Perspective From the Field: Illegal Puppy Imports Uncovered at JFK Airport by Molly K. Houle, DVM*

At New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, the belly of the Boeing passenger jet opened to reveal the cargo hold filled with stacked crates of whimpering dogs, many more than usual. All were young puppies—most too young to leave their moth- ers—cowering and huddling in their cages, shivering while covered in their own waste after their long international flight. Witnessing the scene was a team of federal agents from the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and JFK’s veterinarians accredited by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). “I just wanted to take them home,” said the burly CBP officer at seeing the puppies’ miserable plight. A 17-year expert on preventing narcotics smuggling, Deputy Chief of Cargo James Bowles realized he was confronting another kind of illegal importation, of the cuter variety. In October 2017, Deputy Chief Bowles first overheard fellow officers complaining about hordes of puppies arriving at JFK on international flights. Brushing it off as a fluke, his mind changed when underage puppies started arriving weekly, even daily, in large shipments of 44 or 48 at a time, as opposed to 1 or 2 passengers’ pets. In response, Bowles drafted a heightened sur- veillance plan to address these illegal puppy importa- tions, finding it similar to busting narcotics smugglers. He named the plan “Operation Dog Catcher.” To form a strike team, he brought in CDC public health officers and veterinarians from AirHeart Pet Hospital inside The ARK, CBP’s biosecurity, 24-hour animal care and veterinary facility at JFK airport. Government Regulations CBP functions on our country’s front lines to secure US borders while facilitating lawful travel and trade. Stationed at more than 300 US ports of entry, CBP works with 40 other US government agencies, includ- ing CDC, US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Food and Drug Administration, to enforce more than 400 federal laws. One of these laws is CDC’s federal regulation for proper rabies immunization for every dog arriving from a high-risk country for dog rabies before entering the United States.

Puppies’ true ages can be determined by examining their teeth, even though illegal importers may falsify the dogs’ ages on their papers.

All dogs coming into the United States are required to be healthy. And they must be at least 4 months old to be properly immunized against dog rabies, which has been eradicated from the United States since 2007. Puppies can’t be vaccinated for rabies before they’re 12 weeks old, because their mothers’ antibodies prevent the vaccine’s protection. CDC’s age require- ment is timed for when puppies are developing their own immune system. When puppies are vaccinated at 12 weeks, it takes a month for them to gain their own protective rabies antibodies to be fully immunized. Therefore, it is illegal to import a puppy younger than 4 months old from a country with high risk of dog rabies into the United States, because rabies poses a public health risk. Rabies almost always causes death.

Further, USDA requires puppies to be healthy and at least 6 months old if imported for resale to help


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