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'The Puppy Was Stone Cold Dead': Inside the Cruel Black Market for Designer Dogs

What's more lucrative—and cuter—than selling drugs? Selling pedigree puppies on the black market. We investigate the £100 million underground dog smuggling trade.

by Kate Lloyd
Oct 12 2016, 1:25pm

All photos by Christopher Bethell

It was the dead Cavalier King Charles spaniel found in the boot of Grace Banks' white Mercedes that gave her away. The 29-year-old from Oldham, Greater Manchester was at the center of one of the biggest police investigations into the puppy black market in the UK when police searched her house in 2015. A modern day Cruella de Vil, she was ultimately charged with failure to protect more than 1,000 dogs from pain, suffering, injury, or disease.

Banks and her two accomplices, Peter Jones and Julian King, made more than a million pounds selling sick puppies to unwitting customers. They'd rent posh houses for buyers to view the puppies in and have a burner phone for every breed. They'd even show the buyers a photograph of the "mommy" dog in a pink heart frame. In actual fact, the puppies they were selling were smuggled in via weekly deliveries from farms in Ireland and kept in buckets at a holding space in Stockport. There, RSPCA investigators found four dead Yorkshire terrier puppies; the remains of one had been discarded in a pen with a live dog.

"Despite us intervening with the police on numerous occasions, the gang would just continue selling," says RSPCA chief investigator Ian Briggs, who pursued the criminals for four years. "It's because the money these people are making is immense."

The Greater Manchester case isn't a one off. Pet owners' insatiable desire for designer puppies like pugs, bulldogs, and French bulldogs is driving a £100 million puppy black market in the UK. There aren't enough of the popular pups being born here every year, so people turn to online classifieds sites like Gumtree, where they can buy a dog instantly. In fact, animal charities like Dog's Trust say 82 percent of dogs smuggled into the UK are these Instagram-friendly designer breeds.

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Buying the puppies from legitimate breeders can cost up to £2,000, but the dealers snap them up them for as little as 100 euros each in eastern Europe and Ireland. Then, they sell them on—without the correct jabs, paperwork, or microchips—for around £450. More prestigious breeds like French bulldogs can fetch up to £1,000, and dealers can easily make £100,000 per year.

Experts have described puppy dealing as drug dealing without the legal risks: It is just as profitable as slinging Class As, but the maximum animal welfare charge in the UK is just six months. It's no wonder British police believe that there were up to 100 criminal gangs working as "puppy cartels" in 2015.

Smuggled puppies caught at the border are kept at a quarantine center in Dover. All photos by Christopher Bethell

"They just make as much money as possible knowing that what they're doing causes suffering," Briggs says. "The last thing they want to do is spend money on dogs that are just transiting through their hands—and that's ultimately their weakness. The dogs fall sick and get reported."

Take Rachel's puppy, Storm. The 26-year-old sales assistant from Northern Ireland bought the terrier cross on Gumtree, then found herself picking it up from the back of a run down van. "The mom was skinny and flea-bitten and the puppies were in this rusty cage that looked like it had been pulled out of a skip," she says. "The first one we picked up was wheezing really badly and had very runny eyes. I was just like, 'We need to take one and go.'"

Once home, Rachel took the dog—which who turned out to be just four weeks old—to a vet for a check-up. She was told that the puppy had bowed legs because of malnutrition, but that it was otherwise healthy. The next day, things took a turn for the worse.

"She was really sleepy," says Rachel. "She wasn't eating very much and then on the Monday she started being really sick. I found her hiding behind the sofa, peeing herself because all her organs were shutting down. She was crying awfully in pain. Then on Tuesday morning I went to check on her and she was stone cold dead."

Storm had picked up a parasite from her mom; it had hatched in her stomach and killed her. She lasted just five days after Rachel had bought her.

82 percent of dogs smuggled into the UK are designer breeds like dachshund.

Gumtree says that the site takes animal welfare and the safety of pets rehomed via the site very seriously. "As well as the RSPCA and DEFRA, we work with Pets Advertising Advisory Group (PAAG) and comply with all of their industry-endorsed standards to improve animal welfare in an ecommerce environment," said a spokesperson for the classifieds website. "In this instance our advice would be to not carry on with the purchase and instead report the advertiser to the RSPCA and Gumtree."

While Rachel drove for two hours to collect Storm from a service station on the edge of southern Ireland, some unlucky puppies spend up to 40 hours being smuggled into the UK from countries like Ireland, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Paula Boydon, the veterinary director of the Dogs Trust, says that the spike in the number of illegal puppies coming into the UK is an indirect result of a change in legislation. Before 2012, you couldn't bring a dog that was any younger than six months old into the UK; they had to have had their rabies jab at 12 weeks old, and the blood tests to prove it. It meant that smugglers didn't bother to try and bring dogs in: Customers aren't interested in buying older dogs, as they are harder to train and not as cute.

A Dogs Trust employee at the Dover quarantine center.

Now you can bring up to five 15-week-old puppies under the guise of non-commercial purposes, and you don't need a blood test to prove they've had their rabies jab. It means that smugglers often falsify papers or use those from older dogs to bring puppies as young as six weeks old into the county.

Smugglers may hide even more animals in boots and under car seats. "There was a case in Holyhead in Wales with a van arriving at the port from Ireland with a false partition behind the driver's seat, and behind [it] there were 23 puppies," says the RSPCA chief investigator Ian Briggs. "The partition didn't quite fit, so a customs officer saw a puppy poking its nose through and called us in."

At the port town of Dover, the Dogs Trust has seen Yorkshire terrier puppies crammed into a tiny cardboard box full of urine-sodden bedding. The animal charity also says it has seen a car stopped with four bulldog puppies on the backseat—and an extra ten hidden in the boot. Investigators say that these dogs are often not allowed to eat or drink to keep mess to a minimum. In summer and winter, extreme temperatures can cause them to die en route.

This epic journey usually comes after weeks of maltreatment at puppy farms. After a two-year investigation into the conditions of breeding facilities in Lithuania and Hungary, Boydon says that dogs are bred in "dirty and overcrowded" areas, with vets falsifying information for the pups.

French bulldogs are one of the most trafficked breeds in the UK.

"We saw one group of puppies in a cupboard under a stairway, so the only time they saw the light of day was when someone opened the door," she says. "Plus, when they looked at the breeding history of the dogs, farmers were breeding brothers and sisters."

The charity also found that the dogs from these farms were often unvaccinated against diseases. Experts say that these puppies subsequently face real health risks and often die within weeks of their purchase from parasites and diseases.

Plus, incestuous breeding means that many of the dogs suffer genetic conditions. Dogs Trust employee Rebecca Thomas says that she has seen pugs and French bulldogs with an eye condition called "cherry eyes," where their inner eye ducts bulges out. In one case, she saw a tear duct so deformed that it covered most of the eye, effectively blinding the dog.

Sick puppies are something that staff at the quarantine centre in Dover knows only too well. The holding center keeps dogs that are brought into the UK illegally, and those without the right jabs or paperwork. Since black market pups are usually never picked bak up by their smugglers, the quarantine center recently started working with the Dogs Trust to rehome these animals, with the charity funding vaccinations, accommodation, and medical bills. It's a reaction to increasing numbers of puppies getting smuggled into the country. In fact, this summer the quarantine centre reached a peak of 60 puppies.

When Broadly visited the shelter in September, we met two dachshund puppies named Teeny and Tiny from a puppy farm in Latvia. They were both smuggled into the UK when they were still small enough to hold in one hand. Without rabies vaccinations, they weren't allowed to leave their kennel for five weeks, and they were initially so shy that they would hide from staff at the back of their cage.

This dachshund was smuggled into the UK from a puppy farm in Latvia.

"It's really, really traumatic what they've been through," says Rebecca Thomas. She and her habituation team help to rehabilitate puppies while they're in quarantine. They try to play with the dogs for an hour or so every day, disinfecting themselves on the way in and out of their kennels. "If they've come from a puppy farm, their exposure to people and other animals in limited, meaning kennel staff and new situations seem scary to them. The reward you get from seeing the puppies progress from fear to sitting playing with toys is huge."

Despite the trauma suffered by the dogs, charges for puppy dealers remain minimal. None of the owners of the quarantined dogs I saw have faced charges, and those that do face animal welfare sentences. "They'll only do three months," says Briggs from the RSPCA."It's no deterrent to these people. It's just a brief pause in their trading so they'll just carry on doing it."

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Instead, he says, the RSPCA has started charging criminals with fraud for pretending that sick, puppy farmed dogs are family bred pedigree, as this offence can hold a maximum sentence of ten years.

As for Grace Banks, she was sentenced to a total of just five months when she first went to trial in 2015 for mistreating puppies. The sentence was so undeterring that she was caught selling puppies again by the time she was on bail. Back in court this summer, she was found guilty of animal cruelty again as well as fraud, and was hit with a nine-month prison sentence and a "gangster tax" on £505,000 of profits. As of June this year, however, she had only paid back £9,000.

With the stakes so low and the profit margins so high, it's hard to imagine the puppy black market waning until our obsession with designer puppies fades, too.