Buying a Christmas Puppy? Think Twice Before You Do

Buying a Christmas Puppy? Think Twice Before You Do
San Diego Department of Animal Services/AP

12/17/2009 AT 04:00 PM EST

When a Customs and Border Protection agent performed a routine stop on a man crossing between Mexico and the U.S. on Dec. 14, they asked the Los Angeles resident if he had anything to declare. He said he had a bottle of tequila, nothing else. Then the agent noticed a rustling under a blanket in the back seat. Turned out the man had more than just a bottle of tequila – he was also attempting to smuggle 15 shivering, 2-month-old poodle-mix puppies (shown above) to sell over the holidays.

All 15 puppies were sick, dehydrated and exposed to varying degrees of parvovirus. The man, who had been caught on numerous occasions smuggling poodle-mixes across the Mexican border, surrendered the dogs, but he was not issued a ticket or a fine for the incident, because he was not breaking any state laws.

California is in the midst of a pressing Chihuahua problem, but for several years, puppy trafficking has been an equally vexing issue. Puppies are smuggled across the border wrapped in plastic, stuffed into milk crates that are duct-taped shut. They are being sold on the side of the street in border towns, and outside swap meets in San Diego. The problem got so bad that law enforcement agents formed the Border Puppy Task Force in 2005.

According to Lieutenant Dan DeSousa of the County of San Diego Department of Animal Services, the spike in smuggled puppies always happens over the holidays. "It's the American ideal: The kids come out on Christmas morning and there's a puppy bounding out from under the tree."

Typically, the puppies are sold through ads in local classifieds or on Craigslist.com. Using a prepaid cell phone, the seller will make arrangements to meet the buyer in a parking lot for the exchange. "You go to this parking lot, and common sense flies out the window when you see these adorable little brown eyes," DeSousa tells PEOPLEPets.com. "You will shell out $500 for a puppy that within a day or two ends up getting very sick. You can't go back to the Wal-Mart parking lot, they've already thrown that cell phone away."

Puppy trafficking was more pronounced five years ago, but since then, there have been fewer puppies being discovered at the border. DeSousa believes the puppies are being smuggled at younger ages, smugglers are getting better at hiding them, and during the sales, are providing forged veterinary records. DeSousa wants the business to stop.

"We have to dry up the market in the United States," DeSousa says. "We tell people all the time, 'Don't do this. Go to an animal rescue group.' But when you see those eyes looking back at you and the puppies are whimpering – oh my God, it's hard, but these puppies suffer and sometimes pay the ultimate price because of one person's greed."

It's best to rescue a puppy from a shelter or reputable rescue. But, if you should decide to buy a puppy, the task force offers a few things to remember:

* Exercise restraint and common sense.
* Never buy a puppy from a seller who wants to meet you in a parking lot.
* Don't ever pay for an animal with cash.
* Ask for credible records about the puppy's health.

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