It is the haven of the abandoned, the lost, the unwanted: pets tossed aside in the forests or deserts of Southern California with no food or water, and no hope for surviving.
But these forsaken dogs and other pets, left to struggle and ultimately die of thirst or hunger or worse in the wilderness, have had the good fortune to cross paths with Leo Grillo. For 33 years this former Hollywood actor has made it his mission – perhaps even his obsession — to save, preserve, and protect any lost animal he finds. And he has found many of them.
D.E.L.T.A. Rescue, which stands for Dedication and Everlasting Love To Animals, has made a commitment to care for every animal it rescues for life, and to do so at an extraordinary level. Just consider the compound boasts two state-of-the-art hospitals that include dog and cat intensive care units, digital radiographs, diagnostics ultrasound, physical therapy and rehabilitation, deep-tissue ultrasound, electro stimulation, treadmill and hydrotherapy. It’s a level of care almost unheard of for a rescue.
In a recent interview I spoke with Leo about his organization, and the challenges of running and sustaining such a huge charitable undertaking.
Q. How did this come about?
A. In 1979 I came to Hollywood as an actor. While driving to Bakersfield one day I found a big, abandoned Doberman in the Angeles National Forest. I had a premonition and named him Delta, which is the symbol for change, and he changed my life.
One afternoon I took him to swim in a pond, and while we were there I saw two puppies under a nearby car. I asked a guy selling bait, and he said two kids just dumped them. Then I noticed about three dozen other dogs just walking around, also abandoned. I was shocked that people would just dump them, throw these dogs away.
I went to a store, bought four 50 pound bags of dog food, and spread it around the pond. Dogs came out from everywhere. I remember four of these Briard mixes stopped eating and just looked at me, thanking me with hope in their eyes, almost saying: “Maybe we can get some help.’’
That was it.
Q. One of the points you have emphasized in building the organization, which has grown to 70 employees, was maintaining a high level of medical care. How did that come about?
A. As I began feeding these abandoned dogs I spent my weekends learning how to take care of them medically. I learned about kenneling animals and saw what was wrong and how to fix it. Eventualy I got very involved in the medicine of it. I started buying veterinary books. I would read up on a condition, devour everything to do with this condition. Before I talked to a vet I wanted to learn everything I could.
Q. At first you cared for the animals at a kennel but at some point it simply wasn’t large enough. How did you come to your current location?
A. I needed land for these animals so they could run free. I found myself out in Acton/Agua Dulce area and located 115 acres of property.
D.E.L.T.A. Rescue’s website describes life for the dogs in the large compound:
More than 800 dogs of all breeds, shapes and sizes live in huge yards that feature straw bale houses and a wading pool for those hot summer months. The insulating quality of the straw bale houses keep the dogs cozy warm in the winter and nice and cool in the summer.
Specially trained attendants look after the dogs, feed them the finest quality dog foods and provide them with fresh water, healthy food, treats, toys and affection. Since the dogs are spayed and neutered when they are rescued, males and females are “married,” sharing their happy new lives of frolic and play without fear of hunger, thirst or abandonment.
Q. Why do you keep the animals for life, instead of putting them up for adoption?
A. I stopped adopting them out 20 years ago. Many of those who adopted them did not keep them for the life of my animals. I learned that the average stay was 2.5 years. The lucky ones got returned. Some people would say he ran away, or that the dog got kidney problems and they had to put him to sleep.
So one day I promised these guys they were dealt a bad deal, and whatever it takes we are keeping them for life. I have a deal with the universe: Any animal in need of help just has to cross my path. I can never say no to an animal. And when an animal crosses your path he is yours.
Also, I don’t want to kill an animal in the pound by adopting one of mine. I don’t want to be a hero for adopting so many dogs. People who go to a pound and find them a home, they are the heroes. I don’t want to take homes away from animals who will die.
Q. Do you go into the wilderness to look for more dogs and other animals?
A. I’m out a lot. I can spot a dog two miles away, a cat up in a tree. They cross my path. Where there are abandoned dogs and cats, that is a big billboard that says: Dump your pets here. By my going in and cleaning up an area, the dumping stops. But it took 12 years to clean up one beach area. It took us 20 years to clean up a section of Los Angeles right out of the forest, but that is now cleared up.
I have a documentary called The Rescuer, a Story of Obsession. In there my vet makes a great point, says he has never met anyone more singleminded than me.
Q. Providing medical care for people and pets is a huge challenge for almost everyone today. What is the challenge for D.E.L.T.A. Rescue?
A. The challenge today is to sustain this level of care and commitment. Our costs have increased. It cost us $9 million last year, and we only brought in $8 million. The cost of food, materials, everything, labor, insurance. I have to bring this money in no matter what.
And it is going to cost more every year, beyond my lifetime. So the challenge is how to keep this organization funded. We have to set it up that it is functioning and producing income down the road, where this is going to get funded in perpetuity.
My hope is that it will sustain itself into becoming a place where fallen angels can be rescued. Every religion says there are angels in the world, why can’t they be animals? I think they are the animals.
To learn more about D.E.L.T.A. Rescue visit, click here.