For 16 years, Jillian Donaghey of BARK has been hauling trailers filled with homeless dogs from her shelter in Louisiana to Ontario.
She’s travelled more than 250,000 kilometres on about 60 trips, outlasted three trailers and an axle fire and experienced more flat tires than she can count.
The familiar route north has been a literal lifesaver for the estimated 5,000 stray or abandoned dogs that were looking at doggie death row before finding homes — about 2,000 adopted out of St. Catharines.
But last week, with 90 large and small dogs packed in a transport trailer, she set her sights north for the last time.
“No matter how much we do in the South, there’s always more. And I know for the dogs and cats that we’ve rescued and we’ve found homes for, I know it’s changed that animal’s life and the people’s lives that have adopted them,” she said Tuesday at BARK’s adopt-a-thon at Lincoln County Humane Society.
“But we’ve done our part.”
Her dad needs surgery. Her three kids aged five, 10 and 14 are growing up fast. She has a husband, and a business selling paper and janitorial products and other responsibilities back home. All that gets put on the back burner when she travels and holds adoption events.
“When we come up here we’re gone two to three weeks,” she said. “That’s a long time.”
Hundreds of pet owners in Niagara have adopted Louisiana dogs from BARK — Boudreaux’s Animal Rescue Krewe — since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 made the overpopulation of stray dogs in the state even worse.
Donaghey, who runs the BARK shelter in Alexandria, La., with her dad, learned from a Cambridge Ontario visitor that Canadians were always looking to adopt dogs. She made the first trip north in 2006.
Donaghey said the attitudes towards dogs are different in Canada and New York state, where they also hold adoptions, than from the South.
“We’d come up here and they would look at a black lab that is a dime a dozen down south and they would just talk about how beautiful they were, and the coats were so pretty. And, oh my gosh,we’d be like, we have 50 more just like this, how big’s your car? It just blew our minds.”
The trips were an education on Canadian weather. They quickly learned that pop-up tents don’t work in the winter and that bigger wedding tents need to be bolted down in November, after a pole was lifted in the air and speared the roof of their trailer. After that, trips were scheduled May to October.
Donaghey said support for shelters is also different.
Where there are multiple staff at Lincoln County Humane Society and other shelters, BARK has one paid employee who takes care of 100 animals and about 15 volunteers. It doesn’t get funding, big donations or sponsorships.
“We have contributors that send $20 a month that have been actively doing it for five years. We have that kind of support, which is amazing, that’s kept us alive, but it’s always financially hard, emotionally hard, physically hard.”
Her dad Julian Long said the trips have saved the lives of many dogs.
“Thank God, and I mean this sincerely, for Canadians. You people love your animals and you all have a tremendous big heart and you open up your homes to these guys who need help so badly.”
He said they’ve received hundreds of wonderful emails from people who have adopted dogs over the years have kept them going, but they are just worn out.
“Anybody would be hard-pressed to find two like this that are so dedicated,” said Kevin Strooband, executive director of the humane society.
“I’ve said so many times, the work that these two do and their colleagues and friends, I couldn’t do it. I’m just astounded. Three weeks of this. There’s no way.”
Strooband said Niagara doesn’t have the same overpopulation issues as in the South because of animal control, Canadian winters and the humane society’s low cost spay and neuter clinic.
BARK still had dogs available for adoption on Tuesday. The event runs 11 a.m to 7 p.m. until Thursday behind the humane society.
Donaghey said she is keeping the BARK shelter open in Alexandria but its mission will be changed to one of more education in classrooms, a focus on spay and neutering for pets of low-income owners and outreach in the community to keep the dog population in check.
“I’m going to try and change it,” she said. “It’s not going to happen overnight but, I mean, you’ve got to start somewhere.”