Los Angeles is cracking down on illegal animal sales. Thousands are sold on downtown streets every year. Recently, an ordinance went into effect that raises fines on the buyers, but curtailing this underground economy will not be easy.
Behind the wheel of an undercover car, LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith admits the nickname Dr. Dolittle isn't the toughest moniker a cop could have.
"But I guess it fit OK, and I didn't really mind," he says.
Over the years, Smith became well-known for having a soft spot for the tossed away animals found on L.A.'s downtown streets — its fashion district sitting at the heart of the illegal animal sales.
Amid an open-air bazaar of fake Gucci, Prada and Levi's shoppers can also find animals of all kinds: lizards, snakes, rats, cats, dogs, fish, turtles, hamsters and different types of birds.
The sidewalks are overrun with bargain shoppers and merchandise that spills onto the street. And among the racks of sunglasses, sportswear and purses, the animal vendors hawk their goods.
"Unfortunately, almost all of the animals that are sold out here die in no time because of improper treatment or because they're sick or injured when they're sold," Smith says. "Or because they're too young to be away from their mother, and they die of starvation."
'One Step Closer'
A few streets away, a man is standing behind a stack of plastic cages holding turtles and baby rabbits in the hot sun. Smith, undercover wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, approaches the man.
"How much for the rabbits?" Smith asks.
"Twenty," the animal vendor says.
The man grows hesitant after Smith asks him what he feeds the rabbits and quickly backs away while signaling two other men who then sweep in, grab the cages and disappear into the crowd.
"What they'll do is they'll stash the rabbits somewhere in the back — behind a store, behind a counter, in the trunk of a car and wait until we're gone," Smith says.
He says the sellers work in teams with lookouts in Santee Alley. And many store owners work with the animal vendors.
"Right next to a pair of Levi's they'll have six little baby birds that they're selling," he says.
Vendors who sell these animals face just a $25 fine. L.A.'s new ordinance targets the buyer, with a $250 fine for the first citation and $500 for a second offense.
"I think everything we do gets us one step closer to where these animals aren't being mistreated and aren't dying here on the streets," Smith says.
As the day draws to a close, the animal vendors start making a hasty departure from Santee Alley. However, Smith spots the rabbit seller, who starts to scurry around the back while someone else goes over to put the animals in a plastic bag.
Smith waves down an LAPD officer on a bike, but the officers know to give chase now could put the throngs of shoppers at risk.
The man had already tossed two cages into the street: The turtles that are desperately paddling the walls of their plastic cages will be turned over to L.A.'s Department of Animal Services.