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California Chihuahuas in doghouse

Judge may could decide today if wild animals should be destroyed


Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- It's a story of what happens when Chihuahuas go bad. Granted, some people could argue that Chihuahuas always go bad, but perhaps sympathy is in order because 174 little lives hang in the balance.

The saga involves a breeder who let things get out of control, two competing Chihuahua rescue groups, a judge who must determine the dogs' fates and, of course, all those Chihuahuas.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge must decide, possibly today, whether the Chihuahuas, confiscated from a ranch, are suitable for rescue or must be destroyed.

Animal control officials and one Chihuahua rescue group say most of the dogs are just too wild to mix in polite society. Before county animal control officers stepped in, officials say, the animals were kept in filthy conditions and had formed ferocious, feral packs.

Think coyotes that would fit in handbags.

Indeed, some of these vicious little dogs have been attacking -- and killing -- each other during their eight-month captivity at an animal shelter in Los Angeles.

But another Chihuahua rescue group, which held a candlelight vigil Wednesday, is lobbying hard to win freedom for the dogs it calls "angels on death row."

"Chihuahua Rescue just believes that every dog has the right to live, whether they have behavior problems or not," said Devon Miller, the Burbank-based group's rescue coordinator. "They might not be great with humans, that doesn't mean they cannot have a wonderful life in their own environment."

The saga started last November and originally involved 236 Chihuahuas.

At that time, neighbors of Emma Harter complained that the animal breeder was housing the dogs in unsanitary conditions. County animal officials raided her property and found scores of the tiny dogs living in close quarters. Too close, as it turned out. The dogs were not neutered or spayed, and more Chihuahuas were later born at the shelter.

The district attorney's office has filed two felony and four misdemeanor animal cruelty charges against Harter, who is awaiting arraignment.

The dogs now occupy one of the facility's three kennel buildings, five or six dogs per cage. The sheer repetition of Chihuahua after Chihuahua takes some getting used to. All of them are loud and the effect is ear-splitting.

Initially, county officials determined that only 36 of the Chihuahuas were suitable to be placed with rescue groups. The rest, they said, should be destroyed.

In the face of a legal challenge from Kimi Peck, the leader of Chihuahua Rescue, the county has softened its stance somewhat.

"We don't want to put any animal to sleep that doesn't need to be put to sleep," said Kaye Michelson, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Animal Care and Control Department. "But we need people to realize what they are getting into with these dogs. They are pretty unsocialized and have some behavior issues."

She added: "We are working with the rescue group and we will go with the judge's decision."

Richard Spann, a retired Superior Court judge brought in to hear the case, is scheduled to hear today from a team of animal behaviorists -- including nationally known pet expert Warren Eckstein -- who have been evaluating the Chihuahuas for several days.

At issue now are 174 dogs. Some of the original 236 died or were so sick that they had to be destroyed. Some of the puppies born at the shelter were put in foster care before they could learn the wild ways of their parents.

Eckstein, who visited animals at the request of Chihuahua Rescue, said the dogs can be rehabilitated.

"The bottom line is there's not a dog in there who can't live with somebody," Eckstein said.

Hoping the judge will find in the group's favor, Peck said she is prepared to house some of the dogs at her kennel. She said animal rescue groups around the country have also volunteered to take in the dogs. Alaska Airlines has agreed to transport the dogs to cities where rescuers are standing by.

"We're ready to go," said Peck, the former daughter-in-law of the late actor Gregory Peck.

But not everyone agrees that these dogs' barks are worse than their bites.

One animal group, Chihuahua Rescue & Transport, posted a warning on its Web site this week:

"We have received information that the majority of the dogs are not adoptable because of serious genetic/health and behavioral problems due to inbreeding and lack of socialization," according to the Web site . "Therefore, we cannot support these dogs being placed in any homes."

In a follow-up e-mail, group official Lynnie Bunten said: "Lots of well-meaning folks are scurrying around on the Internet in a frenzy to try to save them all. Most are not going to be saved because they are so aggressive."

now the problem is, no one has any idea what to do with 174 wild chihuahuas. this sort of thing sould have been prevented
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