"A big part of my life disappeared that day"

Every year, thousands of pets are stolen in the UK. Most never make it home

24th October 2018

There’s no real way of impressing upon someone who has never had one, the bond between person and pet. Truly, to know the love of a pet is to know true love. Be it dog, horse, cat or other, the bonds we form with our animal companions are often as strong as — if not stronger than — those we do with other humans.

For most pet owners, the thought of losing an animal is unbearable. Sadly, it’s also part of the experience. Most animals live much shorter lives than humans, so owners inevitably live to see their beloved companion succumb to illness, injury or old age. Parting with a pet in this way is doubtless painful, but manageable. Somewhere, deep down, we know that the day will come and, as long as we have the opportunity to say goodbye, we are prepared.

But what happens when we don’t get this closure? What happens when a pet is taken and we don’t know where they are, what has happened to them or even if they’re still alive? Do the microchips we’re legally obliged to have fitted into our animals mean that we’re near-instantly reunited? Does law enforcement instantly kick into action and bring our furry loved ones home? Do those responsible receive the appropriate punishment for what is, in many cases, akin to the kidnapping of a family member?

Every year, hundreds upon thousands of pet owners experience this nightmare scenario and are dismayed by the answers to these questions.

On the rise

Though figures are difficult to be certain of due to discrepancies in the way that data is recorded, pet theft is on the rise. According to analysis by Direct Line Pet Insurance, dog theft has risen by 22% in the last three years, with an average of five dogs being stolen every day in 2017. Mostly, the dogs targeted are small or toy breeds, but in recent years there’s been a noticeable rise in the theft of a few larger breeds, like Huskies and Labradors.

dogs stolen

Cat theft is also on the rise, having increased by 40% in just two years. Though police figures suggest that the numbers involved are less significant than that of dogs — 261 cats were reported stolen in 2016 — Direct Line’s analysis shows that as many as 360,000 individuals believe they had a cat stolen, last year.

The figures are patchy, but one thing is relatively certain: very few animals that are stolen or lost are reunited with owners. As few as 20% of dogs and 18% of cats ever make it home.

Clooney

Toni was pottering around her rural Norfolk home one morning, her handful of Siamese cats never far from sight. A van pulled into the driveway to deliver a parcel, and stayed there for some time. It wasn’t long afterwards that Toni noticed that one of her treasured cats, Clooney, was missing.

Clooney was more-or-less a house cat; a big modern Siamese with especially eye-catching features, who spent most of his days lounging around the house or cuddled up in a basket with his sister. He’d been neutered — Toni is quick to say she’s not a breeder and her pets are not products — but, it can be difficult to tell from a distance. Toni had always been concerned that given his striking features and the value of Siamese cats, Clooney might be a target of pet theft for the purpose of breeding.

“It always worried me. He was a big boy. Very striking, very angular face. He was everything you’d probably want in a Siamese to breed.”

Clooney Clarke still missing

Though the thought crossed her mind, Toni began by ticking off the other possibilities first.

In the days and weeks following his disappearance, Toni walked for miles looking for Clooney. She printed off and put up dozens of posters, and slipped leaflets through letterboxes within an ever-increasing radius. With the other options exhausted, the only remaining explanation was that the courier driver had taken Clooney.

Toni contacted the courier company multiple times, and after a complicated and drawn-out process was basically told, “The driver says he didn’t do it, so that’s that.” Having had further run-ins with the same driver, and based on a number of factors, Toni believes that this driver took her beloved feline. But, options for recourse are almost non-existent.

I don’t care about the money. I want my animal back

The police, according to Toni, were of only a little more help than the courier company.

“[The police] didn’t take it seriously. We have a crime reference number now, which was only given to me when I got a phone call from someone saying they had Clooney and they wanted money. It turned out to be a hoax, but that was the only time they were interested in investigating this as a crime — when someone tried to extort money. But, I don’t care about the money. I want my animal back. They don’t seem to understand that to us, they’re a very valuable member of the family.”

So, Toni’s pet was missing and presumed by her to be stolen. The courier company wouldn’t investigate and the police, for whatever reason, couldn’t either. But, Clooney had been micro-chipped, posters were up and people in the area were on the lookout for any sign of him. For a while, Toni was still relatively hopeful. But, in the five years since Clooney was taken, she’s come to realise that despite what she thought about the processes in place to reunite stolen or missing pets with their owners, the chances are slim.

I really believed in the system, but it’s only when something happens that you see the problems

“I’ve been horrified by the reality of this. There’s no cohesion in the system, at all. The reason these animals aren’t coming back, it seems to me, is that you have a very small window of opportunity and a lot of it is down to the actual scenario. But, I had a micro-chipped animal in a very remote area, who would never have left us for anything in the world — he had everything he needed here — so, why does the microchip not bring him home?”

In the five long years since Clooney has disappeared, Toni has made it her mission to find out the answer to this question. Not just in hope of reuniting with Clooney, but also saving other people from experiencing what she has.

“I’ve got so involved. You’re tenacious when you love something, and I need to know what happened to him. I really believed in the [micro-chipping] system, but it’s only when something happens that you see the problems.”

I don’t know where he is, so I don’t know if he is still suffering

The first of which, she realised, was that vets don’t typically scan and check their databases when they’re brought a new animal to register. Scanning is a two-part process, so even if a vet does scan an animal, all that will come up is a bar code specific to that animal. To match this to an owner, a vet has to take this barcode and check it with one of a number of separate databases.

What this means in practice, is that when pets are stolen to be resold on as pets, the buyers — usually in good faith — bring their new animal to a vet to be registered and present it as their own animal, and the vet typically won’t scan and check to see if it’s already registered to someone else.

“Road cleansing teams also aren’t scanning — unless [your pet] is found on some big highway, ordinary councils can decide whether they want to scan. It’s absolutely incredible to think that your animal might have been chucked in a freezer for seven days and then sent to landfill, or just mass-cremated. That’s your family member. To not have that closure is to be in the situation I am, which is non-stop emotional trauma because I can’t move on from it. I don’t know where he is, so I don’t know if he is still suffering. And that — the narrative in my head — is torturous.”

Angel

Dawn has been left wondering about the fate of her beloved dog, Angel, for almost six years now. She spoke to The Overtake about the day Angel was taken.

“I was doing my normal daily routine, walk-wise, in an area I had walked in daily for nearly 20 years. All the dogs had been walked for over an hour, and I was putting the other dogs in the car. Angel was barking excitedly around the car, as she knew we were going to be doing a bit of training just me and her.

“I locked the car up and looked for Angel but she wasn’t there.

“I assumed she had already gone into the field where we’d normally train, but she wasn’t there. I walked back towards the car and saw a transit van turning away. I never thought anything of it and continued to look for Angel. It was as simple as that. The whole thing took about a minute.”

Like Toni, Dawn struggled to come to terms with this loss. As is the case for so many of us whose lives have been blessed by animal companions, Angel was much more than a pet to Dawn, and having no idea of her fate has been incredibly difficult.

“It has been like losing my best friend. We did everything together. My days, weeks, months, were planned around doing activities with Angel. A big part of my life disappeared that day, with no explanation, no clues — nothing. The sadness it made me feel was unbearable at times.”

The police officer assigned just wanted it cleared off his books

Dawn’s experience with the police, at least formally, mirrors that of many others who experience pet theft.

“I had very little help from the police. They were not interested in a missing dog. Friends who were police officers tried to help and gave me advice, but as for the officer assigned, he just wanted it cleared off his books.

Like Toni, Dawn was totally dismayed to discover the lack of processes that are in place for when a pet is stolen.

Angel

“There is no process in place to try reunite stolen pets. The only help I found was other dog lovers — people who want to help because they understand the pain this type of loss causes.”

This is the position so many find themselves in, without any official avenues to go down — finding some solace in a kind of community which has emerged online. In recent years, social media has become an invaluable tool for those looking to reunite with stolen or lost pets, and there are hundreds upon thousands of pages set up by distressed owners with desperate requests for information. There are also a number of organisations, like Stolen and Missing Pets UK and Missing Pets GB, which collate and share information on missing animals, hoping to utilise a broader reach to reunite pets and rightful owners.

Though there are some success stories, these are the exception. Like Dawn and Toni, most are left to deal with their loss with little support and little hope of ever finding out what happened to their pets.

The law

Dr Daniel Allen is an animal geographer at Keele University and associate member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (APGAW). He’s also involved in lobbying the government for significant changes to the laws around pet theft and how they’re enforced. He explains the nature of the law, as it stands:

“Under the Theft Act 1968, stolen pets are regarded as chattel or property. The theft of a Labrador, for example, is treated in the same way as the theft of a laptop. As well as being wrong, this has implications on enforcement and prosecutions. Courts rely on sentencing guidelines to identify the category of offence and available sentence for offenders. Under current guidelines, the monetary value of pets is also taken into consideration. Basically, the hands of the sentencing court are being tied by being prescriptive over value. Where the theft of a family pet is involved, monetary value is irrelevant and should be disregarded.”

The impact of these lax laws — and their patchy enforcement — is not only that those who are caught aren’t punished sufficiently, but that given the lucrative nature of many types of pet theft, the potential risk is far outweighed by the reward.

The encouraging news is that pet theft reform can be achieved by making minor revisions to existing legislation. These include reclassifying pet theft as a specific crime with its own set of sentencing guidelines and reviewing these so that the monetary value of a pet is no longer the main factor in determining the punishment of an offender. This would recognise the reality of pet theft and the damage it causes; that pets are not merely possessions which can be replaced.

The petition to “reclassify the theft of a pet to a specific crime in its own right” gained 107,353 signatures and was debated in parliament on 2 July. Despite cross-party support, George Eustice MP concluded the government was “not convinced for change”. The Sentencing Council, which is independent of the government, has also refused to amend its guidelines to make appropriate and adequate sentences available.

While lots of work has been done to raise awareness of pet theft and prevent others from suffering, for those who have had pets stolen, it will take a very long time before they’re able to move on.

24th October 2018