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Minnesota welcomes 1,000th chihuahua thanks to unusual placement program

Chihuahuas languish in California shelters because there are so many of the dogs there. But puppies like this one are snatched up when made available for adoption in the Twin Cities, like this one on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. (St. Paul Pioneer Press / Richard Chin)

ST. PAUL – You've heard of 101 Dalmatians. How about 1,000 Chihuahuas?

On Wednesday, the Animal Humane Society in the Twin Cities received its 1,000th Chihuahua hoping to find a home in Minnesota, thanks to an unusual program. The tiny dogs are flown in from California.

The Great Chihuahua Airlift is a program started about three years ago in which the Animal Humane Society partnered with a California nonprofit called Compassion Without Borders to try to relieve a Chihuahua population explosion in California.

Some credit Paris Hilton for the Chihuahua's popularity in that state. Her "handbag dog," a Chihuahua named Tinkerbell, became a celebrity herself before dying last year at the age of 14, rating an obituary in People Magazine. But indiscriminate breeding has led to a glut of the breed, meaning hundreds of Chihuahuas or Chihuahua mixes are languishing in shelters in California or ending up euthanized.

Although the dogs are friendly, healthy and adoptable, "it's another brown Chihuahua. There are hundreds of brown Chihuahuas," said Moncho Camblor, co-founder of Compassion Without Borders, an animal welfare organization.

"In Fresno, the chances of getting adopted are pretty slim," he said.

But the breed isn't much seen in Minnesota. When the dogs show up in shelters here, they quickly get homes.

"They fly out of the window there," Camblor said.

"When they hit the adoption floor, sometimes they're gone that day," said Brie Nodgaard, a veterinary technician lead with the Animal Humane Society. Chihuahua puppies sometimes get adopted within an hour, she said.

"Successful adoptions are like real estate. It's all about location," said Cynthia Karsten, a California veterinarian who is a Compassion Without Borders board member.

It was Karsten who came up with the idea of shipping the surplus California Chihuahuas to the Twin Cities. Karsten got her veterinary degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and she worked at the Animal Humane Society while training for her specialty in shelter medicine.

She knew there was a demand for small dogs here. She just needed a way to relocate them. The solution is to fly them out in the cargo hold of a passenger jet. The initial shipment of 20 Chihuahuas went out in November 2012. Karsten said her sister, who lives in Minneapolis, adopted the first dog to arrive from California.

"He hates the snow. He really does, but he really loves his family," Karsten said of the dog she calls Chihuahua Zero.

With a grant from the ASPCA, Compassion Without Borders began to send more dogs to Minnesota, up to 40 dogs at a time as frequently as every two weeks.

The dogs, which typically come from shelters in California's Central Valley, travel in separate animal carriers with a blanket and a water bowl in the pressurized and heated cargo area of an Airbus 320 or a Boeing 757 Delta flight coming non-stop from San Francisco or Sacramento.

"We need a pretty big plane to fly 40 Chihuahuas," Karsten said.

The trip costs about $75 to $100 per dog, Camblor said.

It's a long journey, about 12 hours including all of the time to drive and load the animals.

"It's a huge production in terms of logistics," Camblor said.

But "one day in their life and it means a chance at a home," Karsten said.

The California migrants arriving by plane have ranged from 3-pound puppies to 20-pound Chihuahua mixes. One trip was an all-senior flight with older dogs that had lost their homes in California. Despite having heart murmurs or dental problems, they all found new homes in Minnesota.

The program has proved to be such a success that California shelter Chihuahuas are now being flown to other far-flung locations where the dogs are more adoptable, including Toronto and Madison, Wis.

The latest batch of 36 dogs arrived early Wednesday afternoon at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Delta flight 1745 from Sacramento. It pushed the total number of Chihuahuas received in Minnesota since the program began to a grand total 1,016.

The 494-pound shipment of dogs and dog carriers had been bumped from two earlier flights, but when Dory, Alfie, Tiller, Mimosa, Bucky, Shrimpy, Stalone and their fellow dogs finally arrived at the Animal Humane Society facility in Golden Valley, a small crowd of reporters and photographers were on hand to document their first impressions of Minnesota.

A 5-pound brute named Sally, a 4-year-old stray from the greater Fresno area, was designated the official 1,000th arrival -- the kilo-Chihuahua -- and draped in red sash.

After a day or so to decompress from their journey, the dogs will be available for adoption at the Animal Humane Society's five metro-area locations, including St. Paul and Woodbury.

But can a dog born and raised in California, that can trace its ancestry back to Mexico, adjust to life in a snowy Minnesota landscape more suited to a husky?

"It's definitely a change of environment. But they do fantastic out here," said Zach Nugent, a spokesman for the Animal Humane Society.

St. Paul couple Nic and Analise Ludwig have adopted two of the California transplants, Pico and Vella. Nic Ludwig said he made fleece coats for his dogs, which he now sells to other dog owners.

Karsten said putting up with a few months of winter is worth it for the dogs if they have a chance to be in a home.

"Here (in California), they wouldn't make it out of the shelter," she said. "They would never leave. There's just that many."

"Dogs adapt pretty quickly," Camblor said. "They just like to be alive, pretty much."

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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