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'Underground railroad' gives second chance to doomed dogs

Johanne Tassé walks her dogs

Christinne Muschi/christinne muschi The Globe and Mail

Johanne Tassé

Founder, Companion Animal Adoption Centres of Québec (CAACQ)

Montreal

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About twice a month, a van pulls up in front of Toronto Animal Services' facility at Exhibition Place. Its cargo: a load of furry, barking passengers straight from Quebec, all headed for adoptive homes. Apart from knowing how to " assis" (sit) and " couche" (lie down), these dogs are special. They've all escaped certain death at overcrowded pounds across La Belle Province. And they have Johanne Tassé to thank – she started the French Connection, a type of underground railroad for pooches, three years ago. Involved as a consultant on Quebec's new anti-cruelty legislation, she's helping change a province that's been called the puppy-mill capital of North America. Ms. Tassé, 54, lives with her husband and three rescue dogs in Montreal's West Island.

First steps

"I volunteered for 10 years with a dog adoption agency, and in 2008 I got laid off from my job in sales and marketing for a textile company. I decided I'd devote myself full time to animal advocacy on a municipal and provincial level."

The goal

"To reduce the number of pets killed in Quebec and to promote more responsible ownership – on average, pet owners in this province only keep their animals for two years before they discard them."

Aha! moment

"Shelters and rescue groups were overwhelmed with the number of dogs being surrendered, so our solution was to export. After talking to Toronto Animal Services, we organized a small shipment of dogs in May, 2008. They all got adopted, so we kept sending more. Since then, we've transported almost 800 "Frenchies" – all different ages, sizes and breeds."

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Your hero

"[Lieutenant-General]Roméo Dallaire. In the face of adversity, he had the courage to denounce injustice and do what he felt was right."

What keeps you going?

"Something my grandfather used to tell me: Don't look at the road you're on, look at the destination."

Lessons learned

"When you're very passionate about something, it's easy to get to wrapped up in the emotions. That's how a lot of rescue groups fail. Run it as if it were a business – you need marketing, accountability and good governance."

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Proudest moment

"Every time I close the doors after we finish loading the truck. I can wave the driver off knowing that those dogs are safe now. It's my greatest satisfaction."

Next steps

"This week we've got a shipment of 20 dogs from Val-d'Or in northern Quebec. And I'm consulting on new provincial legislation that imposes tougher restrictions on puppy mills, and the City of Montreal just announced plans for a better animal control system. We're finally trying to change the landscape in Quebec."



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