Smugglers are flooding the Southern California pet market with disease-ridden puppies from Mexico, prompting law enforcement crackdowns, raising public health concerns and breaking the hearts of owners who watch their dogs die, often within hours of buying them.
Animal control officials estimate that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of puppies have died since an underground market, stretching from puppy mills in Mexico to street corners in San Diego and Los Angeles, was uncovered last year.
The puppies -- usually small breeds like poodles, pugs and Chihuahuas -- are typically sold through newspaper ads to bargain-seeking buyers who pay cash. The dogs, bundled in hand crates, appear healthy.
But some suffer from parvovirus, distemper, scabies and other hard-to-detect ailments. Separated from their mothers too early, some die from starvation because they are so young they lack teeth to chew food. Such very young dogs also often fall prey to diseases because their immune systems are not fully developed.
Marietta Ruttan of Oceanside paid $600 to a Moreno Valley woman for a Maltese puppy that died less than one day after the purchase. "I tried to cuddle and cradle it, and be good to it, but it wouldn't eat, move or do anything," Ruttan said. "I was going to name it China but it didn't live long enough," she said.
The "puppy conspiracy," as some call it, first came to authorities' attention last year when complaints started flooding in to local law enforcement agencies. Officials in the tight-knit community of animal control agencies began hearing similar stories.
After answering ads hawking puppies in local newspapers, buyers meet sellers in out-of-the-way public places. The sellers, carrying the puppies in crates, don't take checks. Sometimes they follow people to their ATM machines before handing over a pup for cash.
Excitement often turns to grief as buyers watch their puppies slow with sickness. Telephone calls to the sellers go unanswered. The sellers, who frequently use disposable cellular telephones, disappear.
U.S. Customs agents, responding to requests from local agencies, have added sick puppies to their list of contraband items, like drugs and weapons, for which they search vehicles crossing the border at San Ysidro. Agents have found puppies stuffed in packing crates and hidden away in spare-tire wheel wells. If puppies appear distressed, agents give them to animal welfare agencies. Drug-sniffing dogs sometimes alert agents to their sick canine cousins.
"We're big fans of dogs, and we hate to see sickly, very young pups crammed into little spaces," said Vince Bond, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Since April, about 50 people trying to bring in puppies have been stopped. Many are let through if they have a few dogs and carry the proper paperwork, which includes proof of vaccination. But others are turned back.
Last week a young man from Tijuana was caught trying to bring in 11 puppies at 4:30 a.m. They were packed in two crates and covered under clothing. He said he planned to give them to relatives. Instead, the puppies were given to the San Diego Humane Society, where six have died of parvo-related illnesses. The man was cited and fined $2,200.
"It's awful that people do this," said Vanessa Frazier, an animal-care attendant, as she cradled a nearly motionless, brown-haired cocker spaniel in the agency's dog isolation room. In the next cage, four Maltese puppies -- their grimy hair shaved clean -- trotted about and seemed to be recovering. The cocker spaniel's prospects, however, appeared bleak.
"I don't think he's going to make it," Frazier said.
The puppy pipeline from Mexico is apparently filling a tremendous demand in a long-maligned industry. Animal control experts discourage people from buying puppies in pet stores because they say many of the animals come from poorly run puppy mills in the Midwest.
Reputable breeders are recommended, but those puppies often cost more than the Mexican puppies, which cost from $300 to $700. Also, small breeds are sometimes hard to find in animal rescue shelters. For the puppy brokers, showing off a fluffy coat seals the deal.
"There is no such thing as an ugly puppy," said John Carlson, director of San Diego County's North Regional Animal Shelter. "It's almost like drug peddling, except that it's not illegal to possess a young puppy. But it is illegal to be selling young puppies that are sick."
Where exactly in Mexico the dogs are bred is a mystery. Some dogs could be from Tijuana, where many people sell puppies from the backs of vans. But many animal control officials suspect that the animals are bred in puppy mills in the interior of Mexico and then flown in to Tijuana.
State law requires retailers to provide documentation of age and medical history of puppies, but the burgeoning underground market is virtually unregulated. Authorities have launched some animal cruelty investigations, but the puppy peddlers have proven difficult to track down.
One of the few cases to result in charges involved a Moreno Valley woman who was cited last spring on 19 counts of animal cruelty. She sold the animals from her Riverside County home, but purchased them from people suspected of bringing them in from Mexico.
Pet stores in Compton and Huntington Beach also purchased sick puppies from people peddling dogs from Mexico, say animal control officials. Three people, including the Tijuana man, have been cited for trying to smuggle ill dogs through the port of entry at San Ysidro.
The situation raises public health concerns because some animals carry diseases contagious to humans. The Dionese family of Lake Elsinore came down with scabies after taking in Chloe, a Maltese puppy they named for a Cabbage Patch doll.
Fearful of passing the skin mites to others, they stayed indoors for four weeks. Kelly Dionese said she lost her job and that her children couldn't go to school. She said the parasite attack caused severe itching, and that it felt like being "eaten alive."
"My children cried for nights," Dionese said. "That is the devil's bug."
Dionese said she saw no signs of sickness when she paid $400 for her puppy from the Moreno Valley woman who was cited. In an ironic twist shared by others, Dionese said she bought the dog from a private party because she had heard horror stories about pet store puppies.
But Chloe was sick. And she grew rapidly sicker until she had to be euthanized.
"Chloe suffered," Dionese said. "It was traumatic for all of us."