Randy Grim thinks of himself as the shyest man in St. Louis. Unfortunately for him, he's also one of the better known.
"I can't go to the grocery store these days without being recognized," laments Mr. Grim, who claims to have little or no gift for small talk.
Like it or not, however, Grim has become a local icon.
In 1998, Grim formed a nonprofit group called Stray Rescue. The group's goal: to save as many of St. Louis's stray dogs as possible. Wounded, dangerous, half-starved: Grim doesn't care. He's a passionate dog lover whose goal is to alleviate the suffering of these animals – often lost or discarded pets – whose lives on the street tend to be desperate. Grim's hope is to heal and rehabilitate as many as possible and see them placed in loving homes.
He has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. And along the way, he has helped to reshape his city.
Grim began as a team of one. The former flight attendant opened a dog-grooming business in the early 1990s, hoping to satisfy his love for dogs by working with them all day long. But he found it wasn't enough.
He brought home his first stray dog when he was only 5 years old. The fear that he saw in the eyes of that first dog – eventually replaced by gratitude and love – moved Grim so deeply that even at that young age he knew he had found his life's work.
While working as a groomer Grim continually rescued stray dogs from the street, keeping them in his condo until he could find homes for them. By 1998 he had decided that rescuing dogs needed to be his profession. He closed his grooming business and, operating alone and out of his home, launched Stray Rescue.
Today, Grim heads up an organization with a $3 million annual budget, a staff of more than 50 paid workers, thousands of volunteers, and a state-of-the-art shelter that houses as many as 200 dogs. The money that supports Stray Rescue has been raised through donations and through the sheer force of Grim's outspoken advocacy: A man who sees himself as shy is anything but that when it comes to speaking out for dogs.
For a long time Grim had a less-than-friendly relationship with the St. Louis city government. Police were not always comfortable with Grim's forays into the city's most dangerous neighborhoods to check on loose dogs, and the fierceness of his attachment to the animals. "The police were taken aback by Randy's devotion to the dogs," says Pam Walker, St. Louis city health director.
Louis Naes, a St. Louis police detective who works with Grim on a city task force fighting animal abuse, puts it differently. "He's more passionate than anyone I've ever met. If you don't know Randy, and you don't know how to take him, you're kind of like 'Are you for real?' "
But today Grim and the city government have forged a working partnership.
It all turned around, Ms. Walker says, in 2009, when St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay – dismayed by the city's poor record on animal care and control – asked Walker and the city health department to step up their efforts. Walker said that at first she didn't know where to turn. The department was overwhelmed and understaffed, she says. It was not able to meet the health needs of the city's people – much less those of its animals.
Then she thought of Grim, who was already known throughout the city as a self-appointed savior of dogs. She called him and asked if he could help. "He basically took the whole problem [of stray dogs] off my hands," she says, at no charge to the city.
Since 2010, reports of stray dogs in St. Louis go directly to Grim's iPad. He takes care of them within 24 hours – taking the dogs to his own shelter and, if need be, providing them with round-the-clock medical attention from the Stray Rescue veterinary team. (The city still deals with what it considers to be dangerous dogs and enforcement issues. All other loose dogs have become Grim's responsibility.)
The impact has been significant. While there are no good estimates as to the number of stray dogs on the streets of St. Louis, the city, before partnering with Stray Rescue, picked up 1,700 dogs in a peak year, Walker says. Today she estimates that 40 percent more dogs are being picked up off the streets than just two years ago, yet 90 percent fewer are euthanized. Instead, about 98 percent are now adopted into homes.
"The whole landscape has changed," Walker says. Since Grim's involvement, she says, St. Louis has become a model for good practices in the area.
"What we're doing here is cutting-edge," adds Mr. Naes of the city's task force. "I don't know that too many other cities have anything like it."
Stray Rescue also funds a massive education campaign. The group's billboards advocating adoption, spaying, and neutering of dogs are everywhere, as are pamphlets and brochures informing the public of free medical care for dogs and volunteer opportunities at Stray Rescue. The group has recruited 2,000 to 3,000 local volunteers who walk, hike, run with, and help to train Stray Rescue's dogs. ("It doesn't take a village; it takes an army," Grim says.)
The group has also been working with a grant from the Humane Society of the United States to target one ZIP Code at a time within the city, going door to door offering free spaying and neutering services, as well as microchip dog tags, to city residents. [Editor's note: The original version of this story misidentified the Humane Society of the United States.]
Grim says he is delighted at the way the city has responded. Many St. Louis citizens "were already there," he says, in terms of concern for dogs. "But now the government has followed. I'm really proud of my city."
Officials elsewhere sometimes ask how St. Louis deals with its dog problems, Walker says. "My answer is: We have Randy Grim."
Ariel Burgess first met Grim in the mid-'90s when she was taking her dog to his pet-grooming business. After her dog died she took in a new dog from Grim – a border collie named Bonnie, whom Grim had rescued from the street along with her 12 puppies. (Ms. Burgess took one of the pups as well.) As it happened, Grim was just starting Stray Rescue and Bonnie became its "founding dog," the first official adoption from Stray Rescue.
So when Burgess faced an animal-related crisis, she didn't hesitate to turn to Stray Rescue. As the director of client services for the International Institute of St. Louis, she found herself working with an Iraqi refugee who had recently arrived from a camp in Lebanon with his pet cat in tow. The animal was much loved but also in need of thousands of dollars of medical care. Neither the refugee nor the International Institute had funds to deal with the problem.
So Burgess called Grim. He told her to bring the cat to Stray Rescue (which also takes in a smaller number of stray cats) and there the feline refugee received full care at no charge.
Stray Rescue is all about "making St. Louis a safer, better, kinder city," says Andrea Schwartz, the group's community outreach coordinator.
Naes says he thoroughly enjoys working with Grim on the animal abuse task force. "Once you know him, he's a very fun guy," Naes says. "He makes me laugh all the time."
It's a less lonely city for Grim now. He's appreciating his new sense of camaraderie with the city's humans.
"It's kind of nice not being the crazy one anymore," he says.
• For more about the work of Stray Rescue, visit http://strayrescue.org.
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