Neil Mackay’s Big Read: The inside story on how organised crime gangs took over Scotland’s illegal trade in puppies

IT’S little wonder that organised crime has moved in on Scotland’s dog trade. Just look at how the price of a puppy has changed in only a few decades. Back in the mid 90s, a pedigree puppy cost around £50, before Covid the price had risen to about £800. Today, it’s around £2000-3000. A kilo of street cocaine comes in at around £40,000 – that’s roughly the price of 10 high-end French bulldog pups. Why deal in drugs when you can deal in dogs?

Investigators from the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA), which polices the dog trade, told the Herald on Sunday that organised crime was now heavily involved in puppy farms because of the huge amounts of money to be made and the ease with which cash can be laundered. Puppies are now part of a portfolio for gangsters alongside drugs, guns and prostitution. The illegal puppy trade in Scotland alone is today “a multi-million pound industry” riddled with violent criminals. Thousands of puppies are dying in Scotland each year due to the trade.

The story of organised crime and Scotland’s dog trade is a complex one spanning Scotland, England, Ireland and the continent. It also involves a shadowy relationship between legal breeders and illegal dealers. The consequences though are plain: animals suffer, dog owners are exploited and sold sick and dying pups, and criminals earn fortunes. The penalties, however, for illegally trading dogs are derisory.

GANGSTERS
Mike Flynn is the SSPCA’s chief superintendent, in charge of all operations against the illegal dog trade. “Organised crime gangs,” says Flynn, “have thought ‘wait a minute if you’re caught with £20,000 worth of drugs you’re going to jail, but if you’re caught with £20,000 worth of pups you’re getting a £500 fine.

“The penalties are so low compared to the profits being so high. A lot of people who were involved in drug dealing have just gone ‘I can get the exact same profit here’.” Organised crime gangs have also incorporated their tactics as drug dealers into the illegal puppy trade. “A lot are now using burner phones,” says Flynn – untraceable pay-as-you-go mobiles.

“They’ll sell half a dozen pups, then the sim goes, so nobody can trace them – 99 times out of 100 it’s a cash buy, they don’t want cheques or anything that can be traced. You’d be amazed at the amount of people handing over thousands of pounds in supermarket car parks and then realising they’ve been duped and the pup is ill.”

THE AIRBNB SCAM
Gangs are also renting properties from companies like Airbnb so they can pretend to be reputable breeders and dealers. Customers come to the fake home, buy a pup, and later discover – when the animal falls sick – that the gang has moved and can’t be traced. “In the last three months, we’ve been catching people hiring houses,” says Flynn. “They pitch up for three or four days then disappear.”

Since Covid the black market in puppies has boomed. “Back in February before Covid pedigree French bulldogs cost £750-1000, now it’s £3500-4000 – and a lot of them are badly bred,” says Flynn.

Operation Delphin has been set up – involving the SSPCA and its sister organisations in England and Northern Ireland as well as local councils and ports – to combat the illegal trade.

THE IRISH CONNECTION
Many of the puppy farms feeding the Scottish market are found in Ireland. Some, says Flynn, are huge operations – like “aircraft hangers”. There’s only a few illegal puppy farms located in Scotland. Most here have been closed down by the SSPCA. The ones still operating are small-time and hard to locate as they’re hidden away in the countryside.

While some Irish puppy farms are illegal, many are legal. Irish farmers were encouraged historically by the European Union to diversify and many used grants to switch to puppy farming. However, even the legal farms often breach regulations and welfare rules. One farm which said it had ‘400 breeding bitches’ actually had 800. It’s dog breeding on an industrial scale.

“It’s more like factory farming,” says Flynn. Often the first time a puppy “gets physically handled by a human,” says Flynn, “is when they’re getting taken away from their mother. They get no socialisation whatsoever.”

HOW THE TRADE WORKS
Broadly the trade works like this: dealers cross back and forward between Scotland and Ireland. Dogs are bought from both legal and illegal farms in Ireland and shipped here. Often there’s breaches of welfare legislation as the animals are being mistreated and not properly cared for; there can also be breaches of transportation laws, which cover issues like pet passports, microchipping and vaccinations, and breaches of laws around the trade in dogs through unlicensed dealers. There’s a smaller trade going on that’s linked to the continent, mostly involving ‘rescue dogs’ from Romania and Spain. Puppies also transit through Scotland from Ireland to England.

Prices in the Scottish and English puppy markets are out of control. Search online for a puppy for sale in Glasgow and you’ll see prices at the lower end of the market like £2000-2500 for Labrador retrievers, Shih Tzus, Shar-Peis, Bichon Frises and English Bull Terriers.

Prior to Covid, Flynn says, a litter of West Highland terriers could be bought in Ireland for around 100 euros each and sold in Scotland for about £750 per dog. Today, the price is £2500.

SICKNESS AND DEATH
Often the dogs are riddled with disease, particularly the deadly Parvo virus. “You get your pup on Monday morning,” says Flynn, “but the incubation period is five to seven days. By Friday night the dog starts being incredibly unwell.” When new owners realise their dog is sick it’s already too late, and they have to pay for the animal to be put to sleep.

One woman spent £3500 on a French bulldog pup and ended up paying more than £4500 in vet fees. The last bill was to put the dog down. It lived for four and half months.

Unlicensed breeders and dealers are often trading dogs with dreadful genetic conditions. All dogs with ‘snub faces’ – like pugs and bulldogs – “have problems”, says Flynn, “but if they’re badly bred, problems you’d normally see at seven or eight years old, they’re getting at eight months”.

One puppy was so badly bred, says Flynn, “it took five steps and collapsed, it couldn’t breathe. It had to be put to sleep.” Much of the puppy trade is a “con”, says Flynn. “You’re paying to watch a pup die.”

BIG MONEY
Covid and furlough created a perfect storm. With most people at home, many families decided to buy a dog. The laws of supply and demand saw prices inflate at an extraordinary rate. As lockdown eases, the SSPCA fears there’ll be a flood of abandoned dogs as people return to work. The spike in demand, and the huge profits to be made, ramped up the number of criminals moving into the puppy market.

Two men involved in the illegal puppy trade, says Flynn, hired boats to smuggle dogs from Ireland to Scotland in order to avoid port authorities at Cairnryan. “They died in the process,” says Flynn. “When they were fished out one had £17,000 in his wet suit. That would have translated into over £100,000 worth of pups coming back.”

In one case, a rogue dealer made more than £1million selling puppies in just 18 months. However, he was only fined £2000. HMRC came for him, though, and hit him for nearly £200,000 in unpaid tax. “That’s what put him out of business,” says Flynn, adding: “Where’s the deterrent, it’s just farcical.” HMRC now has its own specialised taskforce for the puppy trade.

THE CONS
Transportation rules are pretty lax. Anyone travelling with dogs needs a permit only if they’re moving more than five pups per person per journey. “So two people can go over [to Ireland] and bring back 10 pups – that’s not classed as commercial,” Flynn says. Those ten pups could net between £25,000-30,000. Gangs pose as families of four so they can take 20 dogs in vans without being troubled by restrictions.

Covid has also made ‘cons’ easy, says Flynn. Although the SSPCA advises everyone to ‘adopt rather than buy’ – meaning potential dog owners should source animals through organisations like The Dogs’ Trust or SSPCA shelters – anyone who buys from a breeder should go to their premises and make sure they see puppies with their mothers to guarantee that the animals have been bred in good conditions.

With Covid, rogue traders are now asking customers to meet them in places like car parks – even though publicly trading dogs is illegal. There’s also a spike in ‘pet fishing’ where someone sees a dog for sale online, calls a mobile number and is told it’s the last puppy available but the animal will be held if they pay £500. They never see the money again.

Similarly, other criminals advertise non-existent dogs at bargain basement prices and rob people of deposit money. If you see a pup like a Golden Retriever, Flynn warns, advertised at £650 “it’s fake – you couldn’t buy a one legged mongrel for £650 these days”.

In Scotland, anyone breeding five or more litters of pups a year has to be licensed and their premises inspected. Each dog can only have one litter a year. Only 20 breeders are currently on the SSPCA’s assured breeders scheme. From September laws will tighten and breeders will have to be licensed if they sell more than two litters a year. The law will also ban third party selling – so the public will have to go direct to a licensed breeder rather than a dealer in order to drive down the sale of illegally imported dogs from puppy farms.

THE MILLION POUND DOG
Dog rescue centres “are bursting at the seams”. However, rescue dogs aren’t in demand. It’s the dogs owned by the rich and famous – like French bulldogs or American Bullies – which many people want. American Bullies can sell for up to £40,000. The highest price ever paid was £1 million.

SSPCA staff are astonished at the market in dogs like Cockapoos and Labradoodles. “They’re mongrels – crossbreeds – with fancy names,” says Flynn. One Pomeranian-Siberian Husky cross sold for £4000. A few decades ago, mongrels sold for just a few pounds. Many crossbreeds have health problems.

There’s also been an upsurge in importations of dogs from Romania and so-called ‘kill shelters’ in countries like Spain, sold by bogus charities for ‘donations’ of around £500. Although, there’s legitimate charities too. “Some of the dogs are basically feral,” says Flynn. “They’ve lived on the street, get rounded up, and you pay £500. The poor thing is wired to the moon and it’s in your house.”

MUTILATION AND KIDNAPPING
Ear cropping is also part of the service from organised crime gangs in the dog trade. It’s illegal in the UK, but there’s a trend now for dogs like American Bullies to come with cropped ears. Ear cropping is legal in the US and in some European countries, so gangs fake documentation that the animals are imported. The SSPCA wants a total ban on the importation of “mutilated dogs” to end the trade.

Ear cropping kits can be bought online for £15. Sometimes dealers use street ketamine to sedate dogs before ear cropping. An average American Bully with uncropped ears costs around £3000. With cropped ears the price doubles to £6000.

Due to the exorbitant price of puppies, kidnapping is also now a problem. Flynn recounts one case where a family had their house broken into and were threatened with knives because a gang wanted their bull terrier pups. 

Puppies are “now part of the pie”, says Flynn, for gangsters, alongside other illegal rackets like drugs, guns and prostitution. Flynn thinks the puppy market is crazy in terms of pricing, but it’s not the money which concerns him. “If you’re making £2m selling pups, I don’t care as long as you’re selling well bred, perfectly healthy and socialised pups that are going to have a lovely life. But that’s not the people we’re dealing with – and there’s hundreds of them.”

THE UNDERCOVER OFFICER
Anne – an undercover officer with the SSPCA’s Special Investigations Unit who needs to remain anonymous to protect her identity – has infiltrated puppy farms and illegal dealer rings. She says the worst Irish puppy farms are “production lines. You’ve got a small kennel area for a whelping female that has automatic feeders and water dispensers. The dogs just have a heat lamp on them, they’re not looked at more than once a week, and not cleaned out, they’re never walked. The bitches are just breeding machines”.

She said breeding dogs were “living in faecal matter, with urine scalds, their teeth are broken … If there’s an eye infection they won’t treat that as let’s face it that doesn’t stop them having a pup … Pups are ripped away before they’re even weaned.” 

Anne described horrific cases of pups so infested with worms they died. Such practices, she adds, would clearly be illegal in Scotland. She said welfare issues affected both legal and illegal puppy farms in Ireland. According to Anne, “thousands” of puppies from puppy farms die in Scotland each year alone.

Prices are vastly different in Ireland, she says. “If you try and sell anyone in Ireland a Jack Russell for more than £150 they’ll tell you to jog on. People in mainland UK are being stupid.”

She says in a sane market a pedigree dog that’s registered with the Kennel Club should cost no more than “in the high hundreds”. Instead, “it’s a multi-million pound industry” for rogue dealers in Scotland. One dog with a large litter of ten ‘trendy’ pups banks dealers £30,000.

With limits on the number of dogs which can be transported, illegal dealers secrete pups in vehicles. Some are bringing more than 100 pups to Scotland each week. One ring of puppy traders from Ireland bought a house in Ayrshire as a front but Anne’s team prevented them getting a licence.

MURDER AND MAYHEM
The criminal records of illegal dealers speaks volumes. “When we look at their criminal histories for court reports,” says Anne, “we’re like, woah – it’s drug dealing, violent crime, assault to severe injury, offensive weapons, attempted murder. They’re so heavily involved in criminality.”

It’s an “every day occurrence”, she says, to learn of drug dealers moving into the dog trade. One “massive drug dealer” who got involved in the dog trade has recently “disappeared out of Scotland and is now in Portugal,” Anne says.

RISK OF RABIES
Anne is worried that the trade in dogs from the continent comes with the risk of importing diseases. “There’s concern that we’re going to get rabies,” she says. Some dogs aren’t vaccinated even though they’re said to be, others have fake vaccination documents or have been injected with ineffective vaccines.

One Romanian charity which posed as a dog rescue centre was found in “horrific” circumstances when investigated, Anne said. “There were dead dogs lying everywhere.”

PUBLIC RESPONSIBILITY
She despairs at the public’s lack of care – and wishes people would see reason and stop paying exorbitant prices which drive the illegal trade. Anne tells of families who buy dogs knowing they’re from illegal dealers.

“What chance have we got when the public do this? … The onus has to lie with the public, they need to take responsibility. They’re buying pups that they know have possibly come from a puppy farm but they don’t care as all they think is ‘I’ve got my cute pup’, but they’re contributing to the illegal puppy trade and to the massive suffering of animals, and until the public are more responsible then it’ll always happen and nothing will stop it. It’s just profit over welfare.”

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