Ginger's Pet Rescue, specializing in "Death Row Dogs," has found homes for nearly 1,000 hard-to-place pets and reduced the number of animals euthanized. Ginger Luke, the founder, finds loving homes for abused and neglected dogs or those in shelters that are about to be euthanized because no one has claimed them.

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As Ginger Luke tells it, it all began with a delivery of Chinese food, a weiner dog locked in a bathroom, and a grumpy old man.

While Luke has no idea what was in the man’s fortune cookie, if the dog had had one it would have read: This is your lucky day.

The weiner dog was the first “client” of Ginger’s Pet Rescue, a nonprofit organization specializing in what Luke calls “death row dogs.” In two years, the program has found homes for nearly 1,000 dogs in danger of being euthanized simply because no one wanted to adopt them. Through a growing network of contacts at animal shelters, pet stores and elsewhere, Luke has created a successful system of locating loving homes for all types of dogs.

“I promise each dog a loving home,” says Luke, 58, who owns the Rickshaw Restaurant in North Seattle, with her husband, Jakob Lueck, 54.

Luke’s efforts started after Lueck heard a barking dog in the background every time he made a food delivery to a nearby apartment. When Luke handled the next delivery herself, she asked the owner about the dog. She was told it was a mean dog that was kept locked in the bathroom because it needed to be put down.

Luke carefully opened the bathroom door. A flash of dachshund streaked from the room and into her arms. The dog’s collar was so tight it was embedded in his neck. Luke had to shell out $50 before the man would let her take the dog.

She got the dog cleaned up, e-mailed 40 friends and found it a home.

That initial effort produced a far greater response than Luke had expected. Other people she had contacted about the dachshund began telling her about other dogs in need of homes. Her networking ability, her persistence and the overwhelming need for homes for good dogs soon put Luke at the top of the lists for those doing dog rescues, including shelter volunteers. When others would fail to find homes for dogs and euthanasia seemed inevitable, they began contacting Luke.

She secured nonprofit status, put up a Web site and then began getting e-mails about abused dogs directly from the public. The next thing she knew, her Blackberry was filling with messages.

In no time, running the Rickshaw Restaurant would be done very late at night, or left to employees, and Luke and her husband were hauling around dog kennels in their dark red van and answering requests to take dogs to the vet for vaccinations, spaying and neutering, to foster homes, training and permanent homes with loving new owners. They paid most of the expenses themselves.

Luke has won the admiration of shelter operators and a local veterinarian — and all are astounded at what she has been able to accomplish with dogs thought to be unadoptable. While there are other pet-rescue projects, Ginger’s Pet Rescue is vital in small towns such as Ocean Shores in Grays Harbor County or Ellensburg, where the towns’ size makes placing dogs in homes difficult. (Shelters in larger cities such as Seattle and Everett tend to have higher rates of adoptions.)

In Ellensburg alone, Ginger’s Pet Rescue has been credited with helping reduce the dogs that were euthanized annually from 560 to about 32.

“If we didn’t have Ginger, we’d really have trouble getting the dogs out,” said Paula Hake, manager of the Ellensburg Animal Shelter.

“She has common sense,” said Karen Konz-Hofmann, the Seattle veterinarian who treats all Luke’s rescues (and has let her run a $20,000 tab in vet bills). “She definitely helps a lot of different dogs … there are certain dogs we just can’t save … Some rescue groups forget about that.”

Luke turns down dogs that are obviously sick and dying or that have dangerous temperaments. But there are few of those cases. She’s found homes for dogs that are deaf, old, blind, albino, three-legged and in need of various surgeries to correct congenital problems.

She charges $150 and up in adoption fees, which help cover some of the vet bills each dog requires. The money also helps her keep track of the dogs and new owners. Luke makes sure each match is a good one.

“If not, I’ll take the dog back,” Luke said. “Although sometimes I feel like a dating service.”

Luke finds homes for the growing number of dogs from pet stores that find they can no longer sell the animals in the difficult economy. Many rescues are also from puppy mills since dog breeders have found that prospective buyers have other things to spend money on.

When Joan Baus at the North Beach PAWS in Ocean Shores first heard about Luke, her impression was, “This is too good to be true. She helped us place dogs we thought we’d never find homes for.”

Although the PAWS shelter is a no-kill facility, Luke helps most with hard-to-place dogs, said volunteer Debby Valdez. “These are good dogs, just maybe real big, or very common breeds that are sadly too plentiful.”

Luke has a core group of 15 dedicated foster “parents,” who take the dogs until they can be placed, and a volunteer trainer to do temperament testing.

Luke and her husband have funded the rescue through the restaurant, and they hope to find more volunteers and more donations of money, dog food, leashes, collars, veterinary care and training time. The nonprofit group has about 50 volunteers and is just starting to raise funds.

Recently Luke and her husband were driving their van over Snoqualmie Pass to Ellensburg. On the floor between them was a container of colorful leashes and collars and in the back were kennels. A short time later they were on their way back, transporting Paige, a boxer-pit bull mix with an obsession for retrieving tennis balls; Herbie, a longhaired, energetic mix ready to play; and Micho, a sweet, white Chihuahua who loves walks.

“We rescued 15 dogs this week!” she told Lueck as he drove. Then she scrolled through her Blackberry with its dozens of e-mails.

“There are 56 dogs coming in!” she said. Without hesitation she dials the number of a foster parent.

“Hello, Christine! What are you doing tonight?”

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or