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Shane and Christyna MacKinnon pace nervously at YVR as they await Flight 0032 from Taipei. “I’ve got butterflies,” Christyna says. The young Richmond newlyweds are waiting to meet their new family member: a longhaired dachshund/Formosan mountain dog found on the streets of Taiwan. They adopted the dog for $500 after seeing its photo on the website of Ocean Dog Rescue. “I don’t want to buy a dog from a puppy mill or get a designer dog from anywhere,” Christyna explains. Besides, Shane adds wryly, “You know there’s no other dog that looks like this in Richmond.”
When the animals arrive, a mob of adoptive families swarms them. Finally let out of its crate, the MacKinnons’ new pet wolfs down its first meal after the 11-hour flight. “I’m a proud mama,” Christyna sighs.
The last few years have seen a major increase in volunteer-run rescue groups like Ocean Dog, specializing in finding homes for strays and shelter dogs. Many pet stores have stopped selling dogs (Richmond banned the practice) and now help place rescues instead. In line with this trend, some rescuers are focusing on bringing in dogs from outside B.C.—from California, Mexico, even India. The cachet of owning a dog from an “exotic” locale could be one reason; another is that Metro Vancouver appears to be lacking its own adoption supply.
“We have more demand than supply for dogs in British Columbia,” confirms Craig Naherniak, general manager of humane education for the BC-SPCA. And with the high percentage of condos and apartment-style housing in Metro Vancouver, he agrees that small dogs have become a particularly hot commodity. “There’s such a demand for small dogs that they don’t stay in our shelters long.” I found this out firsthand after a year’s fruitless search in shelters for a dog to fit my strata’s under-25-pound restriction.
“Many adoptive families come to us saying they can’t find a dog through the SPCA, especially when it comes to small dogs,” says Renee Hsieh of Ocean Dog Rescue. “The breeds and sizes available are not a match for all the people that want to adopt.” Hsieh joined Ocean Dog Rescue after moving from Taiwan, where she had been a rescuer for 15 years. Most people there buy “purebred” puppy-mill dogs from pet shops, she says; if after a couple months they don’t know how to handle the dog, it’s typically abandoned to a shelter to be killed or left to fend for itself. She says there are two million strays in Taiwan.
For the last three years Barbara Gard, a retired school psychologist, has been adopting out dogs from India through her rescue organization, Adopt an Indian Desi Dog. While visiting an international school a few years ago in Mussoorie, a hilltop town in India’s Garhwal Himalayan region, Gard came upon village boys repeatedly throwing a puppy off a cliff. “I had a jacket and scooped him up. He was five pounds; he would have died.” On subsequent trips to India, she brought back more and more dogs, eventually setting up a rescue in Canada with the help of an Indian veterinary clinic—the reason she purchased her three-hectare mountainside property in Abbotsford in 2009.
Gard points out that engaging in international dog rescue while dogs at home still need help is just as rational as international human aid. “Why are we sending money for water projects in Africa when we have no water on our Indian reserves? This is the same thing.”
Doris Orr, 91, started the local rescue movement in the late 1960s. Back then, shelter dogs were being taken away daily for research. “I used to drive over to the Vancouver pound every morning, and the university truck would come to pick up the dogs at 8 o’clock,” Orr recalls in her North Vancouver home over the piercing barks of her tiny Chihuahua, a dog that “someone gave to me,” she says, “for some reason.” When the truck arrived, she’d be waiting. “I’d get seven or eight dogs a day from them.”
Each morning was a mad grab for as many dogs as she could take, just to save them from experiments. “It’s horrifying to most people, to think you’ve got a pet that’s been living in the house and suddenly it’s in a cage in a lab, you know?” She would then drive all over the city, trying to place the dogs in homes that responded to her regular newspaper ads. “I could drive with dogs in the back seat, a couple on the front seat or standing on my shoulders. I’d have two or three houses to stop at, leaving the dog they said they’d keep.”
Dog rescue these days has gone “haywire,” she says. “I don’t think it’s rescue. To me, they’re all businesses now: they charge $300 or something, and they’ll say it’s to cover the spay. Who’s to say that when you get a dog from somebody, it’s not already spayed?”
Most of the current rescues claim to be losing money, in some cases using their own funds to support their efforts. Hsieh says Ocean Dog Rescue’s fee (between $400 and $500) covers only some of the $700 to $900 to care for and transport each dog from Taiwan. Gard says her per-dog cost is even higher (having to pay for flights from India, as well as in-transit pet care), though her adoption fee is similar. The Vancouver pound charges an adoption fee of $293; the SPCA, between $300 and $500 depending on size and age. “Toy” dogs demand the highest fees.
Which brings me to Ruby, the Chihuahua/terrier mix I adopted a year ago from Pamela McKenzie. Over three years, McKenzie estimates that her Pamela’s Dogs has saved about 250 dogs from California shelters, focusing on those under 12 pounds on urgent kill lists. She too has recently started to rescue dogs from Taiwan—flying animals from there is no easier than having to deal with ground travel through the U.S.
Like Ruby, most of the dogs in California shelters now are Chihuahua mixes, made popular by images of celebrities toting them in purses, and movies like Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Now abandoned, Chihuahuas are running loose and multiplying. I think of Ruby, found in the wild with her mother and litter mates. Imagine, says McKenzie. “Little Chihuahuas, just living in a field.”