PHOENIX — A pack of 26 stray Chihuahuas rode 2,400 miles in the back of an SUV in late March, a cross-country trip from an animal shelter here to another just outside Philadelphia, where all but one were adopted in days.
That same week, a retired orthopedic surgeon, Peter Rork, loaded 30 other Chihuahuas into his retrofitted Cessna 206 and flew them from Phoenix to Boise, Idaho, where small dogs are a hot commodity. Next month, he will fly about 36 Chihuahuas from Scottsdale, Ariz., to the same destination.
“Supply and demand, that’s what it boils down to,” said Judy Zimet, a real-estate lawyer here who serves as executive director of Dog Is My Copilot, Rork’s rescue group. “In Phoenix, Chihuahuas are a dime a dozen; in Idaho and Montana, there are so few of them you have to get on a waiting list to adopt them.”
Arizona’s most popular exports have long included the “four C’s,” as they are known here: copper, cattle, citrus and cotton. And lately, Chihuahuas could almost join that list.
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The breed, which traces its roots to Mexico, is so popular in Arizona that some neighborhoods of Phoenix have become overrun with them. Stray Chihuahuas roam the streets, overcrowd animal shelters and have exhausted the charitable network of foster families who take them in but say they can no longer take one more.
To avoid euthanizing the dogs, animal-welfare workers have started shipping them to faraway states and even repatriating them abroad: Arizona Chihuahuas have emigrated to Canada and Russia, said Joe Pyritz, a spokesman for Pinal County, whose animal-shelter cares for Chihuahuas carried by migrants caught crossing the border illegally.
Only pit bulls outnumber Chihuahuas in the Maricopa County shelter, and the number of Chihuahuas has risen steadily since 2011 while the number of pit bulls has declined. At the Arizona Humane Society, the state’s largest animal-welfare agency, Chihuahuas overtook pit bulls this year in number.
Since January, the Arizona Chihuahua Rescue, a volunteer organization that takes in Chihuahuas nobody wants, has posted a warning message on its home page: “We are unable to accept any new dogs.”
The reason Chihuahuas and their many mixes are among the dogs most often found in animal shelters, animal-care workers say, lies somewhere in the intersection of geography, pop culture and immigrant tastes. Breeders play a role, too: Some do not realize that female Chihuahuas are so small that they often need a cesarean section, an expensive procedure that can wipe out potential profits and prompt people to abandon the dogs, said Lynnie Bunten, breed rescue chairwoman at the Chihuahua Club of America.
On average, purebred puppies sell for $300 or $400, but Chihuahuas are a lot more common in states bordering Mexico, Bunten said. Shelters in San Antonio, where she lives, are “brimming with Chihuahuas,” and in California, several cities have passed ordinances requiring that Chihuahuas be spayed or neutered in an effort to legislate population control.
The dogs are also status symbols of sorts: Chihuahuas have served as the Taco Bell mascot (“Drop the chalupa!”), Disney movie stars (think “Beverly Hills Chihuahua”) and fashion accessories for the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, not to mention Elle Woods in the movie “Legally Blonde.” When mixed with other breeds, they go by cutesy names like Chugs (Chihuahuas and pugs), Chiweenies (Chihuahuas and dachshunds) and Chi Pins (Chihuahuas and miniature pinschers).
“Young women put them in their purses to make an impression, kind of like the big macho guys get pit bulls to look tough,” Bunten said.
A study published by The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2010 found that Hispanics were more likely to own pets that had not been spayed or neutered than were people of other races and ethnicities, a factor that seems to be contributing to the overabundance of Chihuahuas. Hollister, Calif., where roughly 66 percent of residents are Latino, has seen a “significant drop” in the number of Chihuahuas since passing an ordinance in 2010 mandating that the dogs be spayed or neutered, said Julie Carreiro, supervisor of the Hollister Police Animal Care and Services.
Arizona’s Maricopa County, where the shelters take in more animals than any county besides Los Angeles County, is discussing a partnership with one of Phoenix’s most popular Spanish-language radio stations, La Campesina, to spread the message that sterilizing dogs “is part of the responsibility of owning a pet,” said Melissa Gable, spokeswoman for the county’s Animal Care and Control.
The county is also in the middle of a three-year, $6 million campaign to curb pet homelessness, focusing on Chihuahuas, pit bulls and cats, which are the most commonly found (and euthanized) animals in its shelters. The effort involves trying to increase adoptions and free sterilizations, said Bretta Nelson, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Humane Society.
Chihuahuas are jittery by nature, bark often and loudly, and, like most dogs, bite when they perceive aggression, even if the aggressor is a baby grabbing a tail or a paw. They are “little dogs with a big-dog attitude,” said Gable, and the failure to understand that sometimes prompts a family to turn them in to a shelter.
The agency’s 11 officers cover an area of 9,224 square miles from an office in Mesa and another in West Phoenix, which has the city’s highest rate of stray dogs, dog-bite complaints and dogs on school grounds, Gable said. That is where Sgt. Jason True of Animal Care and Control found a wandering Chihuahua the other day.
The dog — a mixed breed of clay-colored fur, lacking tags or an identification microchip — had followed a pack of children to Alta Vista School that morning, but none of the children seemed to know where he had come from. The school’s facility engineer, Michael Scott, said finding “some type of Chihuahua” on the campus “is a common thing.”
True opened the door to the maintenance shed slowly, and the dog responded with an ear-piercing yelp before running to lick his hands.
“Ready to go, monster?” True asked him, placing the dog in one of the kennels on the back of his truck for a trip to the shelter, where the stray and dozens of other Chihuahuas would be kept in an air-conditioned room, listening to classical music as they awaited adoption.