SAN YSIDRO, Calif. — Puppy smugglers continue flooding the market with animals from Mexico, many of which die or pose health hazards to unsuspecting buyers, according to a recent survey.
Animal welfare agency inspectors found 517 puppies, many concealed in vehicles and destined for swap meets across Southern California, during the two-week survey earlier this month at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry.
The puppy smuggling phenomenon, first noticed about two years ago, troubles animal welfare groups, because many of the puppies suffer from parvovirus, distemper, scabies and other hard-to-detect ailments.
The animals -- often mixed-breed poodles and other toy breeds -- are usually sold to bargain-seeking buyers at swap meets or through classified advertising.
Though they appear healthy, they often die within a week.
"It's really hard on people," said Lt. Daniel DeSousa of the San Diego County Department of Animal Services. "We get calls from people saying, 'I spent $2,000, and the puppy died in my kids' arms.' "
During the survey, seven of the puppies found by inspectors were impounded because of illnesses. All are recovering at shelters, according to officials.
The survey by the Border Puppy Task Force, a consortium of California animal welfare organizations, was conducted to raise awareness amid a huge demand for cute small dog breeds. State law requires retailers to provide documentation of age and medical history of puppies, but the market for the Mexican puppies is largely unregulated.
Animal welfare groups advise buyers to avoid purchasing puppies at swap meets and parking lots. Most of the dogs sell for $300 to $1,000. Some of their diseases, such as scabies, can be transferred to people.
The animals are believed to come from puppy mills in Tijuana and other Mexican cities. Many dogs are less than 6 months old and have not been vaccinated for rabies and other diseases.
To get them across the border, smugglers often stuff the dogs in packing crates or hide them in spare-tire wheel wells. The puppies are heard whimpering inside trunks or underneath seats.
When bringing puppies into the country, people must present proof of ownership, typically veterinary records. But the documents are often fraudulent, officials say.
In egregious cases, smugglers are cited and fined.