Teacup pups, loved by celebrities, often begin life in abusive breeding mills
The biggest shock to Dr. Robert Jiao wasn't Tinkerbell's size. He had heard of teacup puppies: cute canines bred to grow so small that they can, as the marketing gimmick goes, supposedly fit in a teacup.
No, he was aghast that a puppy as young, limp and severely ill as Tinkerbell had traveled all the way from Asia.
The fragile Maltese was just three months old in July 2013 when she showed up on his New York examination table. She had landed at a nearby airport two days earlier, after a long trip from South Korea and a brief stint with a re-seller in Texas.
Tinkerbell was lucky to survive a deadly mix of ailments, including diarrhea, intestinal parasites, an eye infection and an upper respiratory infection called "kennel cough." Matted in urine and coughing upon arrival at the airport, it was clear that something was wrong with Tinkerbell, said the new owner, 24-year-old Jillian Civitano.
Given the time typically needed for virus symptoms to appear in young pets, the veterinarian said that the sicknesses probably weren't the fault of the buyer, who had paid the online Texas merchant a puzzling $4,000 for the ailing pup.
Shocked as Jiao was, a GlobalPost investigation has discovered that Tinkerbell's travails are far from unique.
Cute but controversial, teacup puppies have found a niche among celebrities and glitterati like Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Miley Cyrus, according to one prominent seller. Not all of these miniature canines, bred to remain under 5 pounds as adults, have troubled pasts, and many are sourced domestically.
Others are shipped from abroad. South Korean sellers, working in a poorly regulated environment, have emerged as suppliers of these weak and illness-prone canines for affluent Western buyers — outraging animal rights activists in South Korea and the U.S., and at times acting in apparent violation of U.S. animal welfare law.
After asking Tinkerbell's owner to do some online research, Jiao said he was amazed that the American seller was continuing to import and re-sell the tiny pups, despite multiple consumer complaints against her.
Ashley Anderson, the Texas-based businesswoman who sold the Korean-bred Tinkerbell, responded that she had never received an official health report from the buyer's veterinarian to prove the complaint. She denied that Tinkerbell landed in New York covered in urine and dirt because, she said, her teacups are groomed before travel. (Anderson was not present at the airport during the incident.)
She asserted that she was contacted by the owner after the expiration of her company's 48-hour health guarantee, which promises buyers a replacement pet should the first one suffer from untreatable, life-threatening and congenital conditions found within two days of arrival.
She wouldn't tell GlobalPost which American veterinarian signed off on the dog's health after it was imported. (Many states require that pets being sold across state lines travel with a health certificate.) Nor did the company's vaccination record shed any light on who examined Tinkerbell.
Commerce in teacup puppies is far from transparent, and it's not clear to what extent dealers trade in poorly cared for dogs. Importers source puppies from multiple countries, and are often reluctant to reveal the names and locations of the overseas breeders and sellers. New dog owners can be unaware of the controversy, or of what the canines go through before they're purchased.
Animal rights groups and even a few Korean breeders contend that the trade should be viewed with suspicion because so many of the puppies are bred in cramped and inhumane kennels, and then shipped overseas at ages that are inappropriately young and sometimes illegal. Their miniscule size makes them more prone than other dogs to illness or death under stressful and unhygienic conditions, experts tell GlobalPost.
Multiple breeders in South Korea declined GlobalPost's requests for kennel visits. But images provided by activists appeared to confirm the allegations of mistreatment.
On a GlobalPost undercover visit to a vast puppy mill in Gimpo, northwest of Seoul, a breeder said he refuses to export "teacups," estimating that one in every three dogs dies during shipping or within a month of their arrival.
That grim stat has not deterred American importers, who openly advertise Korean pups for sale under six months old, despite legislation passed as part of the 2008 US Farm Bill that bans importing puppies under six months old for resale in the United States. Six years since the bill was passed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is still not enforcing the law. Spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa admits the USDA has not yet enacted the regulations required to implement it. She said the matter is a "priority," and the USDA is "preparing to finalize" the rule.
Squalid Korean puppy mills
South Korea is home to many largely unregulated "puppy mills," where dogs are bred in unkempt, inhumane kennels and then shipped domestically to their destinations crammed in trucks, said Borami Seo, a campaign manager for the non-profit group, Korean Animal Rights Advocates (KARA). Most pups are sold domestically in South Korea, but others make their way around the world into the hands of wealthy kennel enthusiasts.
While American breeders have entered the market, South Korean competitors have been at it for years. They have an edge at churning out petite, well-groomed pets with doll-like faces that are popular in the nation's mega-cities, where space is tight and most residents live in apartments.
On top of the geographic factors, "[Koreans] value the good looks and the appearances of the dog," says Seo, explaining why teacup puppies can be treated as prizes in the East Asian nation. So valued are these pets that one Korean veterinarian claims to have invented a special feed to give the nation's pet industry an edge: a diet that he says allowed him to raise a miniature canine that once weighed just 550 grams (about 1 pound) at nine months old. The enthusiast asserted that the dog would reach an adult weight of no more than 600 grams — tinier than the smallest dog in the world as listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. (The claim could not be confirmed.)
The pup's mothers also suffer in a way that few pet owners would countenance.
Puppy mothers crammed into cages pump out litters until their bodies wear out. Then some can be auctioned to meat dealers, who electrocute or beat them to death for restaurants and dog meat markets.
They can spend the bulk of their lives crammed into corrugated-iron cages, pumping out litters for prospective buyers until their bodies wear out, according to KARA. Before being refused access to two puppy mills in Pocheon, north of Seoul, GlobalPost witnessed several small dogs crammed in tiny outdoor pens, covered in dirt and yelping.
Multiple Korean animal rights groups have published their own undercover investigations into the country's dog trade. KARA estimates that South Korea is home to between 3,000 and 4,000 puppy mills, and that each one holds anywhere from 100 to 800 animals at a time. No official statistics are available because the government does not categorize dogs as livestock.
Some dogs too old for breeding, or that aren't sold to new owners at a young enough age, are at risk of being handed over or auctioned to dog meat dealers, who can then electrocute, hang or beat them to death to be eaten in restaurants or sold at dog markets, according to KARA.
Park Ae-kyung, secretary general of the Korean Kennel Club, a group that claims 300,000 members and represents dog show breeders and enthusiasts, would not confirm or deny the allegation when asked about the dog meat business. She added that she was not aware that the teacup puppy business still exists, but called the industry a form of "animal abuse" should the canines be bred "artificially."
Dog meat, which was prevalent as a greasy peasant dish decades ago in the then-impoverished Korean peninsula, continues to be served at specialized eateries, although it's losing popularity among Korea's younger generation.
Puppies who survive the stress and perils of breeding often end up in pet shops in Seoul and around the country. Many of these stores lack sales licenses, and illegally sell dogs under two months old, in clear violation of South Korea's animal protection regulations, Seo added.
A Korean Ministry of Agriculture spokesman told GlobalPost that while authorities have been cracking down on illicit animal sellers since 2010, no significant punishments have been doled out recently.
"Commercial breeding establishments in Korea are largely unregulated and the conditions in breeding facilities are very likely to be suboptimal," said James Serpell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school.
"To maximize production rates, puppies are weaned and removed from their mothers prematurely and this is known to be stressful," he said. "The long periods being held and transported, often with large numbers of other puppies from other litters, is also highly stressful and will expose these puppies to greater risks of infectious disease."
Puppies shipped overseas by airplane, meanwhile, are prone to hypoglycemia, a potentially deadly affliction of low blood sugar, when they go without constant supervision that includes regular, small meals, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
The U.S. puppy market
None of this has deterred a growing number of American and Korean sellers from opening shop in the West, importing teacup puppies from South Korea and re-selling them at premium prices, sometimes for high-society buyers.
Anderson, Tinkerbell's broker, has been the subject of an investigation by the Mississippi Attorney General in at least five open consumer protection cases, according to documents GlobalPost obtained under the state's Freedom of Information Act and confirmed by consumer protection official Lana Fuqua. In April 2013, Anderson settled five claims out of court for $17,000 when the Attorney General alleged that she made "false, deceptive, and misleading representations," a charge that the puppy broker continues to deny. An investigation into her former business in Mississippi is ongoing, the Attorney General's office said.
Meanwhile, there are several complaints online purporting to be from customers who allege that Anderson bilked them, claiming that they've purchased sick Korean puppies and have yet to receive any sufficient follow-up, or to reap the benefits of the contract. At least two animal advocacy groups, the Humane Society of the United States and the Companion Animal Protection Society, have received complaints about the business. (One former customer, Nicole Rockey, said she had reached an out of court settlement and signed a non-disclosure agreement. GlobalPost was unsuccessful in repeated attempts to reach other allegedly disgruntled customers.)
Responding to the complaints, Anderson said that, as with any business, a small number of unhappy customers will bring forward grievances, which are "publicized more" in these cases because of their "emotional experience." A pattern of satisfied and repeat customers will vindicate her practices, she said.
Anderson operated under a different business name, Ms. Puppy Connection, before relocating to Las Vegas in the summer of 2012, according to the state documents obtained by GlobalPost. She is now based near San Antonio, Texas, where she runs Celebrity Puppy Boutique and Boutique Teacup Puppies, a single limited liability company that uses two names.
According to her website, her customers have included socialites like Paris Hilton's mother, Kathy Hilton, along with royal families around the world. Ms. Hilton's publicist did not respond to multiple requests for comment following her January purchase of a Pomeranian listed for $9,000.
How do you know?
How do brokers ensure their Korean breeders are ethical and registered? How do they make sure the fragile pups are of legal age to be imported?
Anderson would not comment.
She told GlobalPost that she purchases from a Korean vendor named Seok Jung, who runs an Uijeongbu, South Korea-based seller called Victorypet.
Jung claimed that he is not responsible for the deaths of puppies shipped overseas, "because it is a long stressful journey for tiny dogs, between flights and cargo," he said, adding that even adult pooches at two or three years old can find the trip overwhelming.
The journey from South Korea to North America takes about 20 hours, including the time needed for driving the animals, waiting at the quarantine and flying, he said.
He added that he does not purchase any specimens from puppy mills, but makes personal visits to his selection of home-based breeders, checking on the hygiene of the grounds and then getting each puppy checked with two veterinarians in South Korea. His company reimburses overseas re-sellers should any puppies die during shipping, he claimed.
Like Anderson, other American importers of dogs from South Korea have had brushes with the law. In July 2012, California-based seller Ginger Turk was found guilty of a felony after she admitted to an investigator that she forged a veterinarian's signature on two health certificates, according to court records. Within days of being shipped to their new owners, multiple puppies imported from South Korea died of Parvo, a deadly virus typically spread through contact with feces, according to a California police report obtained by GlobalPost.
At the time, Turk's company said it was the exclusive American re-seller for the Jung Puppy Club, an online Korean retailer that claims to be the biggest company selling puppies overseas, according to its website. When asked by GlobalPost if the Korean company was responsible for deaths of dogs from Parvo, a representative from the Jung Puppy Club, Minsu Jung (who has no relation to Seok Jung or his Victorypet business), said it would be "impossible" given the strict quarantine procedure at Korean airports.
The animal seller said he has not done business with Turk in "recent years," but did not elaborate further. Turk now does business under a new company, La Chic Puppy, and also goes by the names Ginger Burritt.
The Humane Society of the United States says it has received complaints about under-aged puppy imports from multiple countries for years, especially Mexico, Russia and Hungary. "We suspect that puppies are listed as six to eight weeks when they are really only four weeks of age, because tinier puppies fetch higher prices," said Kathleen Summers, outreach and research director for the organization's puppy mills campaign.
"The importation of sick, underage puppies from other countries definitely poses a potential threat to the health of both canines and humans," she said.
On May 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a health alert on the growing number of dogs imported with inaccurate or questionable rabies vaccine certificates. That's not an entirely new observation: at Los Angeles International Airport, a team of county-employed veterinarians has found through spot-checks that 40 percent of large puppy shipments arrive with falsified paperwork, landing at younger than eight weeks old — often too young to grow teeth and receive effective vaccinations.
Sujean Park and Joonhyun Cho contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.