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From Fresno With Love: Valley Chihuahuas Welcomed In Midwest

Kerry Klein
Poochini is one of about 1,400 dogs who's made the journey from Fresno to the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area.

Animal shelters in the San Joaquin Valley are inundated every year with thousands of rescued dogs, cats and even pigs. But what happens to the animals that no one seems to want? While some shelters may euthanize, others go to great lengths to keep them alive. One group of animal rescuers has found a creative solution to a supply and demand problem.

It’s almost 11 p.m. in an industrial zone of south Fresno. A small back lot near Highway 99 is dark except for the headlights of a van with tinted windows. Hooded figures load up the van with plastic crates. One opens the door to survey the cargo.

“Hello everybody,” she shouts, as dozens of tiny tails wag against their crates and excited barking fills the air. “The condo is ready!”

Brenda Mitchell is co-founder of Animal Compassion Team in Fresno, and she’s here with a troop of other animal shelter workers. Their cargo? Chihuahuas. They’re rescues, strays and fosters being sent off to a new life.

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
Every six weeks or so, Brenda Mitchell and other volunteers load up a van in Fresno with a few dozen chihuahuas for an early-morning flight out of San Francisco.

“We have Lisa, Flower, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Poochini...” says Mitchell, reading their names off a roster. “That’s all of them.”

Out of the thousands of animals rescued in the Fresno area each year, says Mitchell, chihuahuas wind up staying in shelters longer than practically any other breed.

“They’re not getting adopted here,” she says. “It’s one of the hardest breeds that we have to find homes for here in the Valley. Pit bulls and chihuahuas.”

So this late-night maneuvering is her solution. The dogs are being packed up and driven to San Francisco for an early-morning flight. It’s part of an ongoing program that transports unclaimed chihuahuas out of the Valley and into areas where tiny dogs are in short supply. In four years, the program has relocated over 1,400 Fresno chihuahuas. It’s a sum that wasn’t easy to reach—because their new homes are in Minnesota.

“It’s quite a production to load up 40 chihuahuas and fly them across the country,” Mitchell says, “but it’s always wonderful to load em up and see em go and then to see the happy faces on the other end from the wonderful people there.”

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
Veterinarians Cindy Karsten, left, and Christy Camblor evaluate the chihuahuas in Fresno shelters and choose which will make the journey to the Midwest.

A shipment of around 40 chihuahuas goes out every six weeks or so. Before the dogs fly, veterinarians like Cindy Karsten from UC Davis travel to Fresno to evaluate the dogs’ temperaments and medical conditions.

“For these guys, the biggest things are their teeth, heart murmurs, knees, eyes,” she says. “We’ve got a lot of eye issues this trip.”

Karsten thought of the idea for this program when she was working in the area a few years ago.

“The whole reason it started is because I was at Clovis, and they had some chihuahuas that have been here over a year, and I was like, ‘this is insane,’” she says.

She's from the Midwest and she knows how much people there want tiny dogs. So she founded this program with the non-profit group Compassion Without Borders. They coordinate the flights and raise the money to make it all happen. It’s cheaper than you might think—costs only include gas to and from the airport and around $60 for each dog to fly in cargo. All the labor is done by volunteers.

“It's worth it to us, you know,” Karsten says. “I love it.”

Credit Animal Humane Society
Animal Humane Society
In 2014, about 75 California chihuahuas and their families showed up at a Chihuahua “reunion” at an Animal Humane Society shelter in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

Once the dogs reach the Midwest, Sally Thornton says Minnesotans are just clamoring for them. Thornton is with the Animal Humane Society, which distributes the arrivals to five shelters in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. She says, for most of their animals, it takes around 10-12 days to be adopted.

“But when the California chihuahuas get to the adoption floor, I would say most of the time they're adopted within a few hours to about 3 days,” she says.

And they go home with owners like the Ludwigs.

Credit Analise Ludwig
Saint Paul, Minn. resident Nic Ludwig and his family have adopted three California chihuahuas—Pico, Lovella and Sally T.

“This is Señor Pico, this is Lovella, and this is Sally T. She was the thousandth Chihuahua that was adopted,” says Analise Ludwig, pointing during a Skype call to three tiny dogs snuggling with her on a blanket—something she says they love to do.

She and her husband Nic have two kids and three California chihuahuas. Ludwig says they fell so in love with their first, Pico, that they stalked the Animal Humane Society’s website for new arrivals and decided to bring home two more.

“[Nic] was even given the job of standing outside the humane society on a blistering cold day to make sure that we were the first people to get an opportunity to adopt Sally T because I had already fallen in love with her,” says Ludwig.

Brenda Mitchell and the other Fresno volunteers say knowing the dogs are going to good homes is what helps them say goodbye. And besides, by that point, it’s already time to rescue the next wave of chihuahuas.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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