Wednesday, December 21, 2005

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Smugglers are buying puppies at rock-bottom prices in Mexico and selling them in the United States for up to $1,000, often to people who later discover that the dogs are too sick or too young to survive on their own, authorities said.

The Border Puppy Task Force — a group of 18 animal control and health agencies and animal protection groups — said Tuesday that a two-week operation at San Diego’s two border crossings confirmed what it long suspected: Mexico is a breeding ground for unscrupulous puppy peddlers.

“It’s a profit-driven practice, it’s a disturbing practice,” said Capt. Aaron Reyes, director of operations at the Southeast Area Animal Control Authority in Los Angeles County.

From Dec. 5 through Sunday, agents at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa border crossings ordered vehicles carrying anything with “feathers, fleas, fur or fangs” to a separate area for more thorough inspections, Capt. Reyes said.

The searches turned up 362 puppies less than 3 months old, 155 that were 3 to 6 months old and 1,061 adult dogs. Canines were found in trunks and under seats.

It’s not clear how many of the dogs were smuggled — it’s legal to ferry dogs if they are declared at the border and they have had rabies shots and health records — but Capt. Reyes said the “vast majority” of those younger than 3 months probably were contraband. About half the puppies that were 3 to 6 months old likely were smuggled, he said.

The puppies — typically small breeds such as poodles and Chihuahuas — are thought to be bought in Mexico for $50 to $150 each, then sold at street corners, parking lots and flea markets in Southern California for $300 to $1,000 each.

On Nov. 15, federal agents searching a Honda CR-V at the Otay Mesa crossing found 16 undeclared puppies in three cages that were covered by blankets and boxes of laundry detergent. The suspect, a Mexican woman with an animal cruelty record, purportedly told investigators that she needed the money and had lots of orders to fill.

The Border Puppy Task Force formed last year after a spate of complaints from brokenhearted owners, who reported that their dogs were turning sick and often dying. They were getting hit with thousands of dollars in veterinarian bills. Common diseases include distemper, rabies, parvovirus and ringworm.

No arrests were made during the inspections at the San Diego border crossings. Authorities described the operation as a “census” to measure how many dogs were being smuggled across the border.

“We confirmed there is a problem,” Capt. Reyes said. “We’re not going to sit on our hands and let these puppies be brought over in the condition that they are, and to be sold sick, and to end up dying.”

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