Long before Hedy and Jim Krenn ever joined Animal Friends, they'd had plenty of 'em.
Mr. Krenn, a stand-up comic and longtime morning radio host on WDVE-FM, grew up in a one-bedroom apartment above a restaurant equipment business in the Strip District. No pets were allowed. So, when he was around 12 or 13, he began visiting the nearby Animal Friends shelter, letting himself into the cages and playing with the strays.
"I always thought they were my dogs," he said.
Growing up in New Castle, Hedy Polifroni had German shepherds and two or three cats. But she tried to bring home more.
"I was always trying to sneak things in. I tried to bring chickens from school," she said.
Her father had one question for Mr. Krenn when he asked to marry his daughter 18 years ago:
"Jim, you like animals? ... You're going to have a lot of 'em."
The Krenns currently share their Green Tree home with four dogs and two cats, many of them rescues from Animal Friends, which has since relocated to Ohio Township. Mr. Krenn became involved with the nonprofit 20 years ago while working on a charity CD. His wife joined him, and last month they hosted its annual Garden Party, helping to raise $22,000.
More than half of that was raised during a $2,000-in-2-minutes matching challenge as friends of the Krenns put their money where Mr. Krenn's mouth is. One anonymous donor gave $10,000.
They "epitomize the true spirit of Animal Friends and help give each of us the energy to continue our work," Executive Director David Swisher says. "They have earned the right to be considered true legends in the animal welfare community."
About 19 years ago, Mr. Krenn got his first pet from Animal Friends, a cat named Ralph, followed by a dog, Pooch. People who say cats don't have personalities should have met Ralph, Mr. Krenn says.
"Ralph was a jittery kind of cat. People said catnip would calm him down, so I got some. He went nuts! He'd get stoned on catnip.
"He would hear the little poof when I opened the Tupperware container and he would suddenly appear, like Hannibal Lecter: 'Hello, Clarice,' " the comedian says in perfect imitation of actor Anthony Hopkins' creepy greeting from "Silence of the Lambs."
He also recalls the moment when he gave his cat a different voice:
"I was working on this character, a paranoid kind of burnout. I was trying to come up with a name for him when all of a sudden, Ralph jumps on the table, hair sticking up.
"I said, 'Ralph, that's you, man!' "
Ralph the Cat became a regular character in Mr. Krenn's stand-up act and mornings on DVE. The real Ralph enjoyed catnip -- and dressing up in a devil costume -- until he died three years ago at age 16 1/2.
Characters, stories and impressions have always been a part of Mr. Krenn's act. His imitations of his teachers at North Catholic High School won him a standing ovation and the talent show during his senior year. At Community College of Allegheny County, he won another talent show, and by the time he graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1983, he had about 20 minutes of material.
"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be neat to make a living at this?' " he says.
Shows at The Portfolio in Oakland and Pittsburgh Comedy Club in Dormont won him a local following, and by 1986 he was a headliner there and at other clubs in the region. In 1987, he and fellow comic Scott Paulsen became regulars on Friday mornings on DVE (102.5 FM).
"I figured this will last about six months," he says. "Six months turned into 23 years."
Now teamed with Randy Baumann, Mr. Krenn has the top-rated morning radio show. He recently finished his 12th episode of "Jim Krenn Raw," a Web show that follows him around Pittsburgh -- kinda the way his pets follow him and his wife through their house.
When Post-Gazette photographer John Heller came to get a family portrait, the couple tried valiantly to get all six Krennimals to sit still. Roy poked playfully at the tripod, acting more like a kitten than a 19-year-old deaf cat. Larry, a 1 1/2-year-old Jack Russell-chihuahua mix, barked and bounced on the leather sofa just out of the comedian's reach. Even after Larry and Gizmo, a 12-year-old rat terrier, were finally corralled on his lap, the dogs still stole the show.
"I've got more dog than you," Mr. Heller complained from behind his camera.
Mesmerized momentarily by the rapid flashes, Larry and Gizmo mellowed long enough for the picture with beagle mixes Olive and Snoopy and a long-haired cat named Elvis. Sundance, a white German shepherd mix, died two months ago at 14 1/2 years old. The Krenns and their pets (Snoopy in particular) miss his big dog presence.
Only the dogs are allowed to join their people on the back porch, where Mr. Krenn lights up a Drew Estate cigar and tells more stories. He says he and his wife never planned to have six or seven pets, but ...
"They grab your heart. They kinda pick you," he says.
Usually, they pick the Krenns at Animal Friends' fancy 5-year-old shelter in Ohio Township. But Larry found them at the Washington County Humane Society, after someone abandoned him in a box among some garbage cans.
Snoopy, a 12-year-old beagle mix, was waiting for them at a gas station when they stopped on their way to a wedding in Snowshoe, W.Va. The station's owner said someone had dropped off the friendly, tick-infested dog days before. Fearing the local shelter would quickly euthanize him, he was feeding him people food, including lasagna. Mr. Krenn picks up the story:
"We got Hedy and Snoopy in the back seat. Hedy says, 'I'm getting sick, and I think he is, too.' Next thing you know, we had lasagna all over the back seat.
"I run into a gas station and say, 'My dog and wife are both sick -- isn't that the perfect country song title? -- I need Pepto Bismol and a towel. The lady behind the counter doesn't bat an eye, like this happens all the time.
"Our intention was to get him a home. But Pooch liked him and Ralph liked him, too (he was the boss). We figured he'd been through hell. Let's just keep him."
Other than Ralph, the only other Krennimal who's made it on the radio is Gizmo, who escaped and was lost in the woods for 36 hours several years ago. After mentioning it on his show, Mr. Krenn was astounded that hundreds of listeners and his friends from Animal Friends helped search for the lost dog in Banksville Park.
"To my left is David Swisher. To my right is [Humane Officer] Kathy Hecker. Four hundred listeners helped out. It was overwhelming," he marvels.
Listeners shouldn't be surprised if Larry makes it onto the radio someday. Though he's lived with the Krenns for only 10 months, he's already 7 pounds of annoying. Just ask Gizmo.
"Gizmo is like a little grouchy old man. He thinks Larry's just here for a visit. If he could pack Larry's bags, he would," Mr. Krenn says.
"Gizmo will be sleeping and Larry just jumps on him. He looks at me like, 'Really?'
"If Gizmo could swear, all I would hear were swear words."