When a visitor knocks on the door of James Sundstrom's home in Northeast Washington, a pack of dogs comes running, barking loud greetings and sniffing inquisitively at the door.
Pushing through the crowd of German shepherds, collies, terriers, and assorted mutts, Sundstrom is the last to reach the door.
Each one of the dogs is a stray, and for Sundstrom, welcoming them into his home on Fourth Street NE has become his life's mission. In fact, Sundstrom's compassion for unwanted animals rivals the zeal of any missionary. s
"I see them out on the street starving," Sundstrom says. "Some people pick them up for dog fights; I just try to save them that fate. I've only put three dogs to sleep in my life and that was for humanitarian reasons."
Sundstrom, just under 6 feet tall, is a neatly dressed man with blue eyes and thick, closely trimmed silver hair. Five days a week, eight hours a day, he is a beautician at Georgetown's Colonnade Hairstylists, catering to the upper reaches of Washington society.
But his other life begins when he puts away his combs and hairbrushes and heads home to his "halfway-house" for stray and unwanted dogs.
Sundstrom began taking in lost animals in 1977 when he founded the tax-exempt Society for the Protection of Every Animal and Child. In the past three years Sundstrom has found homes for about 150 animals, mostly dogs.
Sundstrom says he spends about $11,000 a year to buy food, pay for veterinarian bills and meet other needs of the animals. These expenses are paid for with private donations (a total of about $100 a month), and $85 monthly pension from the U.S. Army and nearly $200-a-week he earns as a beautician.
He sold a house in Northwest that enabled him to pay cash for his present home. He says he needs only $50 a week for his personal expenses; the rest goes for his animals.
There are no members of Sundstrom's protection society, although there is a board of directors: an elderly citizen, an attorney and two wives of prominent businessmen in the area. These four women assist by making phone calls trying to locate good homes for the animals.
The society has not yet cared for any children, due to lack of financial resources, but it can legally provide emergency or temporary care for lost, abandoned or abused children, Sundstrom says.
Sundstrom, who lives alone in his Capitol Hill home, grew up on his family's farm in Grenville, S.D. When he was 15, he says, he witnessed a remarkable incident which kindled his strong attachment to animals:
"To ridicule this young black man who was looking for a day's work during the Depression, a white farmer lent him a wagon and a stubborn ole horse that wouldn't pull the wagon. But the young man just put his head to the horse's head and talked to it, like he was praying. He got on the wagon and he and that horse worked all day. He showed the horse love. That left a great impression on me."
Sundstrom is a quiet and courtly man. But he can barely stop the flow of words once he starts describing his "rescue mission."
Most stray dogs, Sundstrom says, are easy to befriend. "They're so hungry all I have to do is lure them with food. Most times they're so eaten up with ticks and fleas (and) they're so weak, they welcome a loving hand to feed them and care for them."
After getting a new stray, Sundstrom takes it to a Silver Spring animal hospital where he has it cleaned, spayed and treated with shots or whatever is needed at a discount fee.
Later, he introduces it to his family of dogs, which on the average loses and gains, he says, "a dog a day" as some strays are found and others put out for adoption.
Last week, the family included 13 dogs (though Sundstrom's building permit legally allows him to keep only six animals at a time). Of those, at least two had broken legs, one was deaf and another, Meisak, had only one eye.
Of all the dogs that have come through Sundstrom's home, one is there to stay: Duke, a collie-German shepherd.
"I've made a commitment to Duke -- till death do us part. I found him on a freezing day in January 1969," says Sundstrom. "His eyelids were frozen and scraping his eyeballs so bad that the veterinarian said he would've gone blind if I hadn't saved him."
Sundstrom publicizes his adoption services in classified newspaper ads, but he is careful to inspect the dog's new homes before sending them on their way.
"I make personal yard checks to make sure a person who wants to adopt a dog has clean yards and proper fencing -- animals shouldn't be chained or caged," Sundstrom says.
Although many people bring strays to Sundstrom as a result of the adoption ads, Sundstrom also finds unwanted animals when he makes his rounds of city streets and alleys in his yellow 1972 Caprice. Sundstrom admits his rescue duties are not always plleasant.
"Most dogs I find are so bad you can scrape the fleas off them with your fingernail. They're so infested with worms, mange and distemper, they vomit, defecate and everything else in the back seat of my car."
Last year, Sundstrom sold his former home on Kalorama Road NW to buy and renovate his current, two-bedroom home in a predominantly black section of Capitol Hill.
So far, he has only been able to upgrade the 60-year-old house to the dogs' standards, not his. Inside the house, the air is sharp with the pungent odor of dogs' sour breath, wet hair and fresh defecation.
The living room is dominated by a large crate filled with one ton of dog food, donated a couple of weeks ago by Safeway. It is the biggest donation Sundstrom has ever received for his animal protection society.
Dog hair is everywhere, especially in Sundstrom's bedroom, which has a tile floor, bare white walls with holes in them and two twin-sized beds.
Sitting on the side of one bed and hugging a shaggy-haired mutt, he says, "We all sleep in here together."
Thirteen large aluminum bowls full of dog food line the hallway of the house at all times. To make it easy to clean up after his dogs, Sundstrom converted his small backyard into a concrete patio, which he washes down with water twice a day.
Residents near Sundstrom say they have no complaints about their unusual neighbor. They describe Sundstrom as a friendly man who is well-liked by adults and children in the area.
In fact, neighbors say, when one nearby resident tried to start a petition to have Sundstrom and his menagerie delcared a nuisance, no one would sign the petition.
Sundstrom likes to describe himself as a former "playboy." Though his contacts with hair salon clients, he says he used to socialize "in embassy circles," wining and dining with ambassadors and other VIPs.
"I've had my good times in my life," says Sundstrom, "but these are the serious years. It's still fun now, but it's more constructive."