The 21-year-old VW van rumbles north from East St. Louis toward Washington Park, lunging in and out of potholes the size of small craters. The sky is low; the streets are wet; the forecast calls for snow. As he drives past abandoned gas stations and peeling billboards, Randy Grim lights another cigarette and steers clear of dead dogs in the streets.
"These are prime areas," Grim says, pointing past a crack running the length of the van's windshield, toward steel and concrete barrens etched in urban gray. "Wherever there are empty warehouses, abandoned homes, junkyards, lots of trash, that's where you find them. There's some now."
Two yellow dogs resembling coyotes run along a distant chain-link fence that separates I-64 from the town. They are thin, matted and running hard. Probably feral, Grim says, either abandoned or born in the wild, so they won't come near human beings and, statistically speaking, won't live past their second year. "Gunshot wounds, starvation, slit throats, heartworm" -- he ticks off the assassins in staccato. "A lot get hit by cars. Some are beaten. Once I got a dog that was thrown off the McKinley Bridge."
At Pennsylvania and Fourth streets, a pit bull and a shepherd mix scratch through the tailings of a grade-school Dumpster. Two blocks south, several others trot up the train tracks and follow them north. At a nearby corner, a large black chow stands guard on a hill as an unidentifiable victim of advanced mange trots on three balding legs down the middle of the street.
At one intersection, a big, black shepherd lies spread-eagled, dead, in the road, a 12-foot chain trailing from his neck and his underside scraped to the bone. Farther north, two puppies run for cover in a field and another shepherd mix lies dead near the curb.
Earlier that morning, a pack of 10 dogs pursued a female in heat, but congregations of 20 or more aren't uncommon this time of year.
They are dogs that "belong" to no one. They are animals the underfunded pounds can't catch and the overburdened humane shelters can't deal with. They colonize whatever neighborhoods afford them the best shelter, the most food and the least amount of contact with human beings, and they exist, like genetic castaways, in the evolutionary no-man's-land between domesticity and wildness.
And their numbers are increasing at rates alarming both to health officials and to people like Grim who try to save them. As founder of the nine-month-old St. Louis Stray Rescue, Grim alone coordinates about 25 rescues each month and answers, on average, 20 desperate telephone calls every day. But for each feral dog Grim catches, so many more are on the loose that even animal-control experts can't estimate their numbers anymore.
Grim lights another cigarette. He knows he shouldn't be out here today. He can't take in any more dogs. He's already called in every favor, real or made-up, that he can think of, and his network of friends, sympathetic veterinarians, family members and volunteer foster families is already stressed to the point of fracture.
"There are thousands of them in this area alone," he says. "There are too many of them for me to even make a dent. They're everywhere you look."
The van turns east on Monk Street into Washington Park and heads toward a corner with no street signs where five or six large feral males have been sighted moving in and out of an abandoned house. In this part of town, there are more empty houses than occupied ones, more feral dogs than automobiles. Bombs could have dropped here recently and not caused more desolation. An Akita mix trots across a side street. A brindle pit bull disappears into a field. On the side of the road, swaddled in a frozen gray sheet, lies a dead German shepherd with ice on its fur.
Grim spots the house. In the mud of what was once its frontyard, a man and a woman pick through a knee-high pile of trash that the dogs scoured days before. "Look at that," Grim says, pointing to a woolly red chow on the front porch. The leonine creature stares back at the van aloofly.
The only sound, besides the muffled hum of the interstate, comes from the remnant of a red curtain in a jaggedly broken window, flapping in the wind. A large brown-and-white husky-shepherd-Doberman combo stalks silently into the house, but the lion on the porch doesn't move. Behind him, through the darkened doorway, large, lumbering shadows run for cover.
Grim, who's used to this sort of safari, knows he won't be able to get near them. He'll try, but they are too large and too wild and too afraid, and he predicts they'll all be dead within a year. They are, he judges, dead dogs walking.
Grim sizes up the situation and flicks his cigarette out the window. "I have nightmares about chasing dogs," he says.
In the late 1960s, Dr. Michael Fox, once a psychologist at Washington University and now senior fellow of bioethics for the Humane Society of America, wanted to see whether instinct or training enabled wild dogs to hunt prey.
He raised three coyote pups and three beagle pups in isolated cages with no direct contact with other members of their species. When they reached eight weeks of age, Fox placed them individually in a small room containing a live white rat.
The coyote pups were recorded as doing some of the following: "Immediate grab-bite-carry, then crush bite ... crushes head ... eats off hind leg, then tail ... rips off skin .... eats intestines ... removes and eats head."
The beagle pups, however, didn't have a clue: "Wags tail ... sniffs ... licks rat's face ... play solicits ... barks at rat ... leaps, leaps, leaps .... plays with tail of rat ... sustained playful interaction for last 5 min. (Rat is alive and well.)"
Fox also studied a small pack of feral dogs in North St. Louis over the course of a summer and never once saw them catch a squirrel, rat or cat, despite all the chasing they did.
Domestication and selective breeding were the culprits. These dogs did not, Fox concluded, know how to act like wild animals anymore.
Grim, now 37, used to sport a Mohawk, listen to punk rock and dream about the day he could move to California and live on the beach. The son of an Army colonel, Grim was born in Verdon, France, and raised in Washington, D.C., then moved to St. Louis after graduating from Old Dominion with a degree in physical education. It was after a seven-year stint as an airline steward for TWA that Grim realized he wasn't quite the "people person" he needed to be -- "I was always in trouble," he says rolling his eyes. "I wasn't friendly enough" -- and eventually quit to set up a pet-grooming shop in Lafayette Square.
Business boomed and life sped forward, with Depeche Mode keeping time. Grim was young and social diversions were plentiful; he bought a townhouse with a view. Back then, feral dogs were the last thing on Grim's mind.
So it was a surprise one night several years ago when Grim was conspicuously absent at a birthday party for Paul Humbert, Grim's partner of 12 years. Their townhouse in Lafayette Square was jammed with friends and family members, but Grim was nowhere to be found.
He's down in the basement, Humbert explained, and had been for the preceding two weeks, hand-feeding 13 puppies, around the clock, that had been delivered by a starving feral female Grim found one day roaming through Lafayette Park. She was frightened, sickly and pregnant, and after taking her to a vet, Grim learned that she'd deliver the pups within days.
So Grim brought her home, Humbert told his guests, not knowing what else to do with her. But when delivery time came, she was too weak to deliver the puppies on her own, and Grim found himself racing back to the vet's, where an emergency Caesarean section was performed. The next morning, still in shock over suddenly having 13 puppies in his house, Grim realized that the mother dog wasn't nursing and rushed them all back to the vet's. The mother had mastitis -- inflammation of the mammary glands -- the vet told Grim, and wouldn't be able to feed her pups.
Grim faced one of two choices: call off work for two weeks and feed them all by hand around the clock, or watch them starve to death. It was a time Grim can hardly talk about, even now, without a martini in his hand.
"I had to feed them every two hours," Grim recalls, his eyes widening at the all-too-vivid memory. "By the time I got through with all 13, it was time to start all over again. I was like a crazy person. I didn't get any sleep. Some of them were too weak to suck, so I had to force-feed them with a tube you push down into their stomach and a syringe," he shudders, "and I had to weigh them and stimulate them to poop and pee with a wet washcloth and then feed them all over again.
"I was literally losing my mind. I was in the basement for two solid weeks. I never left. Paul would open the basement door and throw bags of Burger King down to me and then slam the door back shut."
The guests found this amusing, not only because Grim wouldn't normally miss Humbert's birthday party -- or any good party, for that matter -- but because he wasn't exactly the surrogate-mother type.
When he finally emerged from the basement that night, Grim had barely slept and hadn't showered or seen sunlight for 336 hours. He shoveled down some cake, mumbled "Happy birthday" to Paul, then headed back toward the basement, despite spirited complaints. "If I don't go back down there, they'll die," Grim wailed, ignoring the snickers and hoots that followed.
"He was down in the basement, came up, ate and went back down abruptly," Humbert recalls. "I felt like I had to apologize to everybody. But then somebody said they thought what Randy was doing was admirable, and I thought to myself, 'You know, they're right.'"
All 13 puppies lived, and during the time he spent trying to find homes for them all, Grim began noticing feral dogs everywhere. They ran in twos and threes in the parks, and they combed the alleyways for food. They lived in abandoned buildings and scrounged through the trash bins behind them for anything edible. It became increasingly difficult not to notice them, no matter how hard he tried, and Grim found himself checking empty boxes on the side of the road for dumped puppies.
They were animals left in parks or on highways. Many were simply allowed by their owners to roam and, because of neglect or abuse, never went back. Most weren't vaccinated, few were spayed or neutered, and their surviving offspring were being raised on the streets.
Grim never went looking for the dogs; they were everywhere he went. He asked the city pound to pick them up but was told that even if they could be caught, no one claimed 70 percent of the animals, and they were euthanized within five days. He tried the humane shelters, and the story was much the same. Feral dogs were just too hard to adopt out.
"If they're injured, they don't have a chance," Grim says. "If they have mange, they don't have a chance. If they're too old or too young or too wild, they don't stand a chance."
So he started picking them up on his own -- those he could lure into the van, anyway -- and he didn't care what physical or emotional problems besieged them; he allowed himself no prejudices. Some approached him willingly; others took hours or days to get near. Those that had been badly abused or had grown up on the streets wouldn't let Grim within 100 feet of them.
One night during an ice storm, in what would become a typical rescue, Grim drove east on Chouteau when a frail tan animal darted across the street in front of the van. Grim slammed on the brakes and jumped out, leaving the van where it was. He chased the dog down the middle of the street, followed it into an alley and then up into the dark stairwell of a house. By this time the wind and ice had numbed his hands, and when he cornered the dog at the top of the stairs near a doorway, he couldn't get the noose around its neck. The door opened suddenly; a woman stepped out onto the landing and leveled a handgun at Grim's chest.
"Get your fucking dog off my property," she snapped.
Grim noosed the animal, sputtering "OK, OK, OK" to both the woman and the dog, and though he doesn't remember how, Grim managed to drag the petrified, bucking animal down the stairs and back to the van, still parked in the middle of the street.
Soon Grim's friends started bringing him dogs they found. He enlisted the help of two veterinarians, who provided spaying, neutering, flea baths and heartworm treatments at cost. Then he farmed the animals out to foster families, who learned quickly how to cope with animals so scared and unsocialized that they often couldn't be coaxed to eat.
"Some were scared, some were depressed, some were growling," says Kathy Brethauer, who provides foster care for Grim's dogs before they're adopted out to permanent homes. "We had a rescue who, when we first got her, wouldn't even lift her head up. She didn't want to get out of the car, and when we finally did get her into the house, she literally laid on the floor for three or four days. We had to feed her by hand."
Says Mary Zorich, who also provides foster care: "I had one who was like a rat in a corner. For days that dog would just circle and circle and circle in the corner."
The dogs coming in had been beaten, hit by cars, eaten with mange and tortured by children. Some had been used as sport-fighting dogs; others had never been touched by human beings in their lives. Most were malnourished; many were starving, some within hours of death.
Their freedom was killing them, and in places like Washington Park, dead dogs lay strewn in the streets in various states of decay. Grim picked up every feral dog he could, paid their vet bills with his own money and then listened to a long string of advisers, all touting the same line: "You can't save them all."
Grim knew that better than most, but it was too late, because he'd already stumbled over an emotion he'd never felt before. "I was doing something important," he recalls. "People were always telling me, 'Randy, you can't save them all,' but I was filling a niche, you know? I was doing something good, something worthwhile. And it was the first time in my life I felt that way."
But his resources, both money and friends willing to help, were dwindling fast. "A group of friends once sat me down and talked to me like I was an alcoholic," he remembers. That's when the nightmares started, nightlong sagas of Grim catching dogs with circus-freak deformities or chasing dogs for miles on end only to watch them disappear over cliffs.
He realized things couldn't continue this way but never once considered ending the rescues. After talking the problem over with a lawyer, Grim decided to form a not-for-profit group that could legitimately accept donations, hold fundraisers and advertise adoption needs. Nine months ago, St. Louis Stray Rescue became reality.
"What I'm doing, though, doesn't make a dent in the problem," Grim says. "It really gets to you mentally sometimes, but I have so many friends who hate their jobs, and even though I'm stressed out a lot, if I died tomorrow, at least I'd know I made a difference. I'm not a spiritual person really, but I believe in fate. Things always work out."
Two years ago, researchers from the University of California discovered that the domestic dog is within 0.2 percent of being genetically identical to the gray wolf. Other than thousands of years' worth of cosmetic changes -- as people selectively bred animals for specific characteristics (looks, size, temperament, behavioral traits) -- domestic dogs are wolves. The problem, though, is that those changes left out important instincts that enable wolves in the wild to survive.
At the Wolf Sanctuary in St. Louis, wolves are raised by human beings with the ultimate goal of releasing them in the wild as adults. Debbie Causevic, education coordinator, explains that wolves, like humans, are social animals that coordinate their efforts in a pack to bring down large prey: One animal tracks; another corners; another brings the prey down. "Dogs are still pack animals by nature," she says, "but feral dogs, which are physically weaker than wolves anyway, have lost a lot of their ability to coordinate the pack."
In fact, domestic dogs are neotenic, or "forever immature," which means that even though they are genetically within the same species as wolves, adult dogs only display the physical characteristics and brain size of very young wolf pups. So when a puppy is brought into a person's home as a pet, it immediately becomes a member of the "human pack," and its only role in the human pack is to act as a subordinate -- a wolf pup -- who is fed, doted on and generally protected from danger.
This dooms feral dogs to an evolutionary purgatory where neither instinct nor selective breeding equips them for anything but professional beggary.
It's snowing, and the flakes stick like spattered paint to a small black mound of fur rolled up on a pile of refuse near a charred house. It's a young chow that slowly raises its head as the van comes to a stop.
Grim gets out and crouches low to the cold, wet pavement. "Come here," he calls out gently. "Come on." The dog drops its head back down onto its paws and watches Grim come closer. As though with great effort, the chow's tail moves slowly back and forth. Grim creeps forward, and the little dog whimpers.
Bearing purebred characteristics, the chow was probably born in captivity.
In decaying urban areas, a large majority of the dogs are big, powerful breeds such as chows, pit bulls, Dobermans, German shepherds and mastiffs.
"A lot of them are gunpowder dogs," Grim says. "People buy these dogs thinking they're mean, and they try to make them meaner by feeding them gun- and chili powder. It doesn't make them meaner, but it gives them ulcers. A lot of the dogs we rescue have ulcers."
If dogs manage to live long enough to breed in the wild, successive generations lose their purebred characteristics and take on the looks of the prototype feral dog: medium-length hair, medium build, pointed ears, curled tail with a white tip. But the odds of a domestic dog's living long enough to sire successive generations in an area like Washington Park are about as long as those of a rigged crapshoot.
If a feral dog doesn't die of sheer starvation, there are always diseases such as parvovirus, heartworm or intestinal parasites lining up for a turn. Many feral dogs have mange, which is caused by a parasite living in the skin, but it isn't the parasite that kills a dog; it's the loss of hair and subsequent exposure to the elements that does the job.
If the two vets Grim frequents had an extra dollar for every dog they treated at cost for him, they'd have enough to start a decent retirement account.
But they like to at least be called ahead of time.
Grim pulls out his cell phone to dial Dr. Edward Migneco at the City Animal Hospital. In the back of the van, nestled in a gray plastic crate, the black chow rests quietly. It was an easy rescue.
"We usually only catch them when they've been through so much hell, when they're so beaten down, they just don't care anymore," Grim says, punching in the number. "When they wag their tails and whimper, they're begging to be helped."
He puts the phone to his ear with one hand and steers around another dead shepherd in the middle of the road with the other. "Damn," he says, shaking the phone in the air. "The batteries must be dead."
Grim already has several dogs under Migneco's care, including a skittish white shepherd he found chained to a tree next to another chained dog already dead of exposure. He hates to just drop another one off like this.
"Maybe Dr. Ed will be at lunch," Grim says sheepishly. "Then I don't have to face him. I'll just drop him off."
But in a twist of coincidence, Dr. Ed is just walking down the City Animal Clinic's stairs for lunch when the van pulls up. He eyes the crate suspiciously. "What's in there?" he asks.
Grim looks down at the crate as if he hadn't noticed he was carrying it. "What, this?"
"This? Oh, it's nothing. Well, actually, it's a little chow we found in Washington Park. I was wondering if you could take a look at him, give him the works, and I'll take the other one home today, later, I promise, and somebody can pick up that shepherd, I don't know, maybe tomorrow -- if they can't, I will, I promise -- and this little chow is very sweet, he's really very quiet and won't give you any trouble."
Dr. Ed, who's heard this all before, turns and walks back up the steps.
Several weeks earlier, Grim had had the pleasure of missing the other vet -- Dr. William Stehnach at the My Best Friend clinic -- when he brought in a hyperactive 91-pound puppy with paws the size of dinner plates. He was a Rottweiler-Great Dane mix that had lived, for the preceding six months, in a barricaded, feces-strewn alleyway between two brick buildings. Wall to wall, the alley spanned 24 inches. Once free, the baby giant couldn't stop moving.
"His name is Bear," Grim told the vet's receptionist as the exuberant mammoth, tongue flying, ran across a row of chairs and over the lap of a woman holding a caged Persian. As if on cue, Bear bounded toward the receptionist, reared up and planted two grizzly-size forearms on the desk. "He's really very sweet," Grim apologized. "If you could ask Dr. Bill to give him the works, I can pick him up tomorrow, or I'll have somebody pick him up, and we'll take that other one then, too, I promise -- we just have to find a place to put them, but we will by tomorrow, so I'll be back."
As Grim left the office, Bear, lunging and leaping at the end of his leash, yanked the receptionist from sight.
Back at Dr. Ed's small clinic, the vet leans on the counter and listens to Grim's story of the chow's rescue. A graduate of the University of Missouri, Dr. Ed has been at the clinic since 1986 and has heard more stories like this than he cares to remember.
"They've just been domesticated for too long," he says. "As far as caring for themselves, it's not a trait that's carried on. The survival instincts have been bred out of them. They don't even know how to hunt anymore."
How many feral dogs does he think are out there right now? He looks at Grim, who looks back. "A lot," they respond in unison.
Wild female dogs, such as wolves and foxes, only have one breeding cycle per year, and the males have potent sperm only at that time. Domesticated dogs, however, have two or three breeding cycles every year, and the sperm of the males is potent year-round. They've been bred that way, and a domestic female dog and her offspring can unleash 67,000 pups in six years' time.
Most puppies born in the wild to domestic dogs have life expectancies of an hour or less. The rest will live for a year, maybe two.
"Remember that our goal in domesticating dogs has been to have them live with human beings; that's the big function of domestication," says Claudia Shugert, executive director of the Animal Protective Association in St. Louis. "So that leaves them vulnerable to the dependencies that go with that. They are no longer equipped to live life alone. They can't handle the environment; they don't know how to hunt or organize a pack to hunt. They are no longer psychologically prepared to deal with this."
In mid-January, Janet Carp, one of Stray Rescue's volunteers, got word that a female dog had given birth to some pups in a North St. Louis junkyard. A saleswoman for a shipping company, Carp immediately left work, went home and cleared her freezer of beef and tuna steaks, then headed out.
For the next three days, Carp spent her lunch hours trying to convince a small, short-haired, brown-and-black female dog that she wasn't going to hurt the puppies. Each day the timid female came closer, and by the third day, she took roast beef from Carp's hand. The three pups, though, huddled together under refuse and wouldn't come near.
On Thursday, the third day, Carp -- and two women she enlisted from work -- were able to corner one of the puppies, a black one, outside the fence surrounding the junkyard. But inside the fence stood the mother and the other two pups, just watching.
"We knew we were doing the right thing," Carp says, "but we felt like the evil characters of a Walt Disney movie, because the mother and the other two puppies were on one side of the fence, and it was like they were saying to the black puppy, 'Come on, you can get away -- you can get back in here with us if you try.'"
So they picked up the black puppy, squealing with fear, and put him back inside the fence. "It just wasn't fair to take one and not the others," Carp says.
Even though many instincts have been leached from their gene pools, fear in a domestic dog is a stronger stimulus than hunger. The trick, as members of Stray Rescue have learned, is to coax them into believing they are joining a pack, a human pack, where their inbred tendency toward subordination finds a "natural" place in the whole. Feed them, calm them, lure them into thinking everything is right in the world.
In the foster home, the dogs are pampered, fed regularly, talked to and held. They generally sleep in the same rooms as people at night, and any anti-social behavior -- fear, depression, wetting in the house -- is gradually eliminated from their personalities before they're put up for adoption.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, they turn out to be wonderful house pets," says Carp. "It's almost like they're more appreciative, like they realize they've gotten a second lease on life."
Grim, for instance, rescued a Rottweiler last year that was found dying in someone's backyard with a broken back, rectal bleeding and bone fragments in her abdominal area that may have been the remains of dead puppies. A Rottweiler her age should weigh about 100 pounds, but this creature weighed less than 40. "Her whole life had been a struggle," Grim says. "But we took her to the vet, then sent her to a foster home, and now she's the most loving, grateful dog I've ever seen. It's like she's perfect."
Carp remembers the day she rescued Sweetie, a 1-year-old brindle-colored shepherd mix who ran wild her whole life on the streets of North St. Louis. People from the neighborhood who fed her said she had followed a white male shepherd everywhere he went and had given birth to a small litter of pups that one of the neighbors managed to rescue. Soon after that, the white male disappeared, and Sweetie was seen wandering in a daze.
It took six people to catch her and get her in the car. By the time Carp got her home, the dog wouldn't come out.
"When I finally managed to get her into the house, she went running upstairs and wouldn't go near anybody," Carp says. "She was just scared to death of people. She finally got used to me, but whenever she got stuck in a room with someone she didn't know, she'd urinate on the spot because she was so afraid.
"I've had her for three years now, and when somebody comes over these days, she stands at the top of the stairs looking down for a while but will slowly make her way down. She'll go halfway down, then go back up, then come down a little farther. Now, with people she knows, she'll actually let them pet her. She's come a long, long way."
By Saturday at the junkyard rescue, five days after first finding the dogs, Carp had convinced the female to come near. The dog was freely taking food from her hand and letting herself be stroked. On Sunday, Carp brought Grim and another volunteer, Ellie Torgeson-Harris, to the junkyard for the final rescue.
Grim slipped the noose over the female's head easily, and as Carp inched her slowly toward the van -- it took an hour-and-a-half, because the mother dog kept stopping to look back for her pups -- Grim and Torgeson-Harris tried to round up the young ones.
"We knew there were three of them," Grim says, "and we figured, how hard could three little puppies be to catch?"
It took three hours. Two were finally caught on the run and the third, the black one, led them into a school bus filled with garbage and the bodies of other dead dogs and puppies.
"The smell made me gag immediately," Grim recalls, "and the black puppy was at the back of the bus, terrified. He was trying to get out. I just ran back there, grabbed him and got out of there as quickly as I could. I've never smelled anything so bad in my life."
The rescue was a success, but Grim now has four more dogs. Stray Rescue has only 35 members and about $7,000 worth of donations to feed and pay the vet bills for all the dogs he rescues like this every day, and when he gets back to the shop, there will be dozens of messages on the machine about more.
He already has several pregnant females and others that have already given birth. He has dogs that seem as if they just meandered away from loving homes and dogs found dazed and wandering along the river. He has dogs that have never been inside a house and others that are house-trained and "ready to do the dishes," he says. There is the little black chow, which groans affectionately when he's petted, and Bear, who's being sent to obedience school. But who can he call that he hasn't called a dozen times already? There's an adoption day coming up. The Web page sometimes works. Plots. Plans. They jump through the loops and hoops of his brain like high-strung circus poodles.
And they're only a few dogs in a moving target numbering tens of thousands. And for every one Grim rescues, hundreds more are riding out the storm without the proper evolutionary gear. There are so many dogs running wild in the metro area, people use them routinely for target practice.
But things work out, he tells himself. They always do.
It's a cold Tuesday night in March, and several members of the group gather for a special reunion at Grim's grooming shop. In the past month the junkyard pups -- now named Missy, Kirby and Jack -- have grown almost as tall as their mother, Mia.
Initially the pups and their mother circle and sniff each other warily until a current of recognition jolts their tails into atomic-powered metronomes. Their bodies fuse into one wriggling mass with 16 legs attached.
The pups yelp and circle Mia, who in turns spins smaller circles. One pup, standing on his hind legs, lunges forward and drapes his front legs and paws across Mia's back, while at the same time another squeezes in underneath her. The third yips and prances in place.
"At first they didn't want to be near me at all," says Mary Zorich, who took Mia and one of the pups into her home for rehabilitation. "Everything scared them. The puppy acted like she was in a coma. She had no life; her eyes were glassy -- she was just this little fur blob."
Kathy Brethauer, who took the two male pups, nods: "At first we couldn't touch them, because their mother had trained them to shy away from things that might hurt them. They just backed up into a corner and wouldn't eat."
"Now look at them," Zorich says. "After just a couple of weeks they have personalities. They eat everything. At night before I go to bed, they crawl up on my lap. They know their names. They're learning to sit. It's so different for them now, because they don't have to focus their energy on just surviving."
As the group lopes across the linoleum in a race of reacquaintance, the pups' paws slide from beneath them and they careen into grooming tables and crates. One of the crates holds a pregnant beagle rescued several weeks earlier, and as she growls defensively at the mob, the pups stop, cock their heads and then race back after their mother.
It is their first reunion and probably their last. The rehabilitation worked, and the family is up for adoption. As usual, there are no takers yet, but Grim is in a good mood tonight. "If they get their picture in the paper, well, I just have a good feeling," he says, "good things will happen. They always do. Oh, and can you mention -- " he leans into the tape recorder -- "DO-NA-TIONS?"
The goal now is to buy a building where all of the dogs can be rehabilitated and displayed for potential owners in one place. It's a far-off goal at this point, about as far as a California beach.
"It will happen," Grim says. "Everything happens for a reason, and it all works out. If you're doing the right thing, something good, it all works out."
It all works out. Mia, her pups, Bear, the little black chow -- they'll all calm down and eventually become docile, housebroken, paper-fetching dogs. Their chances of rehabilitation are good. Someday these malnourished, flea-ridden, evolutionary throwbacks will be chewing on slippers, begging at dinner and barking at doorbells. They will have squeaky toys, rubber bones, doggy sweaters, designer leashes, gourmet treats and grooming supplies. They'll chase Frisbees and ride in cars.
They will join the human pack.