Operation Chihuahua Transports West Coast Rescues to East Coast Homes

by Jill L. Ferguson

Two cartoon Chihuahuas wearing festive sweaters stared bug-eyed through airplane windows on the computer screen. “Help Tiny Dogs. Score Tiny Fares,” the caption said. The email was about “Operation Chihuahua” airlift, an annual migration of overpopulated West Coast Chihuahuas to new adoptive owners in New York City.

But those little dogs reminded me of ancient folklore: a Chihuahua in your dreams meant someone was trying to get your attention in an unusual way. Was this Virgin America and San Francisco Animal Care and Control’s intent? To get my attention? The email also informed me that I could take 30 percent off my ticket price and $10 from my ticket purchase would be donated to San Francisco-based Virgin America’s three animal shelter partners, San Francisco Animal Care, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and Animal Haven

Since 2010, Virgin America has flown more than 100 dogs to their Big Apple homes as part of Operation Chihuahua. Patricia Condon, Virgin America head of PR and Events, said that in November 2016, the airline partnered again with San Francisco Animal Care and Control “to fly needy pups to new homes” and to draw attention to the overpopulation issue through the media campaign named #TinyDogsTinyFares.

The 22 sweater-wearing dogs kicked off their journeys with VIP treatment—

water, doggie treats, plenty of carry on toys, and lots of love from fellow airport passengers—in the San Francisco International Airport departure lounge before being accompanied onto the plane by Virgin America teammates who volunteered their time for the cause and tracked their journey to Newark Liberty International Airport in real time (thanks to Virgin America’s inflight Wi-Fi) on the airline’s Instagram and Twitter accounts. The airline even made a video of the pups so people could get to know them.

Upon arrival at Newark Liberty International Airport, the dogs were met by staff from the ASPCA® and Animal Haven, who took them for behavioral and medical evaluations before helping them find their forever-homes.

“The ASPCA is dedicated to ending animal homelessness nationwide, so we were thrilled to move this group of animals from San Francisco to New York, which improved their chances for adoption into safe and loving homes,” says Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA Adoption Center. Interested adopters are encouraged to visit the ASPCA website to learn about all of the available animals, including the date of when the Chihuahuas will be available.

The adoption process at ASPCA starts with looking at animal photos and bios online, followed by calling the center or visiting the adoption center in Manhattan in person. Potential adopters must be 21 years of age or older, present a valid government-issued photo ID, and provide at least one reference. An adopter survey must be filled out and fees to adopt the dogs may tally up to $250. 

Deb Campbell, spokesperson for San Francisco Animal Care and Control, explains the process of how the Chihuahuas are chosen for their cross-country flights. “We always have a surplus,” she says. Virgin America tells the SFACC how many animals it wants to transport. Photos and information about the available animals that fit the size requirements—Virgin flies all dogs in cabin so they must be “under the seat size” per FAA requirements—are sent to Animal Haven and the ASPCA, who then choose which ones they want.

Campbell says, “The ASPCA is awesome. They take medical cases that we do not have the money to help or to provide surgery for. And the first few years we did this, it was so gratifying to see photos of people lined up outside the ASPCA and Animal Haven, awaiting the arrival of the Chihuahuas. Now people realize they have to wait for the Chihuahuas to be evaluated before they can be adopted.”

One such lucky Chihuahua last year was Simon, a three-year-old male, who was made available for adoption at the ASPCA Adoption Center, where he met an ASPCA volunteer. Simon now lives in New York City with that volunteer (his mom), and he now has two dog sistersa Beagle and a Chihuahua.

In November 2016, charity and fare sale promotion raised $50,000 in cash and $25,000 in in-kind donations, according to Abby Lunardini, vice president of brand marketing and communications at Virgin America.

According to Virginia Donohue, director of the City of San Francisco Animal Care and Control, “With California having a major overpopulation of Chihuahuas, this partnership has continued to help us in our mission to find families for these animals in need . . . . Commitment to community is a part of the Virgin’s brand DNA.”

Last year, in addition to flying the dogs free of charge to their new homes, Virgin donated $10,000 to SFACC in a special opening pitch ceremony during a San Francisco Giants game at AT&T Park in August. Four Chihuahuas—Bubble, Squeak, Cookie, and Snicklefritz—were escorted onto the field in front of adoring fans.

For 2017, the future of Operation Chihuahua is unknown. Condon said that they do not yet have confirmed flights for this year. “We frequently develop plans for the flight only later in the year.” But they will continue their support of SFACC this year with a $20,000 donation.

Campbell says they love working with Virgin America, and Operation Chihuahua is “near and dear to our hearts. It’s a happy, happy thing for us.” But sadness entered Campbell’s voice when she added that SFACC’s list of adoptable dogs is almost all Chihuahua and Chihuahua mixes. “It almost always is.”

If you are interested in adopting a West Coast Chihuahua, you can visit SFACC’s website.