Jen McFadden and Raider, a racing hound/terrier mix, who made himself right at home at Joel McFadden Designs pending adoption. Below, a vanload of animals saved from southern shelters makes a stop in Somerset County. (Photos by Danielle Tepper. Click to enlarge)


It’s approximately 11 p.m. on a brisk fall Friday night when an unmarked white van pulls into a shopping center parking lot. Under the glow of a street lamp, a half-dozen people wait impatiently to get their hands on what’s inside.

To a passerby, it might appear that a shady operation is taking place. But when the side door slides open, it doesn’t reveal drugs or stolen appliances. Instead, the van is stacked crate-upon-crate with wildly barking dogs.

The van is a transport, part of an independent rescue mission and underground railroad of sorts. The people waiting are new foster caretakers and adopters of these starving and scared animals that have been saved from certain death at southern animal shelters.

Among them is Red Bank’s Jen McFadden, who has been a proactive member of this cause for almost two years – and her résumé includes over 250 rescues.

McFadden, who runs Joel McFadden Designs on White Street with her husband, Joel, has been an animal lover all her life. She would even bring home injured animals as a young girl.

“Growing up, my parents had weird little animals coming in and out of the house,” she said. “I brought home ducks and possums, all sorts of birds.”

But it was the death of her own rescue dog, Remy, two years ago that sparked her desire to save animals from death rows as far down the Atlantic coast as South Carolina. As an avid dog lover, she wanted another right away, and decided to adopt again.

But after being met with what she characterized as miles of red tape at shelters in Monmouth County, McFadden was ready to give up and go to a pet store to fill the puppy-shaped void in her heart when someone reached out to her about taking the very breed she had been searching for.

“It was Remy,” to whom she had prayed, she said. “He brought me a dog.”

She took the coincidence as a sign and decided to look into becoming a foster mom for animals in need of a stable temporary home, as a way to give back to an animal that had given her so much.

McFadden reached out to Castle of Dreams in Keyport and was told that if she successfully fostered three animals, she could start rescuing on her own through them.

“After that, it snowballed,” she said. “Before I knew it, I had rescued 75 dogs.”

Working solo, McFadden developed a network of contacts in seven shelters down South with high kill rates, and began building a daisy chain of volunteers to house and transport dogs and cats slated for termination.

Shelter volunteers hand-pick animals they believe will make the best pets based on the time they spend with them, learning their personalities and temperament. McFadden arranges for fosters to hold them before they make the trip north, and other fosters to hold them once they reach their northern destinations.

Those looking to adopt know the animals coming up will make good pets based on her own reputation that she’s built.

At least once a week, if not more, McFadden meets a transport. Sometimes it comes right to her house, sometimes she has to drive an hour or longer; on this night, the exchange happens in Bedminster, in Somerset County. Each van is packed to capacity with cats and dogs in crates, all of which would have been dead if left in the shelters just one more day, she said.

McFadden takes those she has made arrangements for, either to be adopted straight away or sent to a foster home before finding an adopter. Then the transport continues its trek to New York, across to Pennsylvania, then to Maryland, before going back to South Carolina to start the process all over again. And it’s all made possible by animal-loving volunteers.

“People are very passionate about animal rescue. It’s stunning,” said McFadden.

McFadden’s efforts, which she said are entirely lawful, are sometimes met with difficulty.

“Sometimes I can’t [take any animals],” she said. “It’s tough. I wish I had more resources.”

People know she’s “saving dogs like mad,” she said. She’s convinced many people to try fostering, but more often than not, they “foster fail. They fall in love with the dog, keep it, and then don’t foster again,” she explained. But that’s okay with her. “Anything is better than dead. That’s my motto: Better than dead.” It’s a phrase she uses often.

“I’ve always had this soft spot, it’s a hobby and a passion” she said. “But it’s a lot of work. It interrupts my work day with alarming regularity.” In the space of a one-hour visit by redbankgreen, McFadden took four phone calls about rescues.

Too often, she said, she finds herself dipping into her own pocket for funding, and has to rely on private donations because she isn’t a non-profit organization. Most of her fundraising attempts, while successful, are small-scale.

McFadden accepts donations of all kinds, money being the most obvious. She’ll also take supplies such as towels, leashes, toys, and food. If she can’t use it, someone can and she’ll pass it along. “I’m always looking for ways to help,” she said.

“It’s just me. Me and the dogs and cats,” she said. “I can’t accept any big corporate checks. But there are so many ways that people could help, short of adopting a dog.”

Most important, she needs foster parents for the animals. Fostering bridges the gap between the shelter rescue and the “forever home.” It takes the animals out of the toxic environment of the shelter and gives them the precious time that is needed to be matched with an adopter. Said McFadden, “My ability to save these sweet companion animals is directly contingent upon the willingness of fosters and adopters to take them in.”

For those who wish to support Jen McFadden’s admirable efforts:

Donate directly by visiting Joel McFadden Designs on White Street, or via PayPal. More information can be found at McFadden’s webpage, Home Free Animal Rescue, where she regularly posts information about animals currently in need of good homes. Home Free is also on Facebook. McFadden can be reached via email.

Looking to rescue from a reputable Monmouth County shelter? Check out the Monmouth County SPCA or the Tinton Falls Associated Humane Society.

Join Jen McFadden and other animal lovers for breakfast, lunch or dinner at Readie’s Cafe this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Eat in or take out, a portion of the day’s proceeds will go directly to Home Free Animal Rescue.