THOMASTON, Maine — Thirteen Chihuahuas found their way from sunny Los Angeles to Knox County late Thursday night, and by Friday morning prospective owners were cuddling the little pooches, each person trying to pick which one might fit into their home the best.
The transfers are a result of a new program that was started to make sure dogs find homes — wherever they may be in the nation — rather than stay in shelters or be euthanized.
The Humane Society of Knox County may have three dogs in its kennels in any given month. LA Animal Services, on the other hand, which sent the dogs to Thomaston, sees about 5,000 pets per month. More than 300 of those dogs are Chihuahuas.
The new program, “Many Happy Returns,” helps connect shelters that have a hard time getting Chihuahuas with places such as LA Animal Services.
The puppy transplants to Thomaston are the first. The Humane Society of Knox County will charge $325 for each dog, not the typical $250 fee. The extra money goes back to the Los Angeles program.
Chihuahua overpopulation is the result of movies such as “Legally Blonde” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and Paris Hilton toting about her dog, said Kathy Davis, interim general manager of LA Animal Services.
“We had a lot of people who had to come right out and get one,” Davis said in a phone interview Friday.
“When people realize it’s a lifetime commitment they rushed into too quickly, we end up with them, and it’s really unfortunate.”
“We have more applications than dogs already,” Humane Society of Knox County executive director Tracy Sala said Thursday morning. “That was without advertising. Totally word of mouth.”
Sala wasn’t surprised when a waiting list started for the next batch of California dogs.
“Rarely are [small dogs] here more than a week. That would be shocking,” Sala said. “We actually have a waiting list of people who are looking for small dogs.”
Bigger dogs can live in the Thomaston kennels for months, but tiny dogs are in high demand. Sala said small dogs are attractive to midcoast families with apartments and people who travel frequently.
Some preapproved applicants showed up Friday morning to see the prospective dogs. Although the number of applications exceeded the number of available dogs, the shelter, by law, must keep the dogs for two days.
In that time, the shelter will examine the Chihuahuas medically and behaviorally.
But first, the dogs got a night’s sleep in their concrete-floored kennels. It was a daylong trip Thursday for the 13 dogs.
Each one has a distinct look. Some have longer hair, some have fawn-long legs. Some were black, others had beaglelike coloring and a few had the camel coloring the breed is known for. Volunteers drove a white van to Logan airport in Boston to pick the dogs up. By 9 p.m. Thursday, volunteers unloaded them, crate by crate.
“It was extremely easy. The little dogs are just marvelous,” said volunteer Lauri Martin, who made the trip to Boston. “There was only one or two that had a problem. They pooped in the crate.”
Aside from a couple of accidents, the move was uneventful.
The shelter has moved dogs in from other places before. The Humane Society of Knox County has taken dogs from other parts of the state, but only once in recent history has it taken animals from other parts of the country.
After Hurricane Katrina, volunteers went to Louisiana to help displaced pets. This time, the shelter checked with other Maine shelters and decided the dog adoptions occur steadily enough to import out-of-state dogs.
Sala said there also are benefits to the shelter.
“These small dogs will get people into an animal shelter to adopt an animal, which they might not have done without the program,” she said. “There are millions of animals in animal shelters who need a home. Even if they don’t get a Chihuahua, they might see a cat they like. They might see Maddy,” Sala said, pointing out a young female dog that has lived at the shelter for more than a year.
Sala was unsure if the shelter would make a profit from the dogs. If it does, that money will go toward spaying and neutering other dogs and cats in the shelter.
“Generally speaking, on every adoption, we lose money,” Sala said.
This program might be different though because one reason the shelter loses money on adoptions is because of the length of time the animals have to be cared for by the nonprofit. The Chihuahuas probably won’t last more than a few days in the shelter’s care.
The Many Happy Returns program is the brainchild of Marge Fithian of Philadelphia. She and her mother were watching the news when they saw a similar project happening in New York City. Fithian saw hundreds of people waiting in line for the dogs. Many of them were turned away. The worst part, Fithian said, was that the program stopped after one shipment.
“I thought it’s a shame because it’s very unusual to have dogs that are wanted, but we can’t get them where they need to be. It’s frustrating to know that these dogs are being euthanized when there are other people in the U.S. who want them,” Fithian said in a phone interview. “The air fees are not that expensive, if we could get the adoption end to pay a little extra to keep it going. This is the pilot launch.”
Fithian’s mother gave the program $1,100 for the shipment of the dogs. Now the program will run off increased adoption fees.
“When they adopt the dog they won’t just be saving one life, they’ll be saving two,” Fithian said. “The money is sent back to L.A. to buy a boarding pass for the next Chihuahua out.”
Sala said the Thomaston shelter was interested in this program because of its sustainability. She hopes the Thomaston shelter will continue with the program. The shelter has started a list of people who would want a Chihuahua in case there is a future shipment.
“I hope this is a start to something that is very long-lasting,” Sala said.
By late Friday afternoon, eight of the dogs had been adopted, according to Sala. She expected the rest to have new homes by Sunday.