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'Dog mafia' leaves owners afraid for their pets.

Summary: Sevine Fakhoury's biggest regret is that she couldn't knock a man off a motorcycle.

BEIRUT: Sevine Fakhoury's biggest regret is that she couldn't knock a man off a motorcycle. Petite and good-natured, Fakhoury isn't the kind of woman that you'd expect would try to knock anyone off anything. But she is the kind of woman who squeezes a donkey into the back of her SUV when she finds it injured on the side of the road, which she's done before -- twice.

A board member of Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, she rescues distressed animals wherever she finds them. So when she saw a man on a motorcycle stealing a frightened dog, Fakhoury chased him.

"I was running after the bike," she says. "Everybody was out on the street, and I was screaming and shouting. I tried to, you know, push the guy down, but I just couldn't. I still have this in my heart. But to them, it's money."

With dogs exchanged or held hostage for hundreds of dollars each, BETA says dognapping is a lucrative business. This year, business is booming: Dog theft is on the rise, with 28 pets reported stolen to BETA alone in 2013, up from 22 in 2012 and 10 in 2011. Most stolen pets are dogs, and most are unreported. Small gangs of thieves in Beirut snatch them to hold them for ransom or sell them to breeders or pet shops where they're often mistreated.

Some dognappers commit crimes of opportunity.

"They're fast," Fakhoury says.

She describes how one woman was stuck in Ashrafieh traffic with her son when a thief reached into her car, grabbed her dog and took off.

Fakhoury's colleague, Rima Barakat, tells of Chihuahuas snatched from dog purses at crowded cafes.

But dog thefts often involve painstaking planning and coordination by groups that dognap for a living. Barakat calls them the "Dog Mafia."

"Dognapping is organized in the same way as kidnapping," she says.

These dognappers stake out their prospective victim's home, getting to know the owner's walking habits and carefully choosing a moment to strike.

"You'd see people looking at your dog while you were walking your dogs around and you'd know. You'd just know," Fakhoury says.

Sometimes passersby witness the theft. According to BETA, at the end of December 2011, people saw three dognapping incidents in Ballouneh: in each case, a man in a motorcycle snatched the dog and raced fifty meters to a white van with decals of animals on its sides.

Occasionally, cameras capture the dognappings. One surveillance video taken at an apartment building in Horsh Tabet shows a man riding a scooter up to a gate, where two small white dogs run to greet him. He feeds them treats until the concierge confronts him, but when the concierge turns his back, the man returns to the gate, grabs a dog, pulls it through the bars and drives away.

According to BETA, even large dogs are vulnerable to dognapping, and treats aren't the only bait.

"Sometimes thieves bring a female dog in heat to lure an unfixed male dog away," Fakhoury says. "One guy with a vicious German shepherd didn't understand how his dog was stolen. Well, he found out that a person brought a female German shepherd in heat, put it in the van, and his dog jumped in the van with her."

To recover stolen dogs, BETA has to be as organized as the thieves who take them. Volunteers undertake reconnaissance missions to pet shops and markets, looking for missing dogs. And the organization coaches owners to act fast: Post pictures everywhere and ask everyone. Fakhoury recalls one particularly zealous poster effort: "It was like an election."

That dog was eventually recovered.

For some bereft owners, bribery works; for a few, threats. Often luck plays a role. Barakat laughs when she remembers taking a call from one distraught owner reporting a missing chow chow, a rare breed in Beirut. Two hours later, another man called her with a chow chow for sale.

But Fakhoury says that when confronting someone about a stolen dog the smartest tactic is to play dumb.

"You really have to look like an idiot. You have to make-believe that you don't know that it was stolen, and say 'Thank you for finding my dog.' And give a reward."

That reward may be ransom, but desperate pet owners are willing to pay it. Some don't trust the police to find the dog, and BETA says there are no specific laws against dognapping. That's why Pam Tannoury investigated the theft of her own German shepherd puppy when it was stolen weeks ago. A man claimed to know the person who had "found" the puppy, and demanded that Pam cover the puppy's living expenses for five days. His estimate of those expenses? $500.

"I thought, 'What are you feeding him for five days?'" Tannoury says. "You want money for stealing my dog?"

He did. So, with few other options, she paid him the money.

In principle, BETA doesn't want to reward dognappers; in practice, the organization only wants to return the dog to safety.

"We put ourselves in the place of the owner, but mostly in the place of the animal," Fakhoury says. "Just imagine the panic."

Fakhoury despairs when owners insist that they don't need to watch their dog closely. Owners, she says, should always walk their dog on a leash, never take their eyes off it in their neighborhood or yard, identify it with tags and a microchip, and spay and neuter their pet.

"People say, 'No, no, my dog wouldn't go away.' Well, you can trust a dog but you cannot trust a human."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Nov 27, 2013
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