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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.