ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Los Angeles is cracking down on the illegal sale of animals. Thousands are sold on the streets of downtown L.A. every year. A new ordinance has raised fines on buyers. But as Gloria Hillard reports, shutting down the city's underground animal economy won't be easy.
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GLORIA HILLARD: Behind the wheel of the undercover car, LAPD Commander Andrew Smith admits the nickname Dr. Dolittle isn't the toughest moniker a cop could have.
Commander ANDREW SMITH: But I guess it fit OK, and I didn't really mind.
HILLARD: Over the years, Smith became well-known for having a soft spot for the tossed-away animals found on these downtown streets. Today, he's taking me into the heart of the city's illegal animal sales, L.A.'s fashion district, where, amid an open-air bazaar of counterfeit goods, fake Gucci, Prada and Levi's, you'll find...
SMITH: Critters of any type that you can imagine: lizards, snakes, rats, cats, dogs, fish, turtles, hamsters, gerbils, birds of all types that I've never even seen before.
HILLARD: Turning down another street, the sidewalks are overrun with bargain shoppers and merchandise that spills onto the street. It is here, among racks of sunglasses, sportswear and purses, that the animal vendors hawk their goods.
SMITH: Unfortunately, almost all the animals that are sold out here die in no time because of improper treatment or because they're sick or injured when they're sold, or because they're too young to be away from their mother, and they die of starvation.
HILLARD: We pull into a parking garage, where an elevator delivers us to the busy street, and where a few feet away, in the hot sun, a man is standing behind a stack of plastic cages holding turtles and baby rabbits. Commander Smith, undercover in a baseball cap and sunglasses, approaches the man.
SMITH: How much for the rabbits?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Twenty.
SMITH: Twenty for the rabbits?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: For both of them.
SMITH: What do you feed them?
HILLARD: The vendor hesitates, gives my shoulder bag a second glance and spots my microphone. He quickly backs away and signals two other men who sweep in, grab the cages and disappear into the crowd.
SMITH: And what they'll do is they'll stash the rabbits somewhere in the back: behind a store, behind a counter, in the trunk of a car.
HILLARD: Smith says the sellers work in teams with lookouts here in Santee Alley.
SMITH: How much for a turtle?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Twenty dollars.
SMITH: Twenty dollars. How many you've got?
HILLARD: We walk a few feet away, and when we turn, the turtle seller is gone. Many of the store owners work with the animal vendors.
SMITH: Right next to a pair of Levi's, they'll have six little baby birds that they're selling.
HILLARD: Vendors who sell these animals face just a $25 fine. L.A.'s new ordinance targets the buyer, 250 for a first citation, double that for a second offense.
SMITH: I think we need to make a lot of changes. We need to do a lot of educating. But I think they're a little piece of the puzzle. I think everything we do gets us one step closer to where, you know, these animals aren't being mistreated and aren't dying here on the streets.
HILLARD: With animal vendors making a hasty departure from Santee Alley, we call it a day.
SMITH: I'm betting that our rabbit seller is not there when we get back.
HILLARD: It turns out he was - until he spots us.
SMITH: You see him scurrying around back out. Now, you can see somebody's going over there and filling the - are putting the animals in a plastic bag.
HILLARD: Smith waves down an LAPD officer on a bike.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: How long we'll be...
SMITH: Male Hispanic in a white shirt. He swapped...
HILLARD: They know to give chase now could put the throngs of shoppers at risk. The man had already tossed two cages into the street. The turtles that are desperately paddling the walls of their plastic cages will be turned over to L.A.'s Department of Animal Services. And soon, after our departure, it will be business as usual. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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