PEQUOT LAKES — Wrangler enjoyed being around people, giving them wet kisses with his tongue.

Shelby was quiet, sitting prim and proper, observing the hectic atmosphere around her.

Bubba had almost a permanent smile on his face, wanting to explore his new environment instead of being confined to a kennel.

Oswalt was scared, despite his large size, sitting off to the side clinging to his new foster mom.

Albert and Gray, two of the littlest ones, pawed at the sides of their pen, looking for attention.

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Siggy lay in her own space, nursing her 2-day old babies.

If it weren’t for Northern Lakes Rescue, these pups and their unique personalities would not be with Minnesota foster families right now, awaiting their forever homes. Instead, they would likely have been subjected to a much worse fate — euthanization.

Jessica Manifold held back tears as she looked around the rescue building in Pequot Lakes Saturday, March 27, imagining what would have happened to the 57 dogs — including at least two dozen puppies — who had just arrived from the Houston area.

Manifold, the foster-to-adopt coordinator at Northern Lakes Rescue, was one of several volunteers on hand Saturday to help unload the bus from Texas and acquaint the dogs with their new foster families.

The latest transport celebrated Northern Lakes Rescue’s fourth birthday. For the last four years, the Pequot Lakes-based nonprofit rescues an average of 50-70 dogs a month from both the Houston area and the local region. A network of about 120 foster families welcomes the pups into their homes while they search for potential adopters. Many of the fosters are in the Brainerd and Duluth areas, with some near St. Cloud, Grand Rapids and the Twin Cities as well.

“I love what I do, but I’m sad that we have to do it,” Northern Lakes Rescue volunteer and board member Caryn Hollingsworth said.

There are an estimated 70 million stray dogs and cats in the U.S. at any given time, with about 6-8 million entering shelters each year, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Of those in shelters, about 3 million are euthanized each year, roughly 80% of which are healthy and could have been welcomed into new homes.

Houston is among the worst cities in the country for stray pets, with an estimated 1.2 million homeless dogs, according to the Houston Homeless Pet Project.

“A lot of people you talk to don’t even realize what Texas is like,” Hollingsworth said, noting in Minnesota, if anyone sees a stray dog, they’ll likely call the police department or post about it on social media. But that’s not the case in Texas.

“Down there, they’re living at gas stations,” she said. “We actually have one mom that we pulled. She had her puppies, and she put them all underneath a door in the ground down in Texas to keep them safe, which probably saved them from predators. It’s just sad, sad situations down there.”

Northern Lakes Rescue is just one of the thousands of pet rescue organizations in the U.S. doing its part to put a dent in the homeless animal crisis. The nonprofit is committed to helping dogs, but right now it needs the help of humans.

The building the rescue has leased off Patriot Avenue in Pequot Lakes for the last year is up for sale. While Northern Lakes Rescue has the first option to buy it, the funds aren’t there for the roughly $148,000 expense. And with another buyer interested, the group has less than three months to come up with the money or risk losing its facility.

“We just don’t know what we would do if we had to move,” Hollingsworth said. “I mean, obviously we’d try to figure it out, but we put time and effort into this building already, and we’d like to purchase it.”

Upon moving into the building last year, Hollingsworth said the rescue planned to host fundraisers and benefits to earn the money to purchase it in the future. But, like so many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic quashed those plans.

Northern Lakes relies on income from adoptions and donations from the public to run its rescue.

“Even our adoption events — we do them at PetSmart in Brainerd and Petco in Duluth, and we can’t even do those. They shut that down,” Hollingsworth said.

As of March 23, the rescue raised about $6,000 for the building, with a long way still to go.

While the building does not serve as a shelter to board animals, the rescue uses it for transfers — like Saturday’s — and for storing supplies and providing veterinary care. The dogs stay with foster families from the time they’re rescued until adoption, but the building serves as an important middle ground, with potential adopters using it to meet with their new furry friends.

Foster fails

Volunteers and foster families filled the facility Saturday, March 27, taking care of the new arrivals after their day-long journey from Texas.

Many of the foster families who were ready to take in new dogs temporarily had their own stories of foster failure, that is, adopting animals they were only meant to have for a short time.

Hollingsworth has added three permanent dogs to her mix after starting to volunteer with Northern Lakes Rescue, bringing her total to five while still keeping the door open for another foster when needed.

Lauren Hand and her mom were helping out Saturday but weren’t taking in any new fosters since they’re still acclimating their latest adoptee, Tucker, who joins Teddy, a foster fail rescued from the streets of Houston.

Hand not only helps out the rescue with volunteering and fostering, but the 12-year-old from Brainerd uses her voice as Miss Preteen Minnesota Royalty International to spread awareness about the homeless animal situation in the U.S.

“Seventeen thousand (dogs) go to animal shelters and rescues every day, and 7,000 get euthanized because there’s not enough room for them,” Hand said. “I want to help those numbers go down, and that’s why I volunteer.”

Katie McGroarty, a Brooklyn Park resident who has fostered through Northern Lakes Rescue for about three years, spent much of the morning Saturday sitting off to the side, comforting her new foster Oswalt, a shy, skinny great dane mix who displayed quintessential puppy dog eyes while being carried off the bus.

“It’s all about the dogs. They need more help than we realize,” McGroarty said, while sporting a sweatshirt that read: “You can’t buy love but you can rescue it.”

Volunteers like Manifold, Hand and McGroarty are an essential piece of the rescue’s work, Hollingsworth said, but the true heroes are those on the frontline in Texas, saving homeless pups stuck on the street.

“My hat’s off to them and their passion,” she wrote in an email. “We are just a link in a chain that tries to make a difference.”

How to help

Those who want to help Northern Lakes Rescue buy its building can do so via a fundraising post on the group’s Facebook page or through Mightycause at givemn.org/story/Northernlakesrescue.

For other donation options, to apply to be a foster family or to view adoptable dogs, visit northernlakesrescue.org.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.