LONG BEACH, California - Blame it on Paris Hilton: the craze for owning small dogs as fashion accessories has led to an explosion in the number of chihuahuas in Los Angeles, where tiny canines are everywhere.
But now an animal-friendly philanthropist has come to their rescue, organizing an airlift of diminutive pooches abandoned by impatient owners in California -- jetting them off by private plane to Canada, of all places.
"In Los Angeles, in particular, we have an overpopulation of small dogs, many of them Chihuahuas because people think that having a small dog is easy to maintain in a home," said organizer Madeline Bernstein.
The phenomenon has increased after films like Legally Blonde and Beverly Hills Chihuahua adds Bernstein of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (spcaLA).
To make it worse, "a significant number of young celebrities like Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, they started to get out with these little dogs like accessories," she told AFP.
"The problem is, they are not accessories, they are dogs. They poop, pee and you should take care of them, ... and young people want them as if they were a nice bag, then they get tired ... and leave the dogs in the streets or shelters."
There are estimated to be more than 60,000 Chihuahuas in Los Angeles, where newcomers are often shocked at the luxuries afforded to the miniature hounds, often petted over like babies in the street or in cafes and bars.
Owners can choose from a seemingly endless range of dog spas, boutiques and even schools of canine yoga for their tiny charges -- although the costs involved may possibly help explain why so many are being abandoned.
Whatever the reasons, animal lovers are determined to rescue those that they can from a sad and lonely life in a shelter in California.
That's why on Friday Bernstein and a group of other dog-lovers took action, strapping some 60 dogs in for a three-hour "Air Chihuahua" flight from Long Beach, California, to Edmonton, Canada.
Candy, Kobe, Sadie, Winnie, Taylor and Troudy were among those heading for a new life further north, a long way from the heat of California, and even further from the northern Mexican province from which they get their name.
The spcaLA has been organizing Air Chihuahua flights since December 2009, to destinations including Colorado, Houston and Florida. But Friday's 40,000 dollar operation was the first international airlift.
Jan Folk, a Canadian businesswoman and philanthropist who owns the plane, said that in southern California animal rescue centers deal with large volume of strays admitted every day.
"They feel that they would have no other choice but to eventually euthanize the dogs if they were not transferred," she lamented to AFP on the tarmac in Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles.
In Edmonton, "more people are willing to wait for the California dogs because they know that many ... may come from puppy mills or brokers where they often live in horrible conditions," she added.
"The small breed dogs are in such demand that most were adopted within two or three weeks of arriving in Edmonton. In fact, there was a line of potential adopters at the Edmonton shelter waiting for the dogs to arrive!" she said.
Image: Luca Predellini / via Flickr