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California animal shelters' plague: Not a rain of frogs, but a rain of Chihuahuas

December 10, 2009 |  8:07 pm

Chihuahuas

Representatives from a half-dozen Bay Area animal shelters and rescue groups joined forces at a press conference Wednesday to draw attention to an increasingly large problem facing a tiny breed of dog: the humble Chihuahua. 

According to the group, the Chihuahua conundrum -- a shocking surplus of them flooding the state's stretched-thin shelters -- has gotten out of control.  They place the blame, or at least a large part of it, on the breed's strange status as a pop-culture icon. Famous Chihuahuas -- from Paris Hilton's Tinkerbell to Bruiser, the pink-clad accessory of Reese Witherspoon's "Legally Blonde" character, from the recently departed Taco Bell Mascot, Gidget, to Chloe, the star of last year's "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" -- are everywhere.  And their high profile means an increase in the number of puppies being bred for the pet market, many by breeders either unscrupulous or simply ill-prepared.

It's a recipe for disaster, and the disaster is now coming to fruition. "All the shelters in California are seeing an upswing in Chihuahua impounds," Deb Campbell, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco animal care and control department, told our colleague Maria L. La Ganga in an interview. "It's been a slow and steady climb... We call it the Paris Hilton syndrome." 

Here in L.A., shelter staffers agree that the number of owners surrendering their Chihuahuas has reached a fever pitch.  It "stands to reason we would see higher numbers of [Chihuahuas] in our two pet adoption centers," spcaLA president Madeline Bernstein notes, because the breed is L.A.'s most popular (at least according to statistics available from license registrations in the city).  "What’s alarming is how quickly the numbers are rising; about 100 more Chihuahuas came through our doors this year than last."

Bailey In Northern California, the numbers are just as staggering, if not more so; currently, a third of San Francisco's canine shelter residents are either Chihuahuas or Chihuahua mixes.  Officials fear that that number could quickly increase to 50% of impounds if things don't change over the next few months.  At San Mateo's Peninsula Humane Society, "the number of Chihuahuas has eclipsed pit bulls as the most common breed," Senior Vice President Scott Delucchi told La Ganga.  

California's Chihuahua glut is far from the rest of the country's norm; "bully breeds," which also make up a sizable chunk of California shelter populations, far outnumber the tiny breeds in most U.S. shelters.  "I want your problem," Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA in New York City, told the San Francisco Gate. "If you want to pack up a box of Chihuahuas and ship them here, I'd be thrilled."

Recently, a large financial contribution from a Hollywood star made just such an idea possible for 25 Chihuahuas from L.A.'s city shelters. Katharine Heigl, whose Jason Debus Heigl Foundation (named for her late brother) rescues dogs in danger of euthanasia, ponied up $25,000 to fly the little dogs from L.A. to the Humane Society for Greater Nashua (HSGN) in New Hampshire.

"The response has been phenomenal," HSGN executive director Karen Bill told PeoplePets of the "imported" Chihuahuas. "We had more than 40 voicemails [the morning after the dogs arrived in New Hampshire] from families inquiring about these dogs."  

-- Lindsay Barnett

Top photo: Dog owners and animal control workers show off Chihuahuas that have deluged the Bay Area's animal shelters at the Animal Control and Care center in San Francisco on Wednesday.  Credit: Russel A. Daniels / Associated Press

Bottom photo: Bailey (ID# A1077397), a 5-year-old male Chihuahua, is just one of the many adoptable Chihuahuas at L.A.'s municipal animal shelters awaiting homes.  Meet him in person at the North Central shelter, 3201 Lacy St., Los Angeles (off the 5 Freeway in Lincoln Heights), or call 888-4LAPET1 with his ID number for more information.  Credit: Los Angeles Department of Animal Services

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