BURLINGTON, Wash. — Shaggy, an 8-month-old terrier mix, hopped around excitedly as Jennifer McConn stepped into his kennel at the Humane Society of Skagit Valley.
“Do you want to go outside?” McConn asked Shaggy.
Shaggy responded by wiggling and wagging his tail as McConn clipped on his leash.
McConn, who lives in Sedro-Woolley, runs Project Freedom Ride, a nonprofit that relocates dogs from Texas cities that have high kill rates at animal shelters.
A day earlier, Shaggy was among 12 dogs brought to the humane society from Texas. In total, 56 dogs were transported to animal shelters throughout the region, McConn said.
Since starting Project Freedom Ride in December, McConn has helped relocate 550 dogs and 26 cats.
She said her passion for her work stems from her love of dogs.
“I think they are so rewarding, what they can bring to your life,” said McConn, who owns two dogs.
She grew up in Sedro-Woolley but moved to Texas in 2013 with her husband, who is in the military.
It didn’t take long for her to learn that the area had an overabundance of animals in shelters, leading to high rates of animals being euthanized.
“Animals are viewed as property,” she said. “They are disposable, versus here we have a more pet-friendly environment. It’s more of a family deal here.”
That attitude in Texas spurs people to more readily leave their animals at shelters, she said.
The issue is compounded by a lack of spaying and neutering of animals, said Humane Society of Skagit Valley Executive Director Janine Ceja.
McConn’s passion for saving dogs arose in 2015 after one of her dogs died. Shortly after, she saw a photo of a dog shared on a Texas shelter’s Facebook page that looked nearly identical to hers.
She had to have a look.
What she found was a municipal shelter filled nearly to capacity with about 150 dogs. In comparison, the Humane Society of Skagit Valley had 19 dogs before McConn’s shipment arrived Wednesday.
“When I went there (in Texas), I thought, ‘This is horrible. It’s such an awful place,'” McConn said. “(The dog) was going to be put down if I didn’t adopt her.”
She adopted the dog and her cause began.
“Once I got sucked into that, I was hell bent that every dog I met would get out alive,” McConn said.
Much of her work in Texas involved visiting municipal shelters and getting to know the animals. She would take photos and videos, and post them to social media websites in hopes of getting those animals adopted.
She moved back to Sedro-Woolley a year ago, and her mission to help save animals continued.
“When I first moved back it was this running joke that I would start this underground railroad and ship the dogs up here,” she said.
She molded that concept into Project Freedom Ride several area shelters on board.
Ceja said she’s been impressed with McConn’s resolve and motivation.
“By golly, this young lady has taken the bull by the horns,” she said. “The nice part of working with her is she is very diligent.”
McConn makes sure the dogs that will be relocated are properly vetted, which includes checking vaccinations. She takes dogs from Texas rescue organizations, which rescue dogs from the high-kill municipal shelters.
The relocation process starts with contacting area shelters like the Humane Society of Skagit Valley to see how many dogs they can accept.
Staff at the Texas animal rescue organizations then select dogs and puts them through the vetting process. That costs about $150 per animal and is paid for by the rescue organizations, McConn said.
McConn then schedules a truck to transport the dogs, a trip that usually takes three or four days. She pays for that with donations.
Once at their new shelters, many dogs are quickly adopted. Ceja said three had been adopted from the Skagit shelter by midday one Friday.
On a recent Thursday, Don Beazizo looked down at Emilio, a 7-month-old Chihuahua-dachshund mix who had just arrived from Texas.
Emilio was lying on his back in his kennel as McConn’s son Roman, 6, gave the dog a belly rub.
“I’m going to go fill out the paperwork right now,” Beazizo said. “It’s the dog we are looking for.”
McConn said that making sure everything goes smoothly takes a lot of work, and it helps that Roman is enthusiastic about coming to help her at the shelters.
After leashing Shaggy, McConn led him toward the facility’s rear exit, opening a door to the backyard play area. Shaggy shied away briefly, unsure of what was ahead.
“He hasn’t been out here yet,” she said, leaning over and pulling lightly on Shaggy’s leash. “It’s OK. It’s OK.”
The encouragement spurred Shaggy on.
“He’s such a sweet boy, he should go quick,” McConn said.
Information from: Skagit Valley Herald, http://www.skagitvalleyherald.com