Inside the black market: puppy smuggling

Inside the black market: puppy smuggling

New animal health risks posed by growing, illegal dog importation
Mar 25, 2010
National Report -- It’s synonymous with weapons and drugs. But the black market dog trade in the United States is vast and some believe it’s growing.

Across the U.S./Mexican border, and through the airports, a stream of illegal puppies are crossing U.S. borders. Big profits are made, important humanitarian issues ignored and significant health risks propagated with each illegal dog that is trafficked into the country.

“We have found puppies stuffed in speaker boxes, screwed into the car door panels and wrapped in blankets with their little legs taped to their bodies and stuffed under seats,” says Captain Aaron Reyes of the Southeast Animal Control Authority. “On one occasion, we found, I believe, a dozen puppies in a plastic container in the back of car. Two of the puppies had already died because of the heat, and all of the others were panting and doing severe mouth breathing. They were cooking in there, and they were about 5 weeks old.”

Reyes made these grim observations during three censuses of the U.S./Mexican border in California that were conducted by the Border Puppy Task Force, a coalition of 18 regional animal law enforcement agencies. The Border Puppy Task Force was created soon after Reyes and colleagues set up a sting operation during which they purchased a few-week old puppy that had deadly parasitic infections.

“In late 2004, we started seeing quite a few buyers of these pocket-breed puppies coming in and saying ‘I bought this puppy, and it’s now dead, I had it for just a couple of days,’” Reyes says. “Many of these dogs are indiscriminately bred -- father and daughter, brother and sister -- and the whole idea is to keep the females pregnant and popping out puppies.”

The three censuses, the most recent of which was in 2007, served mainly to collect evidence that puppies were in fact being smuggled into the United States. Officers from the task force worked hand in hand with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for two-week periods, seven days a week, two shifts a day.

“The effort is to show the powers that be that this is a very serious issue, the most serious aspect being the health problems, including zoonotic issues and the fact that these puppies end up in our kids’ beds,” Reyes says.

Among the dogs being smuggled in from Mexico, parvovirus and distemper are rampant, says Karen Ehnert, senior veterinarian for the County of Los Angeles’ Department of Public Health. And while legitimate breeders and pet stores would advise consumers on how to properly care for and vaccinate a new pet, someone selling smuggled dogs on the street is only looking to make a quick buck and is not likely concerned about the animal’s well-being after it is sold.

“We tend to vaccinate our pets against distemper and parvo, but in Mexico vaccines aren’t given that often. The mother is not vaccinated, so she’s not passing along any immunity to the puppies,” Ehnert says.

But Mexico is not the only place puppies are being smuggled from, and Ehnert has documented the problem of dogs coming into the U.S. from around the world through Los Angeles International Airport.

“During the summer of 2008, we started getting reports from the airport of puppies being dead,” she says. “Over a month period we had about four, and normally we would see only one or two per year.”

Ehnert and colleagues conducted two full censuses at the airport, the most recent in August 2009, and says the bulk of the puppies were being shipped from South Korea, though a lot of singletons were coming in from Australia and Bulldogs from Hungary. Flying from Korea to Los Angeles can be a strain for humans, let alone 6-week old puppies, and Ehnert points out that many of the pups were dying from hypoglycemia while in transit.

“And there’s probably a genetic component there, as the animals used for breeding have genetic problems,” Ehnert says.

While documentation and verification of a dog’s age is needed to ship dogs into the United States, Ehnert says the censuses at the airport showed that falsified paperwork was rampant.

“People figured out that if they presented paperwork showing the dog was 4 months old or older, there would be no restrictions after they were imported,” she says.

As the number of countries shipping dogs into the United States increases, the risk of diseases more harmful than distemper and parvo increases.

“CDC’s biggest concern with these imported dogs is the risk of rabies,” says G. Gale Galland, a veterinary with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Exacerbating the threat of rabies is the fact that most of the dogs being shipped are too young to even be vaccinated for rabies. Over the past few years, there have been a handful of cases of rabid dogs being smuggled in, but enforcement, both at border crossings and airports, is proving difficult.

The Border Puppy Task Force relies on grants to conduct their censuses. Reyes says that while the task force has not been able to conduct any recent border censuses, it has been cracking down on sellers within the cities and taking a more localized approach to addressing the problem. When organizations like Reyes’ and Ehnert’s are not at the borders and airports, there is a dearth of trained animal health professionals that can identify sick and underage animals.

Mike Carney, deputy special agent in charge at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Office of Investigation, readily admits that national security and drugs take precedent over illegal puppies.

“Our biggest threat here on the southwest border is narcotics from Mexico, and we have a lot of resources dedicated to that,” Carney says. “But we do have a dedicated group of investigators at the border called our Commercial Fraud Group…which focuses on preventing contraband introduced in to the United States, and that’s where the puppy smuggling falls under.”

Carney says failing to declare puppies and smuggling them is a federal felony that could come with as much as 20 years in jail. While national security and narcotics are the agency’s top concern, Carney says the agency is particularly concerned with the welfare of the animals and the possibility of new diseases being introduced in the region, adding that the agency isn’t taking a “completely clinical approach” to the problem. Carney suggests that fewer dogs have been smuggled during the past two years when compared with previous years, but hard, accurate statistics are difficult to gather. Carney attributes the suspected decline to the weak economy, as well as heightened security and beefed-up enforcement.

“Customs and Borders protection just simply has to prioritize and hang on for the ride,” Reyes says, lauding the agencies willingness to collaborate with The Border Puppy Task Force. “When you’re dealing with tens of thousands of cars a day, that’s no easy task.”

The traffickers who are able to slip through the border with puppies stand to make a healthy profit from selling them. A yorkie can be purchased in Mexico for just a few hundred dollars and resold for more than $1,000.

“We busted a big, local sick and underage puppy smuggler in our jurisdiction. This person had $40,000 in cash receipts for puppy sales in one month. This is just one individual, I think it is safe to say that it is a multi-million dollar industry,” Reyes says. Both Reyes and Ehnert agree that a multi-prong approach is needed to address the issue. Ehnert suggests that requiring microchips for all dogs brought into the United States could help better monitor the situation, and she also recommends that health certificates should be required for all dogs entering the country. An ideal situation would be to have specially trained inspectors at major points of entry, but such an arrangement would be costly and resource intensive.

Reyes reached out to the local veterinary community to raise awareness and bolster support for the issue. He spoke at meetings of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association, and says many vets were unaware of the problem.

“It was a shock to the animal health community,” he says. “We uncovered something that is very disturbing.”

Raffy Dorian, DVM, of the San Diego-based Market Street Veterinary Clinic, says one problem is that clients are sheepish when it comes to admitting that they purchased a dog from someone on the street. Puppies with distemper and parvo are common at his practice, but unless the client openly admits that the dog was smuggled from Mexico, there’s no way of determining the animals’ origin.

“The veterinary community has to understand the big picture and implications of this unscrupulous industry of smuggling in sick and underage puppies,” Reyes says. “If they don’t, they stand to lose as well.”

The stream of illegal puppies cannot simply be dammed. Consumers need to be educated, lawmakers need to take action and veterinarians need to be alert in order to prevent the problem from swelling into an ocean.