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Karen Bartlett column.

Byline: By Karen Bartlett

Dogs for drugs. Chilling words for any animal lover, and in Britain few things are as close to our hearts as our pets.

New research by animal charities seems to suggest dog theft is dramatically on the rise, sometimes committed by addicts seeking to fund their habit, and an Early Day Motion has been put before Parliament to express one MP's concern about the lack of a co-ordinated strategy to tackle the problem.

Despite occasionally trading in canine insults Westminster is as puppy loving as the rest of the nation, and more than 60 MPs have signed up in support.

More than a quarter of all households own dogs, so any measure to allay fears might seem a huge vote winner.

But the Home Office has been slow to respond. There are no national statistics on dog theft, nor, they say, are any plans underway for a nationwide policy.

Incidents of dognapping are included in the general crime figures under the category of theft, making it hard to see how widespread the problem is. Many local police forces have yet to take the problem seriously, but those that do report a surge in numbers.

Dog Theft Action, a support and campaign group, claims that 10 ransom notes are sent to owners every month.

Some people are prepared to pay thousands of pounds to get their pet back, but according to the RSPCA less than half the dogs that go missing are ever recovered.

The sudden surprising rise in this crime falls into two categories.

As one policeman pointed out, most criminals are opportunistic and adaptable. No one would tie their handbag to a piece of string and leave it on a bench while they went shopping. Why do it with your dog? Dogs are easily stolen from parks, back gardens and even cars.

This type of snatch and grab operation takes place alongside a growing number of organised dog stealing rings.

Staffordshire bull terriers, Labradors and lurchers are apparently the number one targets for thieves, and a crime that used to happen mainly in towns has now spread to rural areas.

The Country Land and Business Association has warned its 40,000 members to be on the lookout as dog-nappers target working dogs and then pass them on to unsuspecting farmers.

Sometimes animals worth more than pounds 2,000 can be sold for as little as pounds 50.

Even if the dog and owner are eventually reunited, their ordeal is often not over.

Victims of dog theft suspect that groups of travellers are behind some of the more organised operations. They say that dogs have been recovered from travellers' sites, and several of the police officers with specialist experience in this area are also responsible for liaison with travellers' communities.

It is hard to assess the truth of these claims when so much of the debate over travellers is now coloured by racist overtones, but in the meantime dog owners suffer continuing intimidation and harassment from those who stole their pets.

Some have received death threats, one victim claims to have been shot at.

What can be done to combat this crime? A national dog register, compulsory micro-chipping and a high profile prosecution of an animal stealing gang would help. Separating statistics so animal theft is recorded in its own right would also be a step in the right direction.

Where a discussion of dognapping goes, a cheesy joke soon follows. Ruff justice? Paws for thought? How can the police get a collar? No one should underestimate the soft underbelly of British sentiment about animals.

"He's my baby," said one alarmed owner this week, clutching her 200lb, four foot tall, dog tightly to her bosom.

The Government should act quickly. Remember the last time animal lovers were alienated by the prompt dispatch of Humphrey, the Downing Street cat. Pet lovers have long memories. Nothing is likely to sway us more than a callous response to a shaggy dog story.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Mar 29, 2005
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