Facing glut of Chihuahuas, California shelters fly pets east

California's craze for Chihuahuas (thanks, Paris Hilton) has led to a surfeit of the tiny dogs in local animal shelters. Now a campaign is raising money to fly them to find homes in other states nearby and on the East Coast.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
A rescued Chihuahua named Giganton looks out from his cage at the Northeast Valley Animal Care Center, in Mission Hills, Calif. on Dec. 18. The dog is part of the "Project Flying Chihuahuas,'' a new initiative that transports Chihuahuas to the East Coast for adoption.

Call it the great Chihuahua migration of 2009. Dozens of the itsy-bitsy hounds have been flying out of California, where their popularity and pop culture status has translated into a crisis for animal shelters, and are headed for new homes – or handbags – in other states.

Fifteen Chihuahuas with tickets to New York City Tuesday had their flight plans nixed due to the recent snow storm. But 40 tiny dogs departed Monterey County on Monday to Denver and about 60 have jetted off from Los Angeles to shelters in New Hampshire, thanks to a little help from a celebrity animal lover and sympathetic airlines.

The age of instant communication has been something of a blessing for shelter dogs. In the aftermath of Katrina, animal lovers took to the Internet to find homes for hundreds of abandoned dogs. Now the plight of the California Chihuahua is being spread on Twitter and Facebook.

When a group of Bay Area animal shelters held a press conference earlier this month to call attention to their Chihuahua problem, lovers of the purse-size pooches mobilized. Actress Katherine Heigl, of TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” helped fund their trip to New Hampshire and Project Flying Chihuahuas was soon launched to find other homes for the dogs, which are now the most common breed in California shelters.

Animal advocates blame proliferation of the little dogs on pop culture – think Taco Bell, “Legally Blonde,” and Paris Hilton. Chihuahuas became something of a Hollywood accessory after Ms. Hilton was regularly seen carrying her dog Tinkerbell. Some have even called this the "Paris Hilton syndrome."

Breeders certainly did their part to keep up with the growing demand, too. But when many new dog owners realized the big commitment that accompanied this little dog, they unloaded the pooches at the nearest shelter. In the past year, according to the Los Angeles Times, the L.A. area's animal shelters accepted 4,700 Chihuahuas.

But the California’s Chihuahua boom has been a boon for dog lovers in other parts of the country.

In New Hampshire, a shelter worker told reporters a local ABC affiliate that while there’s a demand for the dogs there, Chihuahuas are hard to come by locally. And in New York, a representative of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told the San Francisco Chronicle: "If you want to pack up a box of Chihuahuas and ship them here, I'd be thrilled."


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