Early one Tuesday morning last August, while on a business trip to St. Louis, I looked out my hotel window and spied a line of dogs being walked on the next block, a sure sign of a shelter nearby. Suffering withdrawal from missing my dogs, I quickly headed over in hopes of volunteering an hour or two and maybe even getting to walk some dogs.
What I discovered was the new home of Stray Rescue of St. Louis, not yet opened, in the midst of doing something unprecedented for a private nonprofit: Taking over the animal-control functions for a major metropolitan city. In one stroke taking a major U.S. city from kill to no-kill.
This mission of mercy started early for founder Randy Grim.
“When I was a little kid, 5 or 6 years old, living in Washington, D.C., I rescued a dog, bone thin, from a snowstorm and named him Rebel. That was the start of it, I suppose. My Dad was a bit tough, but this was the one time that brought the family together. I kept Rebel for 17 years. Growing up we always had four or five dogs taken from the streets.’’
Unorthodox hardly seems sufficient to describe some of his early rescue efforts.
“In the 1980s I was a flight attendant and began rescuing dogs and cats in Third World countries and sneaking them back on the plane. They would be in the bathroom, so if you were on my flight you couldn’t go pee.’’
Where did he keep the animals? “I would look for empty homes for sale with a fenced yard and keep them there. Then I would take them to concerts in parks, and they wore adoption signs.’’
At one point family and friends feared this was becoming an obsession, so they staged an intervention. It was a galvanizing moment, but not with the intended result. “On the way home I rescued a dog, and the next day I phoned a lawyer friend and we set up Stray Rescue.’’
He quit flying, but had no real business plan. To save street dogs he started using a fishing pole baited with chicken and then stored them in abandoned buildings before rehoming. A journalist heard about his efforts and followed him for a month. That became a magazine feature story, and then the tale became a book, “The Man Who Talks to Dogs.’’
“That’s when my life changed. I had to make a choice, take 15 minutes of fame and stay to myself, or turn it into something to help the animals.’’
Today his passion for saving animals has a $2 million operating budget, funded totally by donations and grants. An unexpected turn of events, perhaps most surprising of all to Randy.
“It is amazing how we have kept growing into this unique organization. We now have 750 volunteers, two small shelters and one giant shelter, our own trainers and even our own vet. I am not the director, just the founder, but I am surrounded by compassionate and smart people. We got the media behind us, the community behind us. We are dispelling myths of the street dog. People are finding out that they turn into wonderful pets. We picked up 166 in January alone.’’
Randy isn’t out luring dogs with chicken on fishing poles, but innovative approaches are still a hallmark.
“We have special programs to save animals left behind in foreclosed homes. We shelter in place, helping the poor keep their pets. We have a program to aid Seniors with pets. Our foster program lets dogs with terminal illnesses spend their final days in a loving home. We even have a hiking club to get dogs out of the shelter environment.’’
What more can a dedicated animal lover hope to achieve?
“I hope one day this can be a model for alternatives, to get away from euthanasia. If we can do it with a city like St. Louis, with the problems like a major city has, I think most cities could be able to do this.’’
Read more about Stray Rescue and other private groups taking over public shelter work in the March 2011 issue of DOG FANCY magazine.