Randy Grim always loved dogs. But when a sickly pregnant stray followed him home from his St. Louis, Missouri grooming shop one evening, his love turned into a commitment and a passion. After bottlefeeding and finding homes for the 14 puppies, he hit the streets, frequenting neighborhoods with empty warehouses and rundown homes. He discovered malnourished feral packs and lonely wild wanderers living sad, diseased lives right within the city limits. His efforts to help the unwanted animals led to the founding of Stray Rescue. With the assistance of a local veterinarian, Dr. Ed, who charged only his costs for medical care, and a network of volunteers and foster homes, Randy’s mission started to be realized. He sold his grooming business to serve as executive director of Stray Rescue and has since been recognized both locally and nationally for his dedication to animals. The following excerpt from The Man Who talks to dogs, demonstrates how one man’s bond with animals gave him the courage and inspiration to make a difference.
The Man Who Talks to Dogs by Melinda Roth
Sleet spilled from a steel-plated sky, and with the temperature losing its grip on 30 degrees, the wind would soon freeze dry tree limbs, car antennas, and power lines. The bus drove on. Past sidewalks upended by tree roots. Walls of old churches that fenced in young forests. Hollowed-out Laundromats filled in with snow. Gray empty rail yards circled by hawks. Past dogs. Loose dogs, chained dogs, dead dogs in the road.
Past a small black Chow shivering next to the ruins of a burned-out house. Randy pumped the brakes.
“I never leave here without taking one of them back with me.”
He pulled the bus up and let it idle as the Chow lifted his head from his outstretched front legs. Ice pellets lodged in his fur, but he panted heavily, as if suffering from heatstroke, and when Randy turned off the bus’s engine, the Chow dropped his head back down onto his paws.
Heartworm, Randy guessed, had slowly drained the Chow’s desire to do anything but sleep. Even during an ice storm. Eventually, if he didn’t freeze to death first, the Chow’s heart would fail, and the separation from life would come as quietly as a long cold trip into a bottomless dream.
Randy stared out the front window as ice hit the roof in rapid ticks.
“I’m afraid of things, you know.” He winced, as if the sudden confession were something being shoved into a sunlit yard after years in solitary confinement. He stared out the window and then laughed.
“Lots of things. Everything, really.” He lit a cigarette. “Public places, fluorescent lights, parties, elevators, driving. Technically, I have panic attacks, but I prefer to think of them as issues.”
He popped two rings of smoke from his mouth. “Germs, they’re a real big issue. I disinfect everything and never, ever eat at buffets. I can’t put my hands on escalator railings—if, that is, I can get myself on the escalator in the first place—and public bathrooms, forget it. I mean, thank God there’s a cure for leprosy. I have to take one Xanax for driving, one and a half for shopping malls, two for walking through an airport, and three if I have to eat in an airport.”
His laugh was forced from some low place in his throat. “But being out here, I’m not afraid of anything, you know?
“I have my groceries delivered, because I get panicky in grocery stores, but if there’s a wild dog, and I have to get groovy canned cat food in order to catch him, then I’ll run into any store and buy it. Just like that. I don’t even think about it. And, like, I usually drive ten miles out of my way on back streets to avoid driving on a highway—I hate driving on highways—but if there’s an emergency with a dog somewhere, I don’t even think about anything except getting there as fast as I can.
“It’s like rescuing the dogs makes me face my phobias, but that’s really hard to explain to people. My therapist is totally confused.”
He refocused on the Chow. “His hair isn’t matted, and his nails aren’t worn down, so he probably isn’t feral. That’s one good thing, anyway.”
The door hinges screamed as Randy eased out of the bus. When he lowered himself onto the pavement, the Chow’s head came up again. He was small, and his black eyes, two listless voids, peered out from under black hair.
“Hey there,” Randy said.
Because he understood the dog’s fear like his own, he understood the value of a low, innocuous approach and hunched down to make his advance less threatening. In one gloved hand he held a glob of cat food, in the other the long black snare.
Chows are unpredictable. On the surface, they seem reserved, but there is often a well-organized offensive lining up behind their cool stares. When most dogs feel threatened, they broadcast their fear with raised tails, ears, and shackles, but most Chows size things up internally, analytically, conclusively, then attack without any warning.
“I understand, little guy. I understand.”
The trick was to display as much calming authority as he could. This was a dog bred to guard, to disconnect sense from sentimentality, so unless an unruly dominance flowed through his character, he wouldn’t turn aggressive if he didn’t see the need. And if the Chow was as physically weak as he seemed, and if Randy made clear his neutral intentions, the dog would surrender.
“You want to come home with me, huh?”
Randy moved his eyes from the Chow’s front paws up to his glassy, watchful eyes, then back down to his paws. As he inched closer, the Chow stood up and backed away.
“You don’t have to be afraid.”
Randy held the food out toward the Chow, but physical weakness confused the dog, mixed up the wiring in his judgment so that fear, anger, and a need to belong yanked at him from all directions.
“Trust me, I understand.”
The Chow whimpered, sat down, then thumped his tail warily on the ground to let Randy know that he didn’t really care where on this two-rung hierarchy he stood, just wanted to know where he stood for sure. Randy dropped the snare to the ground. The Chow opened his mouth in a wide, subordinate grin, which meant the mental tug-of-war was over.
“You’re a brave dog.”
The Chow shuffled toward Rand’s outstretched hand. Since he wasn’t feral, he would be much easier to place in a foster home than a wild dog. But Randy believes that every one of them, no matter how unsocialized or aggressive or physically challenged, can be reintroduced into the human pack at any time.
The problem now was the Chow’s health. If he had heartworm, as Randy suspected from his lethargy, cough, and thinness, the treatment would be expensive. But for Randy, worrying about the money was like fingering familiar Braille. And besides, he had a vet—Dr. Ed Migneco—who treated all of Stray Rescue’s dogs at cost. Most of the time for less.
“The problems always work themselves out at the end,” he said once the Chow rested on the blankets in the back of the bus. “I’m not really a very spiritual person, but I believe in fate. Or something. I mean, if you do something good, something really good, not because it’s good but because it’s the right thing to do, then it always works out in the end.”
From The Man Who Talks to Dogs © 2002 by Melinda Roth. Reprinted by arrangement with St. Martin’s Press, LLC and available wherever books are sold.