One of the trickier problems in animal welfare is stopping the illegal sale of underage rabbits, kittens, turtles, birds and other exotic animals on street corners in Los Angeles. The area outside Santee Alley, the popular and densely filled open-air market for all kinds of wares downtown, has also been the venue of choice for vendors trafficking in these animals. The state of California bans the roadside sale of animals. And it's against the law to sell underage animals that are fragile and need special attention or bottle feeding.
Vendors display unweaned bunnies in cages and let them nibble on lettuce leaves (which, by the way, they shouldn't be fed at a young age.) Turtles commonly carry salmonella on their outer shells and skin. Buyers end up with animals that are malnourished, sick, likely to die once they get them home — or make family members sick.
"Not only is this an issue of animal cruelty, it is a public safety issue as well," says Lejla Hadzimuratovic, who set up a foundation devoted to rescuing and caring for rabbits and also works with the police to get illegal vendors of all animals off the street. Children are considered particularly vulnerable to contacting salmonella from picking up and playing with small turtles. (Since 1975, the Food and Drug Administration has banned the sale of small turtles with a shell less than 4 inches long.)
Vendors stay alert for Los Angeles Police Department officers and Business Improvement District personnel, and when vendors spot them, they whip garbage bags over animal cages and flee, disappearing into the swirl of activity and their nearby vans. I've seen it happen. As a reporter, I accompanied police and Business Improvement District officers on a raid in Santee Alley, and the illegal vendors were astonishingly quick at packing up. The raid ended with a tug-of-war between a security officer and a vendor over a garbage bag full of rabbits.
So it was unusual to see two vendors not only convicted of illegal sales this week but, in one case, given jail time. Juan Mena was sentenced to eight months in jail. He got that sentence because he had prior convictions, was under a court order to stay away from Santee Alley and was in violation of his probation when he was most recently arrested. Norma Pluma got probation and 30 days community labor for illegal animal sales, animal neglect and battery for her part in an assault on a man who saw underage rabbits being sold and called police to report it. A minor, who had been left to tend the animals, was arrested. After police left the scene, the man, Phillip Horlings, said that he and his wife and two children were attacked by a mob of people angry at them for calling the authorities.
It's heartening to see the courts take seriously the animal neglect involved in selling these small creatures on the street. But it will take more than that to get people out of the business of illegally selling bunnies and turtles. It will take people refusing to buy these animals on the streets and legitimate vendors — and passersby like Horlings — being assertive enough to call the police when they see sales taking place.