Monday, 14 July 2008

The Hound Snatchers

A wave of dog theft is sweeping across Britain. The lucky ones pay a ransom to get their dogs back. The less fortunate ones are dreaming of seeing their dogs again. The police don’t want to know. A cautionary tail. Ori Golan.

It was when the postman arrived that Jayne Hayes realised that something was amiss. "My five dogs all run to greet the postman when he arrives so as soon I saw that Hermie wasn’t there, I knew something was wrong."

Hermie, her miniature French Bulldog, had disappeared. "I knew immediately that she’d been stolen", recalls Hayes. "I was in total shock."

Hayes, a former air hostess, and her partner scoured the Doncaster area where they live, contacted rescue centres, called dog wardens and put up posters of Hermie.
Six weeks later, a lady who had seen the poster called to say that she had spotted Hermie among a group of Travellers. "I called the police", says Hayes, "but they said they were busy and they’d get back to me". Twelve months on, they have still not returned her call.

"The police just don’t want to get involved" she sighs. "They know what type of characters they’re dealing with. There doesn’t seem to be anyone out there in authority who wants to know," she adds, riled.

But it was not just the police. Hayes soon realised that very few organisations coordinate with one another in the search of missing dogs, and that it was hard to mobilise them to take action.
In the end, it was her partner, Tim Bristow, who decided to act. Responding to a tip-off, he caught up with the Travellers in a town centre, and when he spotted Hermie, he snatched her back from them, incurring an assault and a volley of threats in the process.

It was in the midst of their ordeal, says Hayes, that they discovered the kindness of strangers. "With other dog owners", she says, "there is such a bonding. When Hermie went missing, total strangers offered to help. They genuinely cared."

They also discovered that their ordeal was not unique.

Across Britain ruthless criminals are stealing family dogs from back gardens, public parks and unattended cars. And the figures are staggering: somewhere between 40-50,000 dogs are stolen each year. Last year, insurance companies paid up on 26,000 claims of stolen dogs, sending insurance premiums rocketing.

Stolen dogs are often sold off to unsuspecting members of the public. Hayes: "Many dog thieves are opportunistic drug addicts, looking for means to feed their habit. A guy takes the dog to the pub, someone strokes it, he says: ‘oh it’s such a shame, I’ve got to put it down’, the other person says: "oh no" and before you know it £50 have changed hands, he’s got the drug money, and the dog’s sold. It happens all the time." Other times the dogs are kept until posters offering a reward for their return appear. Increasingly, abductors are contacting the owners and demanding ransoms. And the stakes are going up all the time; ransoms in excess of £2,000 have been paid for the return of dogs.

"The victims are threatened and terrorised" explains Hayes. "All they want is to see their dog back. Often they pay the ransom late at night, in empty car parks or derelict garages."
Prompted by her own experience, Hayes set up Doglost, an online database aimed at locating lost or stolen dogs. "The people who call us are usually in shock. They are devastated, and don’t know where to start. We guide them and tell them what to do. Sometimes they are just relieved to find a sympathetic ear."

All dogs are at risk, stresses Hayes, regardless of age or breed, and the crime is sweeping across the country, although Kent, East Sussex and Surrey are the worst hit. "One in three missing dogs comes from there. The reason is evident: it has the highest density of Travellers.
A number of months ago, Kent police went on record saying that they had no dog theft problem in their area. Immediately afterwards, the local papers’ and the local police station were inundated with calls from angry owners of dogs who’ve been stolen. Two days later the police conceded that there was indeed a problem.

The idea behind Doglost is remarkably simple, and yet remarkably effective. It builds on the goodwill of the public and the vigilance of individuals. Once a report of a missing dog is logged, Doglost sends out posters and details of the missing dog to veterinary clinics, dog wardens and other dog owners within a 30 miles radius of where the dog went missing, and these are asked to look out for the stolen dog. And the public has responded to the challenge: in one week alone managed to enlist 1800 helpers on line. The results are astonishing: since its inception, Doglost has recorded 600 missing dogs, of which 360 have been recovered Hayes is buoyant:

"We want to build up an army of people out there who will keep an eye out. We tell people to plug everywhere because that makes the dog ‘hot’ and then no one can sell it. It’s too risky."
Often the dog thief would pretend that they found the dog and demand the reward. Or they’d say ‘I bought it off someone and I ‘just’ want what I paid for’. You can be sure they’re involved in the crime. Generally honest people don’t ask for a reward."

This is what happened to Ivor Hancock from South Wales. A number of months ago he and his family were attending a dog show in Doncaster, where they were showing two of their Schnauzers. When his daughter went to the family caravan, to check on the family’s other Schnauzer, Sophie, she discovered the cage had been broken into and Sophie gone.

"We scoured Doncaster and immediately launched an appeal in the media, emphasising the fact that Sophie was spayed so she was no use for breeding" remembers Hancock. "Then, two days later, we had a phone call from a man who said he had Sophie. He claimed he had bought her off someone who sold her to him for £400 and if I was willing to pay the sum, I could have her back." Hancock agreed to pay up and a meeting was set up at a football ground car park in Doncaster. He alerted the police and was put in contact with a gypsy liaison officer, who helped him coordinate the exchange, while an unmarked police car with plain clothed policemen inside was lying in wait.

"When I arrived, I rang a mobile number and the guy showed up in his car. As soon I saw that Sophie was inside, I grabbed her and gave her to my wife. At that point the policemen appeared and took the guy to the station. He was cautioned but not charged."

Jill Cook is not surprised at the police’s leniency. She maintains that when her dogs were stolen (see box) it took her two months to get a crime reference number from the police, because there were no witnesses to the crime. "There are organised criminals out there, stealing family pets and leaving families devastated and generally the police don’t care. I know of one dog owner who called the police to report his dog stolen and was asked why he didn’t just get another one."
Meanwhile, the thefts are getting bolder and more violent. In Nottingly, a nine year old boy was walking his whippet puppy when a car pulled up next him. Someone got out, punched the kid in the face twice and dragged the dog away.

Cook estimates that only 10 percent of stolen dogs are ransomed. So where do the rest go?

"Many of them are sold off to unsuspecting members of the public. Others are sold for breeding in one of the many illegal puppy farms across the country or as work dogs. Others still, are shipped for sale abroad."

According to the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA ), trafficking of stolen dogs overseas is rife. Last summer, John Walsh, an animal trader from Northern Ireland, was caught on a ferry from Ireland bound for Scotland with 49 puppies crammed into the back of his tiny Fiat Punto, He was charged with causing unnecessary suffering to the pets and fined £500. The price of a pedigree pup is over £300.

The phenomenon is reaching epidemic proportions, warns Hayes, and dog owners should be on guard all the time. "They should never leave their dogs outside shops, in cars, or running free in the park. Even in a private garden dogs should be supervised. They should have their dog microchipped and tattooed. Anyone considering buying a dog should not buy one without papers." And to anxious dog owners whose dogs have been stolen she says: "remember your dog is out there somewhere. Don't give up."

Box 1
Every day when she wakes up, and again before she goes to bed Jill Cook thinks about her two Labradors, Zeb (Yellow) and Sam (chocolate brown) and wonders where they are. It is the same routine for over a year now, since the dogs, aged 21 months, were snatched last November from Cook’s farm near Orpington and hoisted into a blue van which promptly sped off.
"It’s devastating; they’re constantly on my mind. My life won’t ever be the same", she says, and you can hear the mounting pain and anger in her voice."

"We’ve spent a whole year avidly trying to trace the dogs. From John O’Groats to Lands End. I have advertised in all the magazines. The emotional stress is unbearable. I have come up against brick walls."

There have been sightings of Zeb in Scotland, and Sam was spotted in North Wales, but so far these sightings have not led to the dogs. Both Labradors are microchipped and a simple scan would reveal their identity. Part of the problem, explains Cook, is that vets do not scan new dogs as a matter of course, so it is possible that her dogs are living with people who are unaware that they have been stolen.

Jill has joined ranks with other owners whose dogs have been stolen. And their number is growing rapidly. They are campaigning for a more serious approach from the police toward dog-napping, calling for the closure of puppy farms and lobbying MPs to press for a change in law which will make dog theft a serious crime.

"The emotional stress and the heartache that it’s causing to families with young children and above all the elderly. One gentleman in the Dartford Kent, actually took his life, because he couldn’t cope with the stress of losing his Lercher who had been stolen."

Meanwhile, Cook clings on to the hope that Zeb and Sam will be found and that one day she will be able to wake up in the morning without the uncertainty that has been plaguing her every waking hour for the past year.
[Pic of her dogs attached]. / 01909 733366
Lurcher Search UK, 01422 240168
Bulldog Rescue 01730810531

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