October 07, 2010 03:43 PM

The first stop on Maggie Q’s travel itinerary is always the same: the local animal shelter. For over a decade, that has been the initial place she visits, no matter where she goes.

The star of the CW’s Nikita had just moved to Hong Kong about 12 years ago when she stopped by the local SPCA. “I went and I made a little donation –I was really poor at the time –and then I said, which I do every time, ‘Let me just go and take a peek at the dogs,’” Q tells PEOPLEPets.com.

When she got upstairs to the adoption room, Q spotted a beautiful white puppy. “I thought she looked like an angel,” she says. “I said, ‘She’s so special – why is she still here?’” The shepherd mix had been adopted and returned to the shelter five times, and had, as a result, become wary of people. That was reason enough for Q to scoop her up and adopt her right then and there. “When it’s a problem dog, I’m all over it,” she says.

For as long as she can remember, starting from when she was growing up in Hawaii, Q has loved animals. “I remember being a child and feeling a really close connection to the natural world,” she says. “Dogs, birds, cats, rabbits – it didn’t matter. They were my refuge. That connection helped me through a lot of awkward stages.”

The urge to rescue runs through the lifelong animal lover’s veins. It was a given in her family that a new pet would come from the shelter, not the pet store, even if the reason wasn’t explicitly explained to the young Q. Still, she became conscious of a feeling of responsibility for homeless animals early on.

“I realized how many of them were at the shelter and needed someone,” she says. “I looked at the pet store puppies and thought, ‘Someone’s always going to love them because they’re perfect and beautiful and shiny.’ And then you go to the shelter and you see dogs that are equally beautiful but aren’t given the chance because they’ve been rejected.”

Q is an unrelenting advocate for shelter dogs. “People are more aware than they’ve ever been, but I’m still shocked when I sit at dinner and someone next to me says they’re going to buy a puppy,” she says. “I look at them like they’re from another planet. ‘Really? With all the information out there, you’re going to go buy a dog?’ When I go to the shelter, everything I see is perfect.”

At her current home in Hollywood, Q and her boyfriend live with three dogs, including the five-times-returned pooch from Hong Kong, named Lady. There’s also Pedro, a tiny 12-year-old Chihuahua that Q saved from a bucket at a market in Taiwan, and there’s 7-year-old shepherd mix Cesar, a rescue from the Animals Asia Foundation in China.

“You know that old movie moment where two people fall in love? Seeing Cesar was literally that moment,” Q says. “I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. I walked up to him, he got up, and then he started hobbling toward the glass.”

His front right leg was shorter than his left and it would drag on the ground. His euthanization had already been scheduled when Q decided to adopt him. “They told me not to take him, that it was going to be a lifetime of stress,” she says, “[but] I did.”

Now, thanks to a surgery that has helped repair the leg, Cesar has no issues getting around. In fact, you might say he does better than most. When he wants to sunbathe by the pool, he will open the door to the guest room and go out to the deck, closing the door behind him. “He’s smarter than most people,” Q says. “You’ve got to respect a dog that smart.”

Her dogs have a vastly different lives with Q than they did when she met them. Every morning, the family gets up and does a training session that prepares them for their daily hike. Pedro walks right alongside Lady and Cesar for several miles. “You should see how in shape he is,” says Q. “It’s amazing.”

When people stop to remark about how well-trained her dogs are, they usually ask where she got them. “When you say ‘rescue,’ they can’t believe it,” she says. “People don’t believe that you can turn a dog around, but you can. You absolutely can. We’re trying to change those attitudes toward rescue.”

For personal photos of Maggie Q and her rescue dogs, check out our gallery on PEOPLEPets.com.

Read more about celebrities and their pets on PEOPLEPets.com:
Melissa Etheridge Says Rescue Is the New Breed
Steve-O: ‘I Relate To’ My Rescue Dog

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