"Here, Gentlemen, a dog teaches us a lesson in humanity."-Napoleon Bonaparte
When Deborah Johnson's beloved 13-year-old dachshund, Andy, had to be put down in early April, she and her husband knew right away what they wanted to do.
"Not to replace him, but we wanted a new dachshund," the Serra Mesa cosmetologist confided recently.
Little did they realize that such a common desire-to buy a puppy-would turn their lives upside down while sweeping them into the disturbing underworld of Mexican puppy smuggling, where the truth is fleeting and tragic stories of sickness and death are mounting.
Animal-welfare agencies, now teamed with U.S. Customs, are just beginning to get a handle on this phenomenon, which, similar to the drug trade, seems to have exploded as the demand for puppies north of the border has created a cottage industry of backyard breeders in Mexico eager to meet that need.
For the Johnsons, the roller-coaster ride began where many prospective dog owners start their search-with a perusal of the Union-Tribune classified ads under the "Dog Sales" section. Not many dachshund puppies were listed that particular day, but one ad stood out: Four pups, two male, two female, 6 to 8 weeks old.
"The only thing that might have given us a slight cause for pause was that it said "cash only,'" said Johnson, mother of two sons, an inquisitive 2-year-old Australian shepherd named Dakota, two noisy salmon-crested cockatoos and a shy cat.
Johnson called the number in the ad and was told all four pups were still available. She said they'd come by the next day to check them out. After being told the Chula Vista address, she was reminded to bring cash. She said she also mentioned that they were interested in a female dachshund.
The next morning, Johnson called to say they were on their way. But from the other end of the line came a response that puzzled her: Could you wait for an hour?
Although eager to meet the puppies, Johnson agreed to wait. When they finally arrived at the well-maintained home on Piedmont Street, they were greeted by a teenage boy. When they entered the house, they were surprised to find only one pup left-coincidentally, a female.
"But she appeared to be fine," Johnson recalled. "Very perky, big fat belly like she'd just had a big meal. Energetic and running around."
Johnson's husband asked where the boy's parents were. He explained they were at church "or something vague," she recalled. Her husband inquired about the puppy's parents, and the boy told them they lived with his grandma in Riverside County and that they were simply selling the puppies for her.
The boy said the pup had received all of its vaccinations and that they would mail the records to them if they'd just jot down their name and address, which the Johnsons did-as well as hand over $350 cash. After insisting on a bill of sale and a signed guarantee of the puppy's health for 72 hours, the Johnsons bundled up their new pup and headed back to their Mission Village home.
The only thing odd about the experience, Johnson said, was what the boy said just as they were leaving. "He said you have to give her Pedialyte," she recalled, referring to a product used to treat dehydration in children suffering from vomiting or diarrhea.
Johnson said she hesitated because the puppy didn't appear ill, but-noting that the boy appeared to be Hispanic-she then recalled some of the unfamiliar medical observations made by some of her Hispanic friends, including "one girlfriend who would never take antibiotics if she's going to eat fish because it would make her very sick. I said, "Where did you hear that?' She said, "My grandma told me that.'"
Added Johnson, "In retrospect, we think that we probably shouldn't have bought the puppy." Nevertheless, the pup-named Cotton-ate well that night, played and then dozed off for the night just like puppies do.
By the next day, Cotton wasn't eating and had mild diarrhea. Thinking the multiple moves (Riverside to Chula Vista to Mission Village) probably stressed out the little girl, Johnson was now glad she'd purchased the Pedialyte. "It just seems par for the course for a puppy," she reasoned.
The symptoms worsened the next day. Cotton couldn't keep anything down. Johnson called her veterinarian, and the receptionist said Cotton should be examined. But the office was closing, and Johnson was told to head to the emergency vet clinic in Kearny Mesa.
After the vet there drew some blood, Johnson and Cotton played with a toy on the examining room floor. "She was quite energetic," she said. Then the vet returned with stunning news: Cotton had parvo.
"I'd heard of it in terms of shots," Johnson said, "but I've never had a dog that has parvo. I've never met a dog that has parvo. So I wasn't clued in to the seriousness of it. But I shortly was."
Canine parvovirus is a highly contagious, deadly virus that attacks dogs' intestinal tracts. For puppies and unvaccinated dogs, parvo kills nearly 90 percent of those it infects. Left untreated, it can kill a puppy in 48 hours, and it can survive in the puppy's environment up to 18 months. The only household cleaner known to kill it is bleach.
"She may make it. She may not," Johnson remembered the vet saying. The treatment is aggressive, involving a regimen of intravenous fluids and isolated care-both expensive endeavors. But, as Johnson noted, "My first concern at that point was for the puppy."
But the vet explained that she would have to come back in the morning when the ER clinic closed and transport Cotton back to her regular vet.
The dueling vet visits then got her worried about the money-parvo treatment can cost up to $3,000 and frequently fails. But concern quickly turned to anger as she began wondering if anything the boy from Chula Vista had told her was true. "I had no clue now," she said.
Her distrust even extended to the extra hour the boy requested. Could he have driven up to Riverside or somewhere else to pick up one puppy? Still, the pup didn't deserve this fate, the Johnsons decided, so they bit the bullet on treatment.
Cotton survived the night at the ER-a positive sign. The next morning, Johnson was encouraged by that news. The folks at Tierrasanta Veterinary Hospital seemed less hopeful, shaking their heads after isolating Cotton.
Then more bad news. She would get worse before getting better, the vet said. How much worse could it get, Johnson wondered. Advertised as 8 weeks old but probably closer to 5, Cotton barely weighed a pound. "Like a dog from a concentration camp," she winced.
But Cotton rallied, and four days later she returned home. Cotton had beaten the odds, but many, many others have not been so lucky. Not by a long shot.
Agent Mike Griffin, neck veins pounding, pulls out a handwritten sheet of messages that is a jarring reminder of Cotton's good fortune.
"This is what I got while I was on vacation last week," said Griffin, one of three animal-abuse investigators with the San Diego Humane Society. "Nine people in a week contacted me about getting dogs that have died." Then reading from the list, "Puppy died of distemper. Puppy died of distemper. Puppy died of parvo. All of these are documented by veterinarians because I won't take them if I don't have a necropsy [an animal autopsy] or something. It's not worth my time."
To some, that may sound callous. But Griffin says the flow of sick puppies coming across the border "by the hundreds, if not thousands" is overwhelming animal-welfare agencies like his statewide that are already spread thin chasing down felony abuse cases, which take precedence over the misdemeanor crime of selling sick puppies in California.
But Griffin, credited with some trailblazing work in bringing this crime of opportunity and heartache to the attention of the public and criminal prosecutors, said he could easily fill his workday investigating the Mexico puppy trade, which he believes is well organized and highly profitable.
"What can we do about the other side of the border? Not a whole lot," Griffin sighed. "I have no jurisdiction. It's really tough. But if we can educate people on this side of the border, hit [sellers] in the pocketbooks, we can keep [buyers] from being devastated. But you have to be able to find these people. I'm tired of chasing ghosts."
He said the smugglers' mode of operation is fairly consistent: Place classified ads in local papers and the Pennysaver with phony names and disposable cell-phone numbers; meet in store parking lots, AM/PMs and the like; make up tall tales about the puppies' origins (grandmothers are often mentioned); and then vanish with the cash-from $200 to $500-leaving customers to deal with the consequences.
These victims run the gamut from young teenagers earning enough to buy their first puppy to families like the Johnsons. Even a police officer called to complain that he had purchased a mini-schnauzer that had become ill.
"Even professionals are falling for those big brown eyes," Griffin said, shaking his head. "Those big brown eyes can cost you thousands of dollars and a broken heart." One victim, a 10-year-old boy who'd raised $200 on his own to buy a puppy only to have it die in his arms, is now in therapy, Griffin said, adding, "That tore me up."
These clandestine sellers are motivated not by putting a smile on the face of a new puppy owner but strictly by the almighty dollar. "If you sell 12 puppies in a day, that's at least $2,400," Griffin said. "That's better than selling dope, and it's a lot safer because you're probably not going to go to jail for it."
It isn't illegal to bring puppies into the U.S. from Mexico, but they must be declared to border inspectors and they must have their veterinary records in order. Griffin said he suspects some Mexican veterinarians are providing fake documentation-for a price. Recent busts and puppy seizures at the border, however, have prompted some transporters now to try to sneak puppies over the border.
Vincent Bond, a U.S. Customs spokesman, said his agency's border inspectors-in addition to sniffing out WMDs, terrorists and drug shipments-have been on the lookout for puppy smugglers since April. Dog lovers themselves (a Customs website even gives frequent enthusiastic updates on the agency's border-inspection canines and their litters), the federal inspectors find themselves on the front line of this battle.
"At the port of San Ysidro," Bond said, "we would see puppies, very young puppies being brought across 10, 18, even 34 at a time, mostly small breeds like teacup poodles, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians and small boxers. Of course, when we see something like this, we're going to ask questions. Are they going to be sold? If so, they need to get permits at the commercial port in Otay. Do these dogs look in poor health? How old are these dogs?"
Officer Charlene Ranger of the county's Animal Services Department frequently gets the call from border inspectors. Her stories are bone-chilling. In a recent case, the muffled yips coming from the back of a Jeep Cherokee could mean only one thing: the puppy smugglers were at it again.
Sure enough, underneath the carpeted lid of the spare-tire well strewn with clothing in a feeble attempt to throw off Customs inspectors, two Chihuahua and six tiny Maltese/poodle-mix puppies were found. Six were crammed in a filthy carrying crate, and two were loose, looking lethargic "and basically passed out," Ranger recalled. One had a rubber band tight on its tail, a crude and dangerous method used to dock a puppy's tail.
The man driving the Cherokee, after denying their existence, now was singing. He claimed he'd brought them up from Tijuana for friends and said he'd decided not to declare them because he'd heard that people were having trouble getting puppies across the border. "He knew it was a dumb thing," Ranger said.
But he also claimed the pups were 7 weeks old, barely old enough to be taken from their mother. The front teeth of the Maltese/poodle mixes were barely popping through, however, suggesting they were more like 3 or 4 weeks old.
And his passenger said he was from Riverside, where in May animal-control agents raided a woman's home and confiscated more than 50 puppies and 18 exotic birds. That woman, Marisol Navarro Lam, faces numerous state and federal charges. Ranger passed along the men's names to Riverside authorities, who found documents at Lam's home that mentioned one of the men.
As in many cases, facts are elusive. "I didn't know if he was being truthful about having the [puppies'] mom in Tijuana or if these puppies were coming from a kennel farther down in Mexico and whether he'd just picked them up from the [Tijuana] airport."
That's a question that frequently haunts agents like Ranger and Griffin. Where are all these puppies coming from? The answer is as varied and murky as Mexico itself. Ranger said a Customs agent made reference to a Tijuana phenomenon called the "Mile of Dogs," where "on the weekends, all these people set up and sell dogs out of the back of their cars." But no one contacted by CityBeat south of the border had heard of such a thing. Then there are the stories of puppies being flown in crowded crates from Guadalajara and León to Tijuana, where couriers pick them up and head for El Norte.
Fernando Silva, a veterinarian who runs a small clinic in Rosarito, said the view of pets from a Mexican perspective is still far behind their northern neighbors, and he put the blame squarely at the feet of government. He also believes many sick puppies are originating from "backyard breeders" in Mexico City.
"There are so many things you wouldn't believe," Silva told CityBeat from his clinic, which he keeps open all hours by sleeping in a spare room barely big enough for a small bed and splitting duties with his brother, another vet. "Our local government is not really bringing a law against cruelty to animals. We're still really struggling as veterinarians to teach people that animals are pets, that they need a lot of love.
"You wouldn't believe how hard it is. It's another world."
Silva said he knows puppy vendors who do the right thing, but many more provide little care "because they don't want to waste any money before they sell" the puppies. "They are telling buyers they have the first shots because that's what most people require, but I don't think so because there are a lot of cases of parvo around here."
But, as in drugs, the supply will always find the demand. "These sellers make a big living because they know in the states the price for puppies is better than anywhere else. They know with a few puppies they're going to make a good living. That's pretty sad."
Sunny Benedict is a gem of a woman who founded the Baja Animal Sanctuary near Rosarito Beach in 1997 to save animals from Mexico's notoriously inhumane dog pounds, or perreras, where dogs are routinely killed with an electric shock to the rectum (said to be an improvement over their previous agony-inducing use of strychnine). Her sanctuary, which rehabilitates these animals and finds new homes for them in the states, has paid a heavy price because of nefarious puppy smugglers.
"We have been bringing healthy, neutered/spayed animals into the U.S. for seven years," she wrote CityBeat recently, "and did not have a problem crossing until this situation with the sick puppies being smuggled into the U.S. came up." Adoption events her group regularly holds in collaboration with Petsmart and Petco stores have been cancelled recently because "our drivers were held at the border for hours, with the dogs locked up in crates. By the time they were released, it was too late to make the event," Benedict said.
She has heard the tragic stories of poorly treated puppies. One immigration official told her of a woman from Guadalajara who was stopped at the border with 34 puppies in her van. "All with their muzzles taped shut, all very young and ill," she said.
Benedict recently approached one of the many vendors along Rosarito's main boulevard who sell puppies from the back of pickup trucks on any given Sunday. She asked to see the puppies' health records. The vendor instead handed her the business card of a vet he said had treated the pups.
He was selling Chihuahuas, poodles and cocker spaniels for prices ranging from $150 to $300. "He was attracting a lot of people. The dogs looked too young to be away from their mom. And, too young to have had all the [vaccinations] he stated they had," she wrote. "The pups were clean, but very frightened, and a couple looked too lethargic."
The seller, she surmised, "probably greased somebody's palm to be left alone.... This situation, and the smuggling of ill pups into the U.S., gives [the sanctuary] a bad rap and makes our life pretty difficult, as we do everything "by the book.'"
It is an untenable position further complicated by what she described as the "stigma of Mexican dogs." But it is their treatment, and not the dogs themselves, that's the problem.
"The animals here do not know they're Mexican," Benedict wrote. "They know nothing about a border between here and a better life."
The Humane Society's Griffin said he understands Benedict's plight, but he said the time-consuming inspections will continue. "Yeah, you're going to be detained probably a little longer," he lamented, "but we have to. Again, the main thing to get out to the public is, wake up and smell the parvo."
By that he means don't be buying puppies from department-store parking lots or AM/PMs. Get a driver's license number from the seller, or some form of identification. Ask to see the puppy's parents. And be wary of "cash only" stipulations, although some legitimate breeders do require cash as well, mostly to avoid bounced checks.
Back at the Johnson residence, little, weak Cotton is now healthy, frisky Cotton, eating peaches from the backyard and slithering up to rest her long snout on a visitor's lap.
Deborah Johnson, little herself but spunky, and her husband are now tracking Cotton's seller, preparing a small-claims case after being told they would be reimbursed the $350 for the sick puppy. The check still hasn't arrived, and the father of the boy who sold them Cotton now denies ever doing business with the Johnsons.
Chula Vista animal control officers told Johnson they have been to this seller's home and know what's he up to. She's since heard that there actually was a litter of four, but that now Cotton is the only survivor. Parvo killed the others.
Johnson said the seller has run ads since then, and she's called the paper, which in turn has cancelled the ads. Her husband-a phone-company employee who must dip his shoes in bleach every time he leaves for work-called on one of the ads, and the man on the other end gave the same spiel, save for one detail.
Feigning interest, "my husband said I'd like to come out and look at one. What's your address?" she said. The response? ""You know, it's a new house. I can't remember our street number. He said, "I'll meet you somewhere like the Denny's parking lot and then drive you over to my house.'"
Going to small-claims court, she admits, may not squeeze a dime from a puppy seller like this, "but I don't want him to ever forget we existed." a