15 Chihuahuas Get Free Flight on Virgin America

The overpopulation of Chihuahuas in California is forcing shelters to look east.

January 6, 2010, 11:42 AM

Jan. 6, 2010— -- A Virgin America flight today from San Francisco to New today included 15 very special -- and adorable -- passengers: Chihuahuas that aren't wanted in California but are in high demand in New York.

The San Francisco-based airline is flying the 15 dogs across the country as part of an effort to ease California's massive overpopulation of Chihuahuas. Luckily for the dogs, they are in high demand on the East Coast. Virgin America donated space on its flight this morning to transport the dogs from San Francisco Animal Care and Control to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City.

The 15 dogs -- with names including Maximus, Jeb, Bella, Collette, Malibu, Annie, Sherlock, Honey and Tina -- can be viewed on the San Francisco pet organization's Web site.

The airline used the opportunity to maximize its free publicity, announcing the dogs will travel in "high-style" with a red carpet departure from San Francisco and a chance to ride in carriers in the plane's regular passenger cabin. The flight is complete with champagne cocktail "Chi-mosas" and cupcakes for the human passengers, and doggie treats and toys for the Chihuahuas.

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Over the past year, California shelters have seen a dramatic influx in Chihuahuas, with the tiny pups making up more than 30 percent of the shelter dog population. While demand for them has declined in much of the sunny state, their popularity in New York City is as high as ever.

This is not the first time such dogs have made the transcontinental journey.

"Grey's Anatomy" actress Katherine Heigl's foundation has been paying to transport the dogs to the East Coast through a program called Project Flying Chihuahua.

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Last month, a group of 25 Chihuahuas arrived at the Humane Society for Greater Nashua in New Hampshire, thanks to Heigl, Kinder4Rescue in Studio City, Calif., and American Airlines.

The Nashua shelter found homes for the first 25, and, with a waiting list of 100 additional people, another 43 dogs were quickly sent out to New Hampshire.

Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA adoption center in New York, said the demand shift from one coast to another is "an interesting phenomenon." Some people have attributed it to a copycat syndrome, in which people in California initially wanted Chihuahuas because of celebrities like Paris Hilton and blockbuster films that featured the dogs including "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" and "Legally Blonde."

But Buchwald thinks there are other causes.

"I suspect that there's been a proliferation of backyard breeders," she said. Additionally, Buchwald said the housing crisis in California has forced many people to give up their homes and at the same time give up their pets.

So why the demand in New York?

It's a vertical city, she said, with limited living space. That makes it ideal for smaller pets, Buchwald said, adding that Chihuahua's can be trained to use pee pads in an apartment.

"We've never been able to really satisfy the demand for small dogs here in New York City and the Northeast," she said, adding that air transit is the biggest obstacle to filling that demand.

"We're pleased to help San Francisco Animal Care and Control fly these little guys out to the East Coast so they can be placed in adoptive homes," Ross Bonanno, vice president of airports and guest services at Virgin America said in a statement.

Dozens of dogs have also been sent by Oakland Animal Services to nearby states like Washington, Oregon and Arizona, but most of them were delivered by SUV because there wasn't enough money to fly the dogs to more distant states.

The Chihuahuas transported on today's Virgin flight will be available for viewing beginning Jan. 13. Fees for adoption, which cover medical expenses, vaccinations and spaying or neutering, range from $75 to $200. For more information call: 212-876-7700, extension 3210.

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