Jasmine Blue's Tails of the Dog Park
Chapter 28: Chihuahuas are the new pit bulls
By Susan Dyer Reynolds
When I was looking to adopt a pit bull in the summer of 2006, I turned to Petfinder.com, a wonderful Web site that allows you to enter specific criteria (breed, sex, age, proximity) and search for animals in shelters and with rescue groups all over the country. When I entered my zip code, over 5,000 pit bulls and pit bull mixes were available just in Northern California alone, far more than any other breed. One of them was a piebald, blue-eyed beauty named Blue – it was love at first sight, and the rest is 28 chapters and counting. I added Jasmine to her name for some much-needed femininity, but I kept Blue, too, because I wanted to honor where she came from. Where Jasmine Blue came from is the same place eight million dogs and cats come from each year – the American shelter system. Of this number, more than half are put to death for lack of homes. And it’s not just mongrels – more than a quarter of the animals in shelters are purebreds. Of all breeds, pit bulls fair the worst: In most shelters they account for more than half the dog population, and their euthanasia rate is nearly 95 percent.
In 2006, one breed that did not top the euthanasia list was Chihuahuas. Thanks to America’s insatiable appetite for pop culture, the shivery little dogs were numero uno on the desirability scale because Paris Hilton put a pooch in her purse. Elle Woods, the fictional character from the film Legally Blonde carried one to law school. And just when you thought the market was saturated, along comes a movie called Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Suddenly Chihuahuas were as in demand as Jimmy Choos among the wannabe trendsetters. This wasn’t lost on greedy breeders, who began churning out Chihuahuas faster than you can say Tinkerbell. Unfortunately, wannabe trendsetters are really only trend followers, and shortly after the Chihuahua explosion, Paris lost interest in “Tinkerbell” and started carrying around a Pomeranian so small it made tiny Tink look like Godzilla. On top of that, people were discovering that Chihuahuas, while conveniently sized, aren’t for everyone.
“Are those 20-year-old girls still going to be carrying that Chihuahua in their purse 20 years from now?” asks Alison Lindquist, owner of a rescued Chihuahua and director of the East Bay SPCA. “They’ll have been through two marriages, have three kids, and that dog will still be peeing on the carpet.” It turns out that Chihuahuas, like many small breeds, live a long time, and they are notoriously difficult to housebreak.
At the end of 2009, Chihuahuas were catching up to pit bulls, making up one-third of the shelter dog population here in San Francisco alone. Unlike pit bulls, which are resilient and adaptive and do remarkably well in the shelter environment, Chihuahuas are like fish out of water, shaking in the back of their kennels, overwhelmed by the incessant barking and whining, the cold cement floors, and the stench of death and uncertainty. While they can be great dogs for the right person, Chihuahuas don’t always make good family pets. In fact, pit bulls, which love children and tend to be as adaptive outside the shelter as in, are a much better fit for most households. In a 2008 study from the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, Chihuahuas ranked second of 33 breeds rated for aggression, just before Jack Russell terriers (Dachshunds were number one). “I have Harvard graduates for clients who can’t control a Chihuahua,” says “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan. Since most people who jumped on the Chihuahua bandwagon didn’t do their homework, many of these dogs wound up in the wrong homes, and now we have a Chihuahua crisis.
Recently, Grateful Dogs Rescue executive director Kim Durney and the folks at San Francisco Animal Care and Control came up with the idea of holding a press conference to alert people to the problem. It was a huge success, going viral nationally in a matter of hours. The Jason Debus Heigl Foundation, an animal welfare organization founded by Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl in honor of her late brother, donated $25,000 and teamed with American Airlines to fly 25 Chihuahuas from an overburdened Hollywood shelter to Boston where, evidently, there is a Chihuahua shortage.
I touched on the topic for our September cover story (“How the San Francisco SPCA let us down”) and, as I found out when I interviewed Kathleen Helmer of the Selma shelter in Fresno, this is nothing new. Last year, a woman flew over 50 small dogs on her private jet from Selma to Canada – where, evidently, there is also a small dog shortage – but just days later, 50 more took their place. The Central Valley puts down more than 50,000 animals per year, yet a vocal minority of breeders continues to stall mandatory spaying and neutering laws. While I blame ignorant, pop-culture-driven buyers for fueling the greedy lust of breeders, I also blame breeders for ignoring what is obviously a horrific situation.
The purebred problem
Backyard breeders and puppy mills are the largest part of the overpopulation problem, but pure breeders must take blame as well since their dogs make up 25 percent of the shelter population. I have found that pure-breed rescues often do not step up, leaving animals in shelters for medical or behavioral issues, or because they are overwhelmed just like mixed-breed rescues (in fact, because of the glut, mixed-breed rescues also take many purebreds).
The fact they are overwhelmed should be a red flag: Thousands of dogs are being bred for the wrong reasons and sold to unqualified owners. Unscrupulous “professional breeders” knowingly turn out dogs with health and behavioral issues, which often leads to owner abandonment down the road.
Pedigree Dogs Exposed, a disturbing BBC One investigative documentary, detailed the ugly underbelly of “reputable” breeders in the United Kingdom who continue to breed for certain physical traits rather than for temperament and health. In one particularly egregious case, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel with a diagnosed case of syringomyelia, a disorder that results when the skull is too small for the brain, took top honors at the prestigious Crufts conformation show. The owner bred the dog numerous times after that, passing down the debilitating disease, which currently affects up to one third of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel population.
Holding breeders responsible
Along with mandatory spay and neuter legislation, I hope that California lawmakers will pass strict laws on breeding (currently there are none). I think that every breeder should be required to pay for a license and be subject to a “puppy tax” on each animal sold; proceeds would go toward hiring additional shelter staff to enforce mandatory spay and neuter laws and oversee the licensed breeders. To advertise animals on Craig’s List, they would have to enter a legitimate license number (Craig’s List is a huge enabler for bad breeders, just as it is for prostitution). Breeders would also have to renew their license yearly and agree to spontaneous home checks. And every animal would be fitted with a microchip containing the breeder’s contact information so that if the animal turns up in a shelter and the owner can’t be located, the breeder would have to take the animal back. (If I had my way, breeders caught without a license would be sentenced to work in the euthanasia room of their local shelter for a week.) Expensive and time consuming you say? Far less so than housing eight million unwanted animals per year and killing four million of them. Licensing would also take the burden off of shelters and put it where it should be – on the breeders.
When you combine greed and desire with an unregulated industry, you wind up with substandard animals and not enough homes. As I write this, a quick scan of Craig’s List finds clueless, ignorant people selling Chihuahua puppies for $400 each. As long as there are buyers, there will be breeders.
If you are considering buying an animal, visit your local shelter, rescue or Petfinder.com first, and look into the eyes of the thousands waiting for homes – their lives depend on it. Be part of the solution rather than the problem, and send a message to breeders everywhere that enough is enough.
Finally, before adopting an animal, be sure to do your homework – while Jasmine Blue is right for my lifestyle, she may not be for yours. And while a Chihuahua isn’t my cup of tea, one may be the perfect teacup for you.