The silver-gray Volkswagen van stands a little way away from the entrance to the car park, next to the bustling market in the Polish town of Slubice. The driver opens the back door of the vehicle. His cargo requires some fresh air. It's whimpering.
Inside the van, there are cages stuffed with dogs. A litter of tiny Yorkshire terriers rub against each other, young attack dogs peer out between the bars of their cage and two husky puppies perch in their own feces.
The driver, a Polish man, doesn't speak much German. At least, he doesn't speak much German when his clientele question him about the ages, origins or vaccinations of his cargo. Instead he shrugs and pulls out a packet of animal passports, certificates required in the European Union for pets crossing borders. They are obviously forged.
Nonetheless, many customers who cross the border from the German city of Frankfurt an der Oder to the neighboring Polish town of Slubice looking for a canine bargain, prefer to ignore all that. The puppies are simply too cute, the empathy the customers have for the caged creatures is too great and the price is too tempting. Pedigree dogs may cost hundreds of euros from reliable dog breeders, but here you can get a trendy breed of dog for between €35 ($42) and €50 ($60).
Black Market in Puppies Worth Millions
Anyone taking up that offer, though, will not only be the proud owner of a new pooch, but also a victim of the Eastern European puppy mafia. In Poland, Hungary, Romania and Ukraine, dogs are being produced for the Western European market on a grand scale -- and in pitiful conditions. Fed on trash and crammed into dirty kennels, the bitches must give birth twice a year until they become infertile. The puppies are taken to market far too early and are often only four weeks old when they leave their mothers. Small wonder, then, that they have weak immune systems and sometimes suffer from behavioral disorders.
"The puppy trade has become a business worth millions," says Birgitt Thiesmann of the international animal charity Four Paws, which has nine offices in Europe. For years, animal welfare activists have been watching the black market for imported dogs grow. The Internet has accelerated the trade. There, the dogs are presented as if they were coming from responsible dog breeders.
The problem is so big that several animal welfare organizations -- European Animal and Nature Protection (ETN), TASSO and the League against Animal Abuse (BMT) -- have named 2010 the year "against the dubious puppy trade." The groups want to clarify exactly what goes on inside the business and thereby reduce the demand on the part of bargain-hunting German dog lovers.
Buy the Dog, Get the Diarrhea Free
The suffering of the animals is considerable. Because of the high costs involved, they are neither de-wormed nor vaccinated. They are taken illegally across borders in the trunks of cars without any of the EU-required documentation -- neither the EU animal passports nor certifications of vaccination nor electronic microchip implants for identification.
Should an illegal dog shipment be discovered, confiscation and a fine are the worst punishments that can be expected, as animals are currently covered by the legislation regarding the movement of objects. Additionally, inspectors are often happy to look the other way. The animal shelters that would have to take the confiscated animals in, would not be able to cope with the onslaught of homeless creatures.
Nobody has any real interest in halting this lucrative business. Estimates suggest that Germans spend around €5 billion a year on keeping their pet dogs. But Germans who buy illegal dogs often only find out just how expensive their supposed bargain will be when they get their new darling home and he or she promptly vomits on the carpet. Illegally imported dogs often come with a range of ailments, including diarrhea, canine distemper, canine parvovirus (a highly infectious virus which causes vomiting or cardiovascular failure in puppies), kennel cough (a sort of highly infectious dog bronchitis) and inflammation of the liver.
Owner Had to Watch Her New Dog Die
The results can be traumatic. Sandra Meier, from the region of Danndorf in the German state of Lower Saxony, had to watch her pug Maja die an agonizing death over the space of several days. Meier had initially found the black bitch online at a German trading site similar to Ebay. The seller had acted as though he was a breeder and because the price of €590 seemed right, Meier's suspicions were not aroused. Neither did she become suspicious when the seller suggested meeting at the train station because his address -- so he said -- did not show up on vehicle navigational systems.
When they met, he pulled the dog out of a box, took the money and rushed off. Neither a sales contract nor a certificate of vaccination was exchanged. Later on, Meier found out that the man had given her a false name and that his mobile phone number had since been canceled. The seller also turned out to be known for selling a variety of dog breeds from neighboring Poland.
Once at home, Meier's new dog became weaker after just a few hours, suffering from diarrhea and vomiting. Sadly, the dog could not be saved. She died after four days.
Meier decided to look for another dog, locally this time. She saw a golden retriever advertised in a newspaper, also apparently by a breeder. She bought the dog, vaccinated and de-wormed, for €990. But this time she wanted the dog's papers too. That cost her another €220. And when the pedigree papers arrived two weeks later, Meier thought they were a bad joke: The documents were decorated with kitsch comic drawings of dogs, the names of the dog's parents were fictional and the issuing association did not exist.
The Need for Caution
"We have confirmed that more and more Germans are getting mixed up in the puppy trade," Four Paws' Birgitt Thiesmann explains. Dealers and private individuals out to make money are going to Poland or to the dog market in the Hungarian town of Monor, stocking up on puppies and then selling them back home, passing themselves off as genuine dog breeders. The only way to prevent the rogue trade in dogs would be to enact stronger controls and harsher punishments. But until now there does not seem to be the political will in the EU to make this happen.
Currently, the only thing that dog lovers can do when they are buying a puppy is to exercise caution. Animal welfare organizations recommend that a buyer visit a puppy several times before it leaves its mother and insist on seeing its parents. Additionally, any seller offering several different breeds should be considered suspicious. And buyers should absolutely avoid purchasing a dog just because they feel sorry for it, Thiesmann says: "By doing this, you are only spurring on the bargain-basement trade in puppies."