Several months ago the nation suddenly woke up to the fact that thousands of chihuahuas were dying in California shelters because of Hollywood hype and an explosion of backyard breeders.
Humane groups rushed in to help plucking a dogs out of harm's way in overburdened Los Angeles shelters and elsewhere. But a Philadelphia woman recognized the chihuahua "glut" on the West Coast was an ongoing problem and she set out to do something about it.
Marge Fithian, a realtor and chihuahua lover from South Philadelphia, took on the role of air traffic controller and matchmaker, linking a shelter in Maine - where there is a high demand and short supply of small dogs - with the Los Angeles , which takes in 300 chihuahuas a month. Consider that staggering figure again: 300 chuhuahuas a month. And that's just one shelter in Los Angeles.
So Fithian, with a $1,100 contribution from her mother, organized an airlift. On May 17, 13 chihuahuas were transported from Los Angeles to Maine where there was a waiting list of potential adopters.
Here's the twist: Instead of just a single feel-good airlift, Fithian wanted to find a way to use the transports to fund more rescues. The shelters agreed to increase their adoption fees to create a fund that would help future transports.
"I wanted to recycle the money back and help the next dozen dogs," said Fithian.
She said the popularity of the chihuahuas helped generate press and increased traffic to Humane Society of Knox County, Maine, which typically has only a handful of dogs for adoption. The shortage is the result of higher spay/neuter rates and fewer backyard breeders. In general, that means fewer unwanted dogs in Knox County, as is the case in other areas of New England. But this also means fewer opportunities to adopt.
With a steady supply of small dogs and some larger breeds, Fithian said, "maybe people will never set foot in a pet shop."
The little breed has gotten big Hollywood play of late with starring roles in "Legally Blond" and Beverly Hills Chihuahua." And, let's not forget Paris Hilton's favorite fashion accessory. All that publicity - not to mention the foreclosure crisis - has added up to a flood of unwanted chihuahuas and and an increase in backyard breeders.
Fithian said Los Angeles Animal Services euthanizes 4,700 chihuahuas each year. "It's a crisis," said Fithian. "It's close to the situation with pit bulls in shelters."
Fithian hopes to organize another airlift next month. She said she would like to find a way to bring dogs to Philadelphia but has not found a partner shelter yet.
Adopters can take heart that they are saving two lives with every fee, says Fithian. "They are not just saving one dog, they are saving two," she said.