Who is this Leo Grillo?
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1998:
ACTON, Calif.––Halfway from the Dedication and
Everlasting Love To Animals Rescue shelter to actress Tippi
Hedren’s Shambala sanctuary for exotic cats and elephants,
located six miles west on the same road, D.E.L.T.A. Rescue
founder Leo Grillo hit his brakes, swerved his four-wheel
drive vehicle off the pavement, and made a quick U-turn.
Instant hypothesis #1: Grillo missed a turnoff. But
there wasn’t supposed to be one.
Hypothesis #2: Grillo forgot something. That notion
was dashed when he cut to his right, down a steep dirt road
that was almost a washout, toward a railway crossing.
Hypothesis #3: Grillo lost his mind, four-wheel
drive or not.
Then, as the road flattened and smoothed out,
approaching the grade crossing, Grillo stopped. A bedraggled
female Dalmatian skulked out of tall grass, tentatively
approaching as Grillo spoke to her. Her tail began to wag.
Before anyone could even raise and point a camera, Grillo got
her into his vehicle.
He had just rescued one more animal from the
wilderness, his preoccupation for 20 years. Readers of Grillo’s
fundraising appeals sometimes wonder how an organization
with a post office box in Glendale, one of the major Los
Angeles suburbs, could possibly be in the wilderness, let
alone find the thousands of animals there whom Grillo has
found, but a visit soon answers the questions. The desert hills
are higher than most mountains east of the Rockies. They are
hot. There is little water. People are relatively few––but they
are close enough to drive out when they want to dump an animal,
like this Dalmatian.
Veterinary examination back at the D.E.L.T.A.
Rescue clinic established that she was about three years old,
and had apparently birthed multiple litters. She appeared to
have been used and abandoned by a backyard breeder, who
hoped to cash in on the Dalmatian fad that was expected to follow
the 1996 release of the live-action edition of 1 0 1
D a l m a t i a n s. The fad per se never really developed, in part
because of literature distributed by Walt Disney Inc. at early
screenings which urged viewers to avoid buying Dalmatians on
impulse. But such breeders still produced a huge surplus of
Dalmatians. Some were dumped en masse when they proved
unprofitable. Others were casually given away when they
couldn’t be sold. Many remain neglected in yards.
This one found a home, as did the usual handful of
other dogs and stray cats Grillo discovered that day––and a
goat, who occupied the clinic bathroom.
Actually, the goat was not a newcomer. “The goat is
Whitey,” Grillo explained “He’s from one of our retirement
ranches. He came in to be treated a few months ago. He left a
number of times to go back to the ranch, but he immediately
fails again and has to come back. Conclusion: he likes the
hospital, the people, the treatment––and the oversized bathroom
and shower. Of course, after the hospital closes for the
day, he goes out back and runs around all night where the
ambulatory dogs in treatment were all day.
“I rescue dogs and cats in the wilderness,” Grillo
emphasizes. “D.E.L.T.A. Rescue is not open to the public and
never takes animals from the public. This makes people who
want to dump animals hate us: people think we should be there
for them. I’m here only for the animals. We are a no-kill sanctuary,
and do not adopt. This makes us controversial. I let
nothing detract from rescuing abandoned animals, and I
fundraise heavily to support this mission. That makes other
animal groups jealous. But every animal who comes here gets
a good home for as long as that animal lives, with all the necessary
amenities and medical care to have a good life.”
Approaching by road, D.E.L.T.A. Rescue looks at
first like just a cluster of chain link pens. Only closer does one
begin to note Grillo’s many architectural experiments, initially
at rebuilding structures designed for humans to suit dogs and
cats, and later, at custom-building structures with animals
specifically in mind.
Older parts of the facility resemble other care-for-life
shelters. One of the older areas is a movie-lot-like “Old West”
village that Grillo thought might appeal to cats and boost donations,
until he realized that the effect might be to turn the shelter
into an exhibition facility. A few years after that, he built a
complex of environmentally friendly dugout doghouses.
Resembling the dugouts that wild canines dig for themselves,
they feature sliding doors and durable brick sides, plus heating
elements in the floors, to keep older dogs comfortable on cold
nights. Each one points upwind, so that the dogs don’t suffer
from either winter drafts or smoke from summer grassfires,
common in the surrounding hills.
Grillo’s latest and most successful housing idea is a
rediscovery of straw-bale-and-adobe. The combination works
surprisingly well. Ten bales stacked two high, two sheets of
half-inch plywood, a sheet of plastic and four inches of dirt on
the top, and a coating of mud are all it takes to give a small
pack of two dogs their idea of the perfect home. The thick
straw provides insulation so effective that the inside of each
doghouse remains around seventy degrees Fahrenheit when the
ambient outdoor temperature is close to 100. The plastic on the
top makes the structure waterproof. The dirt allows the dogs to
use the roof as an observation-and-outdoor-sleeping platform.
The mud coating––which Grillo says is optional––gives the
bales further resistance to wet weather, helps keep bugs out,
and discourages the relatively rare dog who decides to try
pulling the bales apart with his teeth.
“The environmentally friendly doghouses cost about
$5,000 apiece,” Grillo explains. “For the number of dogs we
look after, that wasn’t practical. These work. The dogs like
them better than anything else we’ve tried, and I don’t think
there’s anything that we haven’t tested. The best part, though,
is that anyone can build one of these for anywhere between $40
and $120 apiece, depending on how much material they can
get donated. Scrap plywood for the tops isn’t hard to come by,
and the plywood is the most expensive part.
“You can assemble a straw bale doghouse, without
the mud, in 10 minutes. You can quickly teach volunteers to
do it all, if you have to. You can build straw bale doghouses
just about anywhere without a building permit, because they’re
not permanent structures. When they wear out in a few years,
you replace them, and it’s just $40 to $120 to house your dogs
for another few years. This could be the perfect way to build
new shelters in places that don’t have shelters,” like Mexico,
where Grillo has experimented with starting shelters, and Asia
and Africa, where an animal sheltering infrastructure is mostly
just beginning to develop.
Soon Grillo expects to begin distributing a video that
teaches the straw bale technique.
Quick to help
As well as building D.E.L.T.A. Rescue into one of
the world’s biggest and most successful no-kill shelters, starting
from nothing, Grillo has helped countless other no-kill
sanctuaries and local animal control agencies over the years,
with both know-how and emergency aid.
Literally in his own back yard, Grillo helps wildlife
agencies and fire departments safeguard the habitat around
D.E.L.T.A. Rescue, home of numerous protected species, by
allowing firefighters access to a small reservoir he built and
maintains, along with a landing pad and pumping station, to
help firefighting helicopters retank.
Grillo has also been honored for funding innovative
emergency animal treatment programs at the University of
California branches in Davis and Irvine. The Davis program
provides dialysis to save pets who ingest toxic
substances––most often antifreeze.
At Irvine, the Beckman Laser Institute was established
to treat humans, but through the cooperation of Grillo
and Beckman veterinary director George M. Peavy, DVM, it
now treats animals as well. The first two animal patients were
the D.E.L.T.A. Rescue cats Scarecrow and Demon.
“Without a doubt,” Grillo told the Beckman Laser
newsletter, “the laser saved these animals’ lives.”
Adamant that no animals be deliberately injured in
research associated with work D.E.L.T.A. Rescue sponsors,
Grillo added, “In the case of naturally occurring disease, no
animals are hurt, and veterinary medicine moves forward. I
think this is the future of research.”
Because Grillo tends to keep most of his good deeds
quiet, chiefly for diplomatic reasons, he is ironically often pictured
as brash by people who recognize his unabashed fundraising
appeals, but have never met him.
Shrugs Grillo, “It takes money to save animals.
People want to help save animals, but you have to ask.”
Grillo isn’t brash. Though a burly 200 pounds, he
walks lightly and speaks softly, because sudden sounds scare
animals. When he does raise his voice, he barks rather than
shouts, in short sharp phrases. Despite coming originally from
suburbs north of Boston, Massachusetts, Grillo looks, walks,
and talks a lot more like a cowboy of Gene Autry or Roy
Rogers cut than like a New Englander. D.E.L.T.A. Rescue distantly
overlooks a former movie ranch, now a park, where
rock formations used as backdrop for the climactic scenes of
countless westerns were filmed. The scenery suits him.
Grillo’s “singing cowboy” look no doubt contributed
to a legend among Los Angeles-area animal rescuers of Grillo
as a gunslinger.
It is not wholly inaccurate.
“Yes, I am armed, all the time,” Grillo acknowledges.
“I have extensive police training because of the
dangers I face in the wilderness––from humans. I’m
often alone in the forest with druggies etcetera,” who
have been known to litter the same roadside ravines
from which Grillo picks up animals with each other’s
dead bodies as well as abandoned ex-guard dogs, exfighting
dogs, and cast-off pets.
“I’ve been shot at many times,” Grillo continues. “I
have not returned fire yet.”
The gunslinger stories got started about six years ago,
he recalls, when someone he was suing “sent two thugs
to beat me up. They showed up at different properties
looking for me. I was ready to shoot them for real. This
was just before the case went into the courts. My reaction
was to meet violence with bigger violence.
Everyone knew about it. I called everyone to tell them
to warn the other side about me.”
“Actually, I love the reputation I have of shooting
people,” Grillo muses. “It keeps my animals safe,
because the bad guys know my rep.”
The gunslinger legend also grew in part from Grillo’s
reputation for fighting courtroom duals against the animal
and habitat protection establishment––especially
against organizations with strongly anti-no-kill policies.
Among Grillo’s adversaries are, or have been, the
Humane Society of the U.S., the Delta Society, the
Glendale Humane Society, and the National Geographic
His first fight of that sort was with Belton Mouras,
the former Humane Society of the U.S. staffer who later
founded the Animal Protection Institute, and after leaving
API also founded United Animal Nations.
“My beef with Mouras goes back to 1983,” Grillo
explains. “I had national ads running. He and his team
visited me and insisted I stay local, ad-wise, in Southern
California. When I refused, they put political pressure on
me to shut my shelter down. It was a 50-year-old kennel
that was in bad shape. The county officials knew how
clean it was and how healthy my animals were, but
Belton and his assistant Ted Crail pulled every string to
get me shut down because I was viable competition.
Fortunately, Belton was told to go fly a kite. Fact was, I
liked Belton,” Grillo adds. “I thought I had met someone
who knew what it was like being different. He even gave
me some advice about being attacked for breathing that I
cherish to this day. But API pre-empted even HSUS in trying
to discredit me.”
Another of Grillo’s well-known legal battles ran from
mid-1985 to June 1987, when a neighbor sued in a failed
attempt to keep dogs out of part of his present facility.
“I don’t take crap from anyone. We won that, and
the animals have their land,” Grillo remembers.
D.E.L.T.A. vs. Delta
The Delta Society was next up. Grillo believes
HSUS somehow pushed them into the fight. Founded in 1976
by Michael J. McCulloch, a psychiatrist in Portland, Oregon,
who pioneered the development of animal-assisted therapy, the
Delta Society was formally incorporated as a nonprofit organization
in 1977. McCulloch was shotgunned by one of his
patients in August 1985, but the Delta Society had already
relocated to Renton, Washington, and continued under longtime
president Leo Bustad, DVM, chiefly funded by the pet
food industry. Other projects have been undertaken with the
support of various national animal advocacy organizations and
Delta Society goals, according to executive director
Linda Hines, include “expanding awareness of the positive
effects animals can have on family health and human development;
reducing barriers to involvement of animals in everyday
life; delivering animal-assisted therapy to more people; and
increasing the availability of well-trained service dogs.”
The Delta Society hosts the National Service Dog
Center, known to ANIMAL PEOPLE for prompt helpful
response to many people we have referred to it over the years,
and the Delta Society has also helped callers referred by ANIMAL
PEOPLE in resolving pet-related landlord/tenant conflicts.
Hines’ personal intervention saved the lives of as many
as 400 pets in one 1993 case, when a new landlord took over a
trailer court in Idaho and tried to impose stringent pet limits.
The Delta Society was a major ANIMAL PEOPLE
advertiser when D.E.L.T.A. Rescue became an advertiser, and
ANIMAL PEOPLE soon heard from both about their history
of animosity. Neither expressed any quarrel with the other’s
programs, which only slightly overlap, but both the Delta
Society and D.E.L.T.A. Rescue were sensitive about any possible
confusion of their names.
“In 1984,” Grillo recalls, “I got a letter from the
Delta Society telling us to stop using their name ‘Delta’ when
using my acronym,” D.E.L.T.A., which Grillo chose in order
to spell out the name of the first dog he’d rescued.
“They threatened suit. We blew them off,” Grillo
continues. “In 1985 they filed a trademark application stating
that they had never heard of any other ‘Delta’ in the animal
world, and that they were the sole users of that name. In 1989,
they sued us in federal court. I announced to my donors that
their board was made up of vivisectors, and that their president
was the worst offender. I never said the Delta Society practiced
vivisection. I did say the board was made up of career vivisectors.
Their response was to add libel to the suit. But I had all
the proof, and they settled just before jury call.”
In fact, Bustad did perform invasive radiation experiments
on animals from 1948 until 1965 at Hanford National
Laboratory, near Hanford, Washington. His subjects included
lambs, piglets, birds, fish, and dairy cattle. Details are posted
at the National Human Exposure to Radiation Experiments web
Bustad later served as dean of the Washington State
College of Veterinary Medicine, in Pullman, Washington,
where staff members did invasive animal research. Other veterinary
researchers have served on the Delta Society board.
The outcome of the conflict, Grillo laughs, is that
“The suit cost them as much as me,” and since 1990 Grillo
uses periods in spelling the D.E.LT.A. Rescue name, to indicate
that it is unrelated to the Delta Society.
Meanwhile, Grillo “sued National Geographic in federal
court,” he remembers, “over their misinformed show
Cats: Caressing the Tiger, in which I was given a beautiful
segment. The case was about getting my expertise in the development
phase, and then refusing to give D.E.LT.A. Rescue
even a mention, let alone credit, after promising to do so.
HSUS,” Grillo observes, “is in the same show and gets much
HSUS and Glendale Humane have crossed Grillo
several times, including over direct mailing practices and over
a “nonrecommendation” of D.E.L.T.A. Rescue, allegedly posted
at Glendale Humane in 1991 and at other times, which
Grillo contends unjustly impugned his integrity and suspects
originated with HSUS staff. Related litigation is still underway.
Grillo outlined the gist of his complaint against organizations
such as HSUS in a two-page ad in the May 1998 edition
of ANIMAL PEOPLE, phrased to point out the use of
similar tactics by many groups.
“No more address labels, greeting cards, sweepstakes,
calendars, tote bags,” the ad fumed. “Why? Let me
tell you how it all works. When you get free address labels in
the mail, you join the organization, and even receive another
‘free’ gift for joining. But the animals get none of that money.
NONE! Why? Because the organization spends even more
than it gets in donations to send you that solicitiation and those
‘free’ gifts. Not only is there no money left for the animals,
they took money that other people sent in for animals and they
spent it on your free gifts! Do you get the picture? There is
enough money to pay for their mailing because 20% of the people
joining will make a second donation…and that’s pure profit
if the group doesn’t have any animals to feed and shelter!”
Charged Grillo, “One group, the largest so-called
humane society in the U.S., has no animals at
all, and it is not connected to your local
humane society, though that is the impression
it gives you in its mailings. This same group
had a big-shot national meeting in Florida a
while ago…to discuss the humane ‘problem.’
After the conference, they broadcast their
‘plan’ all over national radio and TV. Are you
ready? Here’s their plan: to tell people they
should spay their pets! That’s it! If I had their
money, I would have spayed every pet in
America by now!”
The ad unveiled Grillo’s own Spay
America 2000 campaign, which directly
underwrites spaying and vaccination in inner
cities. Starting in Los Angeles, Grillo envisions
the campain spreading nationwide.
Grillo sees D.E.L.T.A. Rescue and
even Spay America 2000 as only starting
points for a still larger mission. The greater
part, he believes, will be achieved through
sharing what he has learned through
D.E.L.T.A. Rescue screen productions.
But they may not be what people
might expect. Some of Grillo’s screen work is
about D.E.L.T.A. Rescue and animal sheltering,
yet most are not. And they are financed,
produced, and promoted through an entirely
separate operation, Leo Grillo Productions.
The first Leo Grillo feature,
Dierdre’s Party, was completed earlier this
year, and will debut at a producer’s screening,
not open to the public, at the Toronto Film
Festival in mid-September. The festival conflicts
with Grillo’s commitment to speak at this
year’s No-Kill Conference in Concord,
California––so to avoid letting anyone down,
Grillo intends to send his No-Kill Conference
presentation on fundraising to Concord as a
specially made video, with a D.E.L.T.A.
Rescue staffer who will answer questions.
Postponed until a future No-Kill
Conference is an advertised debate between
Grillo and Louise Holton of Alley Cat Allies
on the advisability of the neuter/release
approach to reducing feral cat populations.
Often, Grillo observes, the presence of a
supervised neuter/release colony brings what
he terms the “billboard effect.”
Removing the cats, Grillo contends,
“you remove the billboard that says ‘Dump
Your Unwanted Cats Here,’ and abandonment
ceases. I can prove this with case histories of
areas where I have removed colonies as large
as 100 cats. Where others were feeding and
doing supervised neuter/release, the colonies
are still there.”
Grillo agrees that “Any help is better
than no help,” and that apartment dwellers
may not be able to take in large colonies.
“But to advocate neuter/release as
the perfect system is not correct,” Grillo continues.
“Even in remote areas, it is better for
all to remove the cats. I am coming from a
philosophy that animals are people too,” he
emphasizes. “If the audience is animal control,
we have different religions anyway.”
Grillo can also generate hot debate
with his policy against adopting out animals,
which is intertwined with both his “animals are
people too” conviction and skepticism of veterinary
attitudes, which he blames for helping
to create and maintain the “throwaway pets”
For many years Grillo did adopt animals
to D.E.L.T.A. Rescue members. But too
often he found the outcome heartbreaking.
“Even some diehard supporters
don’t get it,” Grill says. “They do the same
things to their dogs that the carefully screened
public does. The very last time, the victim
was Bonnie, from my video, The D.E.L.T.A.
Rescue Story. I had her 10 years, and finally
adopted her to the best people I knew. She had
a good year with them; lived with their kids
and all. But once, when I called to check on
her because I was thinking about her,
Bonnie’s adopted family said they had put her
down––because their vet said she had kidney
disease. Put down! My Bonnie! Even though
my contract said in bold and at the top, ‘If
ever your vet recommends euthanizing our animal,
you must call us for authorization unless
it is an emergency and there is great suffering.’
They forgot the most important point in the
contract. Bonnie wasn’t that bad. We could
have treated her for two more years at our
shelter, and she would have been clinically
okay. I probably would have taken her home
with us if the people didn’t want to bother with
treating her. I have a dialysis center, too. But
they didn’t even call me––just followed their
vet’s advice and killed her.
“Too many advise euthanasia for all
sorts of conditions––even early on, when the
animal has a full life ahead of him, and people
listen to their vets more than me because they
are ‘doctors.’ Well, I hire and fire vets all the
time. Many, many vets don’t really care
about the individual animals at all. I don’t
know how civilians put up with them. And
many, many vets don’t know medicine.
“Anyway, after Bonnie I made a
firm commitment to follow my heart and my
instincts and not bow to public pressure to
‘adopt, adopt, adopt.’ I swore on Bonnie’s
memory never to adopt out an animal and put
the animal at risk again––not even to the ‘best’
people. I converted to care-for-life instead,
and I don’t care what anyone thinks about that.
Truth is, if I did adopt, I would get all sorts of
accolades. But for every one I placed, one
would die in a pound for lack of a home: the
one I just robbed from him. So instead, we
tell people to go to the pound and save a life. I
say, ‘They’re killing your next pet at 5:00
“I founded an animal rescue shelter,”
Grillo elaborates, “but I never intended to
spend my life doing animal control, and that’s
really what sheltering amounts to, even if
you’re not an animal control officer. I am an
actor/producer. I was a professional in that
field before starting this organization. I have
realized that no matter what I do in animal rescue,
the big war can only be won in the open
That means addressing the human
relationship with animals. This in turn means
getting people to look, also, at how humans
treat each other.
“Dierdre’s Party,” explains the Leo
Grillo Productions web site, “is a contemporary
drama about a happily married country
veterinarian, who, after learning of his wife’s
terminal illness, wants to put her in a hospice.
But when she refuses and throws a party for
him, he has to be supportive, because every
time he looks at her he knows he’s losing the
love of his life.”
“My film is not about animal sheltering,
or really about animals at all,” says
Grillo. “It is a feature film that happens to
have animals in it, because of who I am, but it
is a feature art film for the general public. It is
a narrative feature, or fiction, not a documentary.”
Yet the theme resonates with
Grillo’s motives for doing care-for-life sheltering,
and with the D.E.L.T.A. Rescue appeals,
which usually describe Grillo’s relationship
with a particular rescued animal.
“I am raising money to make more
films,” Grillo continues, having in mind “a
whole slate of family features,” which “when
the public sees them, will make the public
appreciate animals more on many levels.”
Among Leo Grillo Productions listed
as “still in development” are Edward Adams,
in which a “fine art photographer documenting
the last wild river in Southern California uincovers
a sinister plot to swindle 100 linear
miles of land.”
Another, Liberator, is “the story of
a helicopter traffic reporter who befriends a
neighboring single mom and child. Together
they expose a syndicate trafficking in stolen
Clancy, predictably, is “the story of
a puppy who is abandoned in the wilderness.”