Sick Puppies Smuggled From Mexico for Sale in U.S.

By Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
January 30, 2006
Huddled together in car trunks, glove compartments, and underneath
seats, thousands of unhealthy puppies each year are being smuggled into
the United States from Mexico, animal control officers say.

Usually only a few weeks old, the tiny pups are sold for up to a thousand dollars each in shopping center parking lots and on street corners throughout California.

Most are trendy toy breeds or designer poodle mixes in high demand. But the animals are often too sick or too young to survive without their mothers.

"To us, the puppy is a family member, but to the people who are selling them, it's a dollar bill," said Lt. Daniel DeSousa of the San Diego County Department of Animal Services in California.

Lucrative Business

Puppy peddling is a lucrative business in California, animal control officials say. A smuggler can generate profits of more than $10,000 a month, they say.

They fear it may be only a matter of time before the problem spreads into other U.S. states.

It's legal to bring puppies into the U.S. But DeSousa says the smugglers avoid declaring the pups to evade paying taxes, which would cut into their profits.

To tackle the problem, the Border Puppy Task Force (BPTF)—a consortium of California animal welfare and law enforcement agencies—formed last March.

"Typically, because of our budget constraints, we react to issues and then we try to put out the fire," explained Capt. Aaron Reyes of Los Angeles County's Southeast Area Animal Control Authority, who heads the Task Force.

"On this one, we recognize that we have an issue. It's growing and disturbing so we're tackling it head-on."


In late December animal control officers from 14 California agencies worked alongside federal border inspectors at San Diego's San Ysidro and Otay Mesa border crossings. Their main goal was to gather statistics on smuggling.

During the two-week operation the officers found 362 puppies that looked less than three months old.

Eight of the puppies appeared to be suffering, giving animal control officers grounds for seizing the dogs. They were sent to an animal shelter, and once they recover they will be put up for adoption.

The rest of the 362 very young puppies were allowed to remain with the people who had brought them to the border.

It's not illegal to bring dogs into the United States from Mexico. However, U.S. federal law requires the puppies to be isolated until vaccinated for rabies at four months of age.

Since there is no animal-quarantine facility at the Mexican border, the honor system is used.

The task force plans to follow up soon with the drivers who brought the dogs to the U.S. The officers expect to check on the puppies' health and for possible quarantine violations.

Last month's border presence by animal control officers has prompted some puppy peddlers to cross over without cars.

"They've already started wearing big, heavy jackets and walking over the border on foot with puppies in their pockets," Reyes said.

Puppy Mills

The tiny pups are thought to come from high-volume breeders—puppy mills—in the interior of Mexico. The animals are flown to Tijuana, Mexico, less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) from downtown San Diego.

The smugglers are mostly Hispanics who are either U.S. citizens or have a U.S. residency (or "green") card, officials say.

Often the smugglers place online and newspaper advertisements and list a disposable cell phone number, so it can't later be traced.

When a buyer calls, the seller suggests meeting in a parking lot or on a street corner, giving the excuse that his house is being fumigated or he has relatives visiting.

From there, it doesn't take much for the seller to seal the deal.

The buyers "fall in love with these puppies right away," DeSousa, the San Diego animal control officer, said. "Common sense flies out the window when you look at those brown eyes." (See our photo gallery "Dogs: A Love Story.")

Initially the animals may appear healthy, but most die within days, he said, often from canine illnesses like parvo, distemper, and giardia.

A few have ringworm, a skin infection that is caused by a fungus and can be transmitted to humans.

Some heartbroken buyers spend thousands of dollars on efforts to save their new pets' lives, only to have them later die.

To avoid being ripped off, the task force urges people to adopt a puppy only from an animal shelter or buy one from a reputable breeder.

In the meantime new laws are being passed to stop puppy peddlers.

For example, National City, California, just a short drive from the Mexican border, recently made it illegal to sell pets on the street. Other California cities are considering similar legislation.

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