To hear Leo Grillo’s gripping account of rescuing a desperate female named Shell is to gain an even deeper appreciation for the bond between man and dog — and for the incredible work of one organization — to help animals cruelly discarded, abandoned, and left to their own devices.
Though the rescue occurred nearly two decades ago — and though the beloved Shell has now gone to Rainbow Bridge — the details of this miraculous story are as vivid as they are compelling.
Grillo, a former actor, founded D.E.L.T.A. Rescue in the high desert area of Los Angeles in 1979. Little did he realize he was embarking on the biggest role of his career, one that would take him all over the world, like a jet-setting movie star.
D.E.L.T.A. stands for “Dedication and Everlasting Love To Animals.” Grillo has never strayed from that promise — as shown by his unrelenting commitment to Shell and her pups.
That’s because D.E.L.T.A. Rescue is the largest no-kill, care-for-life animal sanctuary of its kind in the world. It is also a loving home for up to 1,500 animals that had once been abandoned in the wild or born there — as Shell and her brood had been.
Despite the passing of time, though, Grillo’s memory of Shell’s rescue will never be forgotten.
He recalled first eying her near a freeway off-ramp, close to a gas station and a fast-food joint far outside Los Angeles. It was 2001.
“Shell came every morning between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. to hit the trash and inhale whatever edible scraps she could find,” he said.
For days, Grillo noticed this behavior — as well as her ravenous appetite. People later said she was there for a few weeks.
“She even ate the paper sandwich wrappers along with the few French fries she found. She ate a tiny bit, fast, once a day, and then she ran off and disappeared again until the next morning,” he recalled.
Then, one day when Grillo stopped for gas, he observed the dog yet again — and decided then and there he would do whatever he could to assist the abandoned animal.
“I planned on where I would set up my trap to rescue her. But when she showed up that next morning, Shell scampered around my van, sniffing, eating and licking the ground where a soft drink or ketchup had spilled. But she never stood still. At least not long enough so that I could set my trap,” said Grillo.
In other words, the rescue did not go as planned.
Undaunted, Grillo settled for Plan B, which included an unusual kind of bait.
“I took the bag of cut-up hot dogs that I brought for her, and I started tossing them around my van, to keep Shell hanging around while I unloaded the trap onto the road,” he recalled. This time — success.
“I set the trap quickly — and she ran into it to get the hot dogs,” he said.
What must have seemed an eternity to both Grillo and Shell, was, in reality, a matter of minutes — and Grillo’s fastest rescue ever. And though the mission had been accomplished, the work was just beginning.
Within an hour or so, Shell (shown in the inset image here) was being well cared for at D.E.L.T.A. Rescue Super Sanctuary Hospital — though she seemed hysterical and kept trying to escape her new surroundings.
Soon after, Grillo’s “worst fear” was confirmed in a phone call from the vet, which also shed light on Shell’s frantic state.
A check up at the hospital revealed that Shell had been nursing — which helped explain her tense and irritable state. The veterinarian noticed she had milk in her system. So she needed to get back to her litter in the wild before the end of the day — before it got too cool — so she could tend to her babies.
Still, there were risks involved in attempting yet another rescue on the very same day.
“This would be dangerous,” surmised Grillo. “She could bite through the leash and get away.”
An expert rescuer, Grillo strapped two harnesses with steal chain leads on Shell in an effort to direct him toward her lost and, by now, starving pups.
But as Grillo explained, “Shell was so terrified of me that she went in huge circles trying to figure out how to get away.”
As day turned to night, a sense of helplessness and despair came over Grillo as Shell seemed to be leading him nowhere.
So, “out of pure desperation,” Grillo invoked the spirit of his departed dog, Fred, to intervene in some tangible way — something the former actor said he had never done before.
He pleaded with Shell. As he described it, “I pleaded with Fred out loud to please step in and tell Shell that I was trying to save her family. I begged him. Then I turned to her and begged her.”
“Shell, please listen to me,” Grillo urged the terrier mix. “Your babies are going to die, all of them. If you don’t take me to them now, they will die. I will help them. And I will help you. But you have to take me to them NOW. Please, Shell, take me to them now!”
Those of us who know dogs know how smart these animals are.
“She immediately started pulling me in the right uphill direction that led to her puppies,” said Grillo. Shell pulled him up hill after hill in the black of night. With only a flashlight, a pillow case and a cellphone, Grillo — soon cold from the rain, breathless and famished — regretted leaving his warm jacket behind.
Even worse, “I didn’t know if Shell was taking me far away from her pups, or if she wanted me to rescue them,” he said.
The answer was soon revealed.
“I saw the most beautiful, smooth head of a brown puppy looking up at me with those innocent eyes,” said D.E.L.T.A. founder Leo Grillo. “It was a miracle. This terrified dog had led me to her puppies.”
As Shell continued to pull Grillo over a period of several hours, he had no other choice but to trust this smart girl.
Then, upon spotting a Juniper bush, Shell stopped cold in her tracks, and took cover from the pouring rain.
Still, Grillo didn’t know what to make of the situation. Where were they? Why were they at this spot?
“My arm was connected to her with those short leads, so I was halfway under the tree with a tangle of sharp branches in my face,” he recalled.
He reached for his flashlight to assess “the mess” he and Shell were in now.
Serendipitously, the mess turned out to be no mess at all. Instead, it was a blessing. “When I flipped on that blinding light, I discovered the most amazing thing, and I literally gasped,” said Grillo.
“I saw the most beautiful, smooth head of a brown puppy looking up at me with those innocent eyes,” said Grillo. “It was a miracle. This terrified dog had led me to her puppies” — and they were four.
That was 17 years ago. Today, three of Shell’s four pups are still going strong as permanent residents of D.E.L.T.A. Rescue. Sadly, Arco passed away from a weak heart in 2009, and just recently, Shell herself joined her son in Rainbow Bridge.
“Shell was one of my most important rescues,” he said. “This wonderful girl taught me so much. Animals are pure,” he added with feeling.
BONUS READ: Love is in the details! D.E.L.T.A. Rescue‘s on-site facilities include two veterinary hospitals with full-time staff seven days a week. The hospitals are equipped with intensive care units for dogs and cats, surgical suites, a diagnostic lab, X-ray equipment, and a cold laser unit, which has already brought one totally paralyzed dog back to full use of his legs again.
The facility has a helicopter pad for emergencies, a large reservoir of emergency water, and a fleet of six fully equipped fire engines — more example of love in the details.
Grillo’s vision and reach, however, extend far beyond the Los Angeles area. He’s assisted with rescue efforts in places as remote as India, Romania, and war-torn Afghanistan. His other accomplishments are too numerous to note.
More importantly, he continues to advocate his no-kill sheltering philosophy, and still dreams of the day when a no-kill world becomes a reality.
“If we had the money that some other large organizations have, we could close all the animal shelters in the United States in five years,” declared Grillo. “Then I could fund my fleet of veterinary ships, which could travel the world helping animals that have no veterinary care whatsoever. If only we were rich for the sake of these deserving animals!”
To learn more about D.E.L.T.A. and the extraordinary work this organization is doing, and to make a donation, please visit its website here.