Britain is in the throes of a huge dognapping crime wave
By WILLIAM BOOTH | The Washington Post | Published: April 2, 2021
LONDON — Tilly was snatched from her bed. Moet was nabbed from her home. Angel plucked from her garden.
A former boxer fought off a thief with a knife who tried to boost Rosie the collie. A maltipoo named Nala disappeared, as if from a TV thriller, along with her dog walker's van. A pair of guileless labs, named Denzel and Welly, were led away from an upscale market. The surveillance camera footage made the evening news. So did their rescue this past week.
Britain is in the throes of a huge dognapping crime wave. This is extremely distressing, in this nation of animal lovers, another emotional lashing in a strange and terrible year.
The humane societies and rescue charities in Britain say they have never seen anything like it. Animal welfare investigators — pet detectives, really — blame the pandemic. The demand for dogs is massive, but there are so few for sale or adoption. So crime bosses are now puppy brokers.
In the United States, the most famous recent case involved Lady Gaga's French bulldogs, Koji and Gustav, stolen from her dog walker, Ryan Fischer, who was shot during the dog robbery in West Hollywood.
In Britain, the problem has risen to the level of senior government officials. Home Secretary Priti Patel called the reported rise in pet theft "absolutely shocking." Police Minister Kit Malthouse vowed action, saying, "It's a sad fact that criminals will seek to profit by this vile crime."
Parliament is debating tougher laws, after being handed not one but two petitions, with hundreds of thousands of signatures, urging authorities to make dog theft a serious offense, punishable by eight years in prison and $7,500 in fines.
Currently, English law treats dogs as property, with punishment commensurate with the value of the object. In practice, that makes a dog's value equal to a stolen microwave, TV set or mobile phone — a few hundred dollars or less. Petitioners want this to change — to make the offense more akin to the kidnapping of a member of the family.
There's some hysteria in all this, of course, stoked by the tabloid newspapers and goaded by social media rumor. Not every missing dog has been purloined by fiends.
But the Brits love their dogs — and their dogs are getting nicked.
"It's the worst I've ever seen, and I've been in the field for 35 years," said Wayne May, police liaison with Dog Lost, Britain's largest lost-and-found dog service.
May said thefts reported to his organization have increased 250 percent, year-on-year.
"That's over 400 cases, just in England, just reported to us," he said. "This isn't a dog that's run off; this is a reported case of theft."
Investigators talk about the emergence of a new "puppy mafia." They say some of the same traffickers who usually deal in the prostitution, drugs and gun sales have turned to Labradoodles, unscrupulously exploiting the exploding demand.
"The cost of a puppy has considerably increased over the past year, making this a lucrative market for organized criminals to exploit," said Amanda Blakeman, the National Police Chiefs' Council lead for acquisitive crime.
Britain is only beginning to stagger out of its third national coronavirus lockdown, and the months of shut-in life under strict stay-at-home orders have made many people hungry for the (mostly) unconditional love of four-legged companions (who need lots of walks and food).
A dog that would normally cost $500 is now $2,500 or more — if you can find one. Even rescue shelters are out of mutts. An Internet search for available dogs for adoption in the London area showed only a few dogs here and there. Brits looking for companions have started rescuing dogs from abroad.
"Prices for puppies have gone through the roof," said Jacob Lloyd, senior investigator for Animal Protection Services. He described a new "Wild West" of dog wheeling and dealing.
"I blame society, too," he said. "People don't want to wait. They want a dog, and they want a dog now."
And so organized criminals have stepped into the void.
Investigators describe a sophisticated chain of criminality, from opportunistic theft to puppy mills to shady sales.
First, thieves target gettable pets, especially fecund females. Most are stolen from cars, yards, outside stores and kennels.
May said a typical case might involve a small breeder who advertised on the Internet for puppies for sale at her home; a scout might take a look at the mom and pups, but case the place for entry and exit; and thieves return later.
May said he "did not want to be a scaremonger" and stressed that it was "very rare" for a dognapper to accost an owner while out on a walk with a dog. But it has happened.
Former amateur boxer James Cosens says he fought off two snatchers, one with a knife, who tried to grab his 20-week-old collie, Rosie.
Cosens told Wales Online: "In order to get away safely, the only thing I felt I could do is hit first to try and have the element of surprise. The first punch I threw managed to floor the man holding Rosie, but he still had a tight grip on her, so the altercation moved onto the floor."
When thieves manage to escape with dogs, they tend to quickly sell the males. The females they send to illegal breeding farms, which operate far outside the norms of the Kennel Club. One such operation was discovered by police who arrived on the scene with warrants to look for guns, not dogs.
James Perry, a lawyer who prosecutes dognapping in British courts, said police "have only just woken up to the importance of these cases."
He pointed to recent raids at illegal kennels housing as many as 80 dogs, many suspected as stolen.
Perry said a litter of a half-dozen pups could yield 10,000 pounds (nearly $14,000).
He pointed out that a mobile phone stolen from a house might be worth only a few dollars, but the right dog could fetch thousands on the black or gray markets.
After a litter is born, the offspring are often sold via a sketchy sales force operating out of parking lots and rental homes. The sellers display a kindhearted face to con emotional buyers to pay thousands of pounds for pedigree breeds, designer mixes or mutts.
"No papers, no shots record, nothing, and they pay 3,000 pounds [more than $4,000] in a parking lot for a sick puppy," said Lloyd, of Animal Protection Services.
He noted that British law requires puppies to be first seen with their mothers, microchipped and accompanied by paperwork from licensed operators. The chips can be removed via crude surgery, or crimped by pair of pliers, or disabled by the use of powerful magnets.
Jon Gaunt is a gamekeeper at a pheasant hunting and equestrian estate in southern England. In May, thieves deployed hydraulic cutters to snap his locks, entered his dog kennels and stole three of his springer spaniels.
Authorities later found one running loose. Gaunt suspects the dog was dumped. Another is still missing. But the third turned up, he said, in a police raid in September at a site occupied by travelers, sometimes called gypsies or Roma, where 46 dogs were found, plus puppies. Several arrests were made.
What people — and police and Parliament — don't seem to understand, Gaunt said, is that a litter of puppies now is worth a few kilos of cocaine. But for their owners, the loss of a treasured pet is far more painful than having to replace a stolen big-screen TV.
"They're not stealing your mobile phone, they're stealing a member of the family," Gaunt said. When some lowlife leans over your garden wall and takes your dog, he added, "they're taking much more than a thing."