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St. Louis animal shelter and Zootoo reach settlement

Wednesday, April 22, 2009 | 5:41 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — An animal rescue group and the founder of a popular pet Web site that had offered a $1 million makeover are parting ways, saying they had reached a legal agreement Wednesday.

Under the settlement, Richard Thompson's Zootoo.com gave an undisclosed amount of money to Stray Rescue of St. Louis.

Stray Rescue will build its own shelter for the street dogs it rescues, rehabilitates and adopts out, founder Randy Grim said. The money from Zootoo, he said, provides "an awesome start."

Grim said he still needs the community's support to build a shelter for an estimated $3 million. Stray Rescue has about $500,000 in pledges made before the contest.

Both Grim and Thompson, in separate phone interviews, said they were happy the matter was resolved.

"There's been some miscommunication, obviously," Grim said.

Thompson added, "We learned ways to communicate better."

Last year, Thompson's Zootoo.com had dangled a fantastic prize for one lucky animal shelter: a $1 million makeover to the winner of a national contest. Stray Rescue eventually won after competing with more than 1,000 animal shelters across America.

But two weeks ago, Grim said his nonprofit had gotten no money — just lots of pressure from Thompson to beg subcontractors, suppliers and labor unions to donate their goods and services for the shelter makeover.

Thompson responded by saying that the contest rules pledged "up to $1 million in value" — including cash and donated goods and services.

Thompson said Zootoo.com had provided $400,000 for the makeover so far, but Stray Rescue said most of that was in donated goods and services.

Grim said Thompson even instructed him to wire $170,000 of Stray Rescue funds to pay some of the shelter makeover's startup costs. Grim thought he'd be reimbursed.

Thompson said some of the $170,000 was from a Pedigree Foundation grant Stray Rescue wouldn't have gotten if the organization hadn't won the makeover.

A joint statement released Wednesday said the Pedigree grant "was and remains part of the value delivered by Zootoo."

Thompson, former chief executive of Secaucus, N.J.-based Meow Mix, is wrapping up this year's contest for a shelter makeover. He says he's learned from the first contest involving Stray Rescue.

"Zootoo is not perfect, but we're making a great effort to bring recognition to shelters," he said.

"Zootoo is happy we made our commitment, and learned to do this better. We hope to continue."

The Central Missouri Humane Society was one of the top 10 finalists in the 2009 shelter makeover contest. Voting ended Sunday, and a winner will be announced on April 27.

The contest requires shelters to get their supporters to register and earn points by being active on Zootoo.com, contributing reviews of pet products and services, and sharing opinions and advice. The public votes on which shelter should win.

Thompson said the contest "does not and will not make money" for Zootoo LLC, a for-profit business. "It's all about bringing communities and shelters together to promote adoptions, recruit volunteers and increase donations," he said.

Stray Rescue wasn't the only animal rescue group left angry. In late 2007, Thompson pledged on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" to build a barn and provide a year's worth of food for Rocky Ridge Refuge in Gassville, Ark.

Owner Janice Wolf said she got a scaled-down barn and some of the food, but that Thompson "pressured local businesses to donate everything."

Grim said he's anxious to build a shelter so that more dogs can be rescued. He said having this legal matter behind him frees him to return to the streets.

"I want to go back to what I do best, back to rescuing," he said. "I'm looking forward to that."


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