grim carries in the emaciated animal. Workers here, accustomed to his rescues, are calm. "What do we call her?" asks one. "How about Mercy?" chimes in a watching pet owner. And, so, Mercy begins her new life.

Grim is elated and downcast all at once. Today's rescues are safe and, he believes, will go on to happier days - even Mercy - with much love and attention. Yet there were so many other desperate cases on the street today. Right now there isn't enough room for them in his shelter.

In a year or two, as soon as he can raise the money, he'll open a larger shelter in a building donated by Bob Bagby, CEO of St. Louis-based AG Edwards. It will house at least 100 homeless dogs. Most strays on the street today, however, won't live that long.

Grim is often asked why he dedicates his life to dogs when so many people suffer as well. His friends also fret that he has so little outside life (apart from a recent foray into ballroom dancing).

But he can't entirely explain the directions his life has taken. "I had an abusive father and a very loving mother," he says. The combination, he believes, uniquely equipped him to understand both the terror a stray dog lives with and the warmth that can reach it.

Sometimes, he says, all he can offer a dog is a loving gesture - perhaps the only kindness it will ever know. This ability to even momentarily relieve suffering with love, says Grim, buoys him in ways he cannot explain.

"I don't want this to sound weird, because I'm not really a religious person," he says, "but I pray a lot. And I just believe that this is my special job, the thing I was put here to do."

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