S. Calif. Chihuahuas Airlifted To Northeast Owners

Just in time for Christmas, Southern California's recent glut of chihuahuas is fueling another airlift of the tiny canines to chihuahua-deprived states in the Northeast. The dogs were abandoned but "Project Flying Chihuahuas" takes them to new owners. The only slowdown this week was the weather.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

California has too many Chihuahuas. Thousands of the tiny dogs have been abandoned in the state. That prompted an unusual airlift called Project Flying Chihuahuas. It's connecting the pooches with new owners across the country. And just in time for Christmas, another batch is about to go airborne. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

(Soundbite of puppy yipping)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Nearly 5,000 Chihuahuas are jammed into overcrowded L.A. shelters like this one in the San Fernando Valley. Dog lover Laurel Kinder has been rescuing them and shipping them to places where Chihuahuas are wanted.

(Soundbite of puppy yipping)

DEL BARCO: She blames the surplus on breeders trying to cash in.

Ms. LAUREL KINDER (Kinder4Rescue): They're breeding to sell, and then, of course, they're selling unspayed and neutered dogs. And then those people backyard breed, and then it continues, like a pyramid, to be 4,700 dogs.

DEL BARCO: Kinder says many Chihuahuas that don't get adopted soon after they arrived are killed.

Ms. KINDER: We're hoping to eventually put a moratorium on any euthanasia of the small dogs, that we're able to get them out and, most importantly, get the word to people that as we're getting them out not to come behind us with breeding them, because then we'll never get rid of this problem here.

(Soundbite of music)

DEL BARCO: L.A.'s Chihuahua boom started in the mid-1990s with Stinky and Gidget, two pint-sized spokesdogs who craved Mexican fast food.

Unidentified Man #1: Yo quiero Taco Bell.

(Soundbite of music)

DEL BARCO: In Hollywood, Chihuahuas soon became fashion accessories for celebrities like Paris Hilton. Plus, they were featured in the movies -"Legally Blonde" and, of course, "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," parts one and two.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: Chihuahua.

Unidentified Man #3: Chihuahua.

Ms. KATHY DAVIS (General manager, Los Angeles Animal Services): There's an awful lot of dazzle when you go to the movies and you see these terrific little dogs.

DEL BARCO: Kathy Davis is the general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services. She says many fickle fans have abandoned their pocket pets.

Unidentified Man #4: Jealous?

Ms. DAVIS: People get enamored with that dazzle, and they run to their local breeder or pet store and they pick up these pets and they take them home, and then the dazzle wears off.

(Soundbite of puppy whining)

DEL BARCO: But to the rescue: Project Flying Chihuahuas.

Ms. KATHERINE HEIGL (Actress): We're going to get you a new home. No more shelter.

DEL BARCO: Two batches of lucky little dogs have been pulled to of the shelters to be airlifted to the East Coast. "Grey's Anatomy" actress Katherine Heigl is picking up the tab. And to get them ready for the trip, project volunteers outfitted the Chihuahuas with new fleece coats, complete with Santa hats and fake antlers.

Ms. HEIGL: Oh, look at you. You're free for Christmas. What a Christmas present you got.

DEL BARCO: Three thousand miles away in Nashua, New Hampshire, the first shipment of Chihuahuas was adopted immediately. That's how Christmas came early for Irene Goodrow.

Ms. IRENE GOODROW: He reminds me of the Taco Bell little dog. I named him Chico, and we bonded right away.

DEL BARCO: Goodrow is about to turn 67. So Chico is her Christmas and birthday gift.

Ms. GOODROW: As soon as the girls took him out of the kennel and handed him to me, oh, millions of kisses, millions of kisses.

DEL BARCO: In New Hampshire, where Chihuahuas are scarce, 100 people were on the waiting list for the rescued dogs. Chico and all the other California canines have been learning to adjust to the snow.

Ms. GOODROW: Kicked his feet way up in the air, because, of course, it's cold. Put his little feet down and lifted them right up again.

DEL BARCO: Goodrow says she's already taught Chico some commands, and he watches Animal Planet on TV and snuggles with her at tonight.

Ms. GOODROW: And he's got his Christmas stocking hanging up. He's got treats in there, and he's got a toy in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GOODROW: I still believe in Santa Claus. And he's already come, because I've got my baby.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

Ms. GOODROW: Oh, kisses, kisses, kisses, kisses.

(Soundbite of song, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas")

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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