A Puppy’s Journey

A case study of a multi-agency ‘sting’ tackling illegal importation of puppies

This is Hugo

He was rescued during the multi-agency operation

Read on to find out what happened to him

In Wales we are a nation that loves animals, in fact 47 percent of homes here have a pet and of those, 62 percent have a dog. That’s dogs of all shapes, sizes, breeds and mixes. But do we know where all these dogs come from? Wales has sometimes had a reputation as the 'puppy farming' capital of the UK, a label which the Welsh Government has worked to overcome by introducing much stricter licensing laws. Not all puppies come from these licensed premises though.

Not all puppies come from these licensed premises though, many come from small hobby breeders or sadly irresponsible owners. Increasingly the RSPCA is concerned about the numbers of puppies being trafficked into the UK from all over Europe – and, in particular, from Ireland.

The extent of the legal puppy trade from both Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland, into mainland Britain is already well-documented and was, as recently as 2010, estimated to be between €400 and €500 million a year, according to Canine Breeders Ireland.

Following a number of incidents of illegally imported puppies often with poor welfare conditions from Ireland into Welsh ports, the RSPCA appealed to all partner agencies to join forces to examine the extent of the issue.

Existing joint operations were already held throughout England, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales under the banner of ‘Operation Delphin’, involving DSPCA, ISPCA, RSPCA, SSPCA, Police and Border Force. In 2016, the RSPCA invited additional partners: the Welsh Government, local authorities, HMRC and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) to join in a large-scale operation covering the ports of Dublin, Liverpool, Pembroke, Fishguard and Holyhead. This report focusses on the sting at Holyhead – a busy ferry port second only to Dover in the UK.

The shocking extent of illegal puppy smuggling was highlighted one cold night on the North Wales coast when Operation Delphin partners gathered to catch puppy traffickers red-handed.

During the Operation a large number of animals came through Anglesey Port including pets, imported birds, and equines. Many of these were checked and their welfare was not found to be in any jeopardy, although advice was issued where required. There is perhaps a larger legitimate movement of animals between Ireland and Wales than most people might be aware of.

But Delphin was looking specifically for puppies. These poor young animals are taken from their mother, usually at too young an age, and transported in wholly inadequate conditions, for the purposes of profit by heartless puppy traffickers. From a legal point of view, disease control regulations, designed to protect us from serious diseases such as rabies, will undoubtedly be flouted by these networks of criminals trafficking puppies. This crucially allows for other avenues for enforcement and prosecution.

On one night alone, and in two illegal consignments on two separate ferries arriving at Holyhead from Dublin, a staggering 96 puppies were seized following intelligence-based information leading to specific vehicles being flagged.

The conditions these poor pups were being transported in were horrendous. The vans were not ventilated. Food and water were not provided, and the conditions were filthy. Most pups were estimated to be just six or seven weeks old. The conditions would have been truly terrifying for them.

Attempts had been made to conceal the puppies in both incidents with one transporting them behind a false wall of wood shavings, but they failed to fool the experienced RSPCA officers.

"Sadly, to unscrupulous dealers, these young pups are nothing more than a cash bonanza – and dealers would have been targeting tens of thousands of pounds from these shipments. This is another shocking example of people being readily prepared to act illegally and compromise the welfare of defenceless animals to make a quick buck – but, fortunately, they were stopped in their tracks."
Ian Briggs, RSPCA Special Operations Unit

As a result of the Operation it was possible to proceed with a prosecution against one individual for illegal importation. Ynys Mon Council, empowered to enforce this area of legislation, led on the prosecution.

The man – who sought to smuggle 35 of the pups into the UK on just that one night – was handed a suspended prison sentence.  This amounted to three 18-week prison sentences, running concurrently, and suspended for one year. He was also ordered to do 200 hours of unpaid work, handed four fines totalling £1,600 and told to pay costs of £1198.98, plus a £115 victim surcharge. We fear this is not likely to act as any deterrent whatsoever considering the huge profits the network of puppy traffickers make each week.

"This prosecution makes an important statement that agencies will not standby when unscrupulous puppy dealers seek to make a quick buck while subjecting innocent, defenceless puppies to misery."
Ian Briggs, RSPCA Special Operations Unit

Action could not be taken forward against the driver of the other vehicle as he was a Republic of Ireland national.

"We will not tolerate people who flaunt the law to engage in this illicit trade. It is unacceptable that profit is put before the welfare of animals, and we will continue to work with our partner agencies to bring offenders before the courts. Operations of this nature require significant resources and rescuing these animals begs the question how big is this problem? Certainly, it's very possible smugglers could be attempting to bring thousands of helpless young puppies into the country in such circumstances emphasising the importance of enforcement bodies being given the support to tackle this depressing, illegal trade."
Ynys Mon Council Chief Public Protection Officer, David Riley

Understandably there was an overwhelming public reaction to the Operation, and deep interest in the welfare of the 96 puppies seized.

It was clear by this reaction that many people were unaware of the extent of puppy trafficking from Ireland to Wales and indeed what life could be like for each of these little puppies. It brought shock to otherwise innocent dog owners, who may, for the first time have questioned where they got their own puppy from.

In addition to newspaper and website coverage there were a number of high-profile broadcast interviews and footage shown on BBC TV News, ITV’s Good Morning Britain, BBC’s Watchdog, and a special BBC Three documentary, with radio coverage across the UK including BBC Radio Five Live and local TV and radio.

There was a massive social media reaction – exceeding 250,000 on RSPCA Cymru's Facebook channel alone, with a reach of 200,000 from the RSPCA's England & Wales Facebook page; ensuring a huge, short-term awareness boost for the issue of illegal puppy importation.

This was a golden opportunity to convey the message that purchasing a puppy in the UK is fraught with difficulties. There is a lot of criminal activity in breeding dogs, from the local irresponsible breeder who has no idea how to provide for the puppies in their care, to the criminal networks making huge profits by trafficking puppies in from Ireland and the rest of continental Europe.

A real-life example of the complexity and breadth of one puppy trading investigation

A real-life example of the complexity and breadth of one puppy trading investigation

A real-life example of the complexity and breadth of one puppy trading investigation

This intelligence-led operation demonstrated the scale of illegal transportation, the complexity of the trade, and the role of Organised Criminal Groups in using puppies, and abusing their welfare, to rake in murky profits.

Additional days and nights of the Operation yielded little and thus it was temporarily suspended when it was revealed that word had quickly reached the criminal fraternity that there was additional surveillance at the ports. But time has passed and smaller versions of Operation Delphin have continued. It’s not possible for all the participating agencies to redirect crucial resources on a weekly basis however and inevitably this means that there could be hundreds of puppies being imported to the UK through Wales, every week.

So it is crucial that the public understand the scale of the problem and remain vigilant to unscrupulous puppy breeders and traffickers. When purchasing a puppy it is important to do a lot of research and use a puppy contract to determine the right way to go about it and also not discount the hundreds of dogs in pounds and rescue centres across the country, patiently waiting for their forever home.

"It's clear that Operation Delphin activities have sent shockwaves through the illegal puppy smuggling community. There's a strong belief that many who were intending to attempt to smuggle puppies from the Republic of Ireland into the UK changed their plans after reading about the rescue of the 96 - highlighting how operations of this nature can act as a deterrent to further crime. Yet the best way to end this vile trade is for the public to better understand where puppies may have stemmed from, and to not fuel the profits of these cruel puppy traffickers"
Claire Lawson, RSPCA Cymru

Whilst the media coverage of this ground-breaking Operation inevitably died down following the Operation it is paramount that attention is kept focussed on this issue. Consumers, perhaps, possess the only true way to stop these criminals and protect these dogs.

"There is concern from many police forces about how criminals are seeking to make money from illegal and inappropriate puppy importation ... the recent activity does demonstrate the scale of the problem."
Gareth Pritchard, Deputy Chief Constable of North Wales Police and NPCC Lead for Dangerous Dogs and Companion Animals.

As part of the investigation all 96 puppies were signed over into RSPCA Cymru care, which was important to ensure their immediate welfare. Then once they had each received a thorough veterinary check, because they were in breach of rabies regulations, they were returned to the Republic of Ireland. All 96 puppies went into the care of DSPCA in order that homes could quickly be found for them.

Despite the horrendous conditions in which the puppies were carted into the UK, thankfully all bar one survived. The efforts of the Operation led to the remaining 95 puppies being happily rehomed – a far cry from the horrendous conditions they were subjected to by smugglers; uncovered on that cold night at Holyhead port.

"The reaction to these poor pups on their return to Irish shores was quite simply phenomenal. There was a huge interest in their difficult journey, and the circumstances behind their remarkable rescue and the huge number of agencies all working together to make this happen. Fortunately, thanks to these combined efforts, all but one of the pups survived with all of the other 95 happily re-homed. Each now has their own amazing story with a new family; rescued and rehomed by organisations who care deeply for animals; and not wicked puppy smugglers only seeking another illegal payday. The DSPCA was so pleased to play a key role in this operation, including sharing vital intelligence with partner agencies across the Irish Sea, which led to the seizure of these poor, mistreated pups; thanks in no small part to our close working relationship with Police and customs staff in Dublin."
Brian Gillen, Chief Executive, DSPCA