prevent the foreign fraudulent importation of sick and underage dogs. If dogs don’t meet CDC’s or USDA’s importation requirements, they may be deported back to their countries of origin. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) oversees animal welfare pertaining to the shipment of puppies. Shipping dogs in crates as cargo has its risks. Since Operation Dog Catcher’s start at JFK, seven illegally imported underage puppies arrived dead in the United States. At higher risks for death are the popular French and English bulldogs (both brachycephalic breeds—their smooshed noses make it harder to breathe normally). Airlines in the United States have started banning these breeds from their flights, as do most airlines in Europe and Australia. In stressful, cramped conditions, they are especially prone to heat stroke and respiratory distress. No matter how importers falsify puppies’ ages on paper, their true age can be determined by examining their teeth. Illegal Importers’ Tricks The motives behind illegal puppy importation are not immediately obvious. However, a closer look reveals a big business driven by profit at the expense of the health and welfare of the underage puppies. Import- ers aim to get around these regulations, because cus- tomers demand puppies as young as 8-weeks. Profits decline by the thousands with each month a puppy ages. The puppy-loving public creating the demand is part of the problem. Many dogs are bred irresponsibly in large numbers in “puppy mills” overseas, where the risk of congenital abnormalities and disease is high. Importers then fly them as cargo in large batches, claiming them as “res- cue” dogs, valued at $0 on their paperwork, and al- lowing the importers to evade entry and broker fees. If the illegal puppies enter the United States, they are marketed to the public through social media such as Facebook and Twitter, or even on legitimate-looking US breeder websites. Some international importers cheaply breed or board high-demand types of pup- pies in the United States, such as French and English bulldogs, and other small breeds like Yorkshire terriers and chihuahuas. The dogs are then sold to unsuspect- ing families as well-bred, American-born puppies at
a cost of $3,000 to 5,000 each. The potential profit is exponential.
Another ruse is to recruit a “flight parent,” offering travelers a free flight in exchange for claiming the dogs as their own on their flight to the United States. The importers tell the unsuspecting flight parent they are helping to transport rescue dogs to meet their adoptive owners at the airport. They then give a description of the new families or transporters and a meeting point at the airport to make the exchange. The transaction between the flight parent and the puppy’s new family leaves no paper trail. Turning Point For Operation Dog Catcher In 2017, a Christmas-time shipment of dogs, includ- ing a 6-month-old chihuahua puppy, marked a turning point for the strike team and Operation Dog Catcher. The puppy was one of five dogs in cargo on an arriving international flight from Cairo, Egypt. They seemed to have proper paperwork and rabies vaccination cer- tificates. All the dogs were permitted entry into the United States. As planned, the volunteer flight parents met with transporters to distribute the dogs for ulti- mate adoption in states widespread from Connecticut to Washington. The chihuahua, in particular, was markedly agitated on the flight and bit the flight parent at the airport. The next day, the chihuahua bit a veterinary techni- cian; then the puppy died on his second day in the United States. Lab results soon revealed the chi- huahua had rabies. A collaborative effort between five state health departments, CDC, CBP, and APHIS contacted all people exposed, from cargo handler to adoptive parent, to ensure they and the other dogs received anti-rabies postexposure treatment to help prevent the disease. None of the exposed people developed rabies. CDC and CBP officers suspected a fraudulent rabies vaccination certificate, sparking a new conversation at CBP about how to increase surveillance of dog imports and add procedures to better scrutinize pup- pies’ paperwork. Because the rabid puppy slipped through surveillance at JFK airport, CBP now requires all puppy shipments from suspicious importers and high-risk countries for dog rabies to go to The ARK, where they receive a thorough physical exam and paperwork inspection. 11
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