Daily Mirror – Chilling epidemic of dog thefts sweeping country as prices for pooches soars

Luca the American bulldog has been gone for three months, yet still her favourite toy and food bowl remain just where they always were, waiting for her return.

Her owner can’t bring himself to move them after the five-year-old pet was stolen while out on a walk in May.

Virgil Tatomir, 40, says: “Emotionally it’s destroying. All of a sudden the house is just a dark silence, an empty gap. Everything is to do with Luca; her bowl, her chair, her blanket, her food, her toy. Wherever you look, she is in my mind.”

Heartbroken Virgil, from Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, adds: “Her pictures are everywhere, in the hope she will one day come back.”

Luca and her owner Virgil (Image: Virgil Tatomir)

He is just one of the bereft owners to have had their beloved bets stolen during lockdown, when their companionship has been more vital than ever to households across the country.

Dog thefts were 65% higher during lockdown compared with last year, said  DogLost.co.uk  – with 48 from March 23 to June 1 this year, up from 29 during the same period in 2019.

Honey the 19-month-old golden cocker spaniel was stolen from her garden in Gravesend, Kent, after a long walk on June 17. Owner Cintia Gardner, 40, says: “She’s part of the family, our first pet, we have no idea where she is and why they are holding her for so long.

Cintia and Honey (Image: Cintia)
Honey with Cintia’s husband, Andy

“My kids keep seeing the posters for her everywhere and saying, ‘Look Mummy, it’s Honey!’ It’s heartbreaking.”

Zara the French bulldog was snatched out of the hands of 10-year-old Aironas Jurkus as they played on the grass near his family’s flat in Bedford on July 11. The family had paid £700 for her just three weeks earlier.

Aironas’s mum Rita said: “This guy walked passed my son and after a couple of minutes he came back and asked, ‘What’s the dog’s name?

“My son said her name and then the man just grabbed her.

“My son told him, ‘It’s my dog’ and the man said, ‘Better you stay where you are’. He keeps asking me, ‘When will the police bring Zara back?’”

And on Tuesday this week, six English springer spaniels ranging from two to 12 years old were taken from owner Grace Morgan in the middle of the night. Grace, 53, says: “They’re part of the family, some of them have been here since my kids were very young.

The cocker spaniel puppies which were stolen (Image: SWNS)

“It would be devastating enough to lose them, but to lose them like this is awful.”

Last weekend Richard Woodall’s six-year-old French bulldog-cross pug, Bessy, went missing from his back garden and is presumed stolen. The 48-year-old roofer from Banbury, Oxfordshire, says: “I’ve got a 6ft walled garden, there’s no way she could get out. I know she’s been pinched. I am devastated. I’ve got a disabled child, she’s one of her best pals.”

Just this month 17 dogs were stolen from kennels in Suffolk as their families enjoyed summer holidays, and in Cambridgeshire last week a litter of seven cocker spaniel puppies, worth £14,000, was stolen from a breeder.

Puppies are often found being sold for vastly inflated prices.

Richard Woodall and Bessy (Image: Richard Woodall)

Cocker spaniels and French bulldogs are both advertised on sites such as Pets4Homes for up to £3,500 each currently, which is over double their usual going rate. Yet dog theft is not a specific criminal offence, and those who take them routinely get away with a slap on the wrist.

This week Justice Secretary Robert Buckland refused to make changes to the law, despite acknowledging that pet theft causes “deep distress” for owners. Now the Stolen And Missing Pets Alliance has teamed up with Animal Geographer expert Dr Daniel Allen of Keele University to demand the law change to ensure dog thieves are properly punished.

Dr Allen says: “Now there’s a bigger demand for people to have canine companionship while people are working from home.

The increased demand has led to increased prices and seeing those increased prices has made criminals think, ‘We’re making money from dog theft, we can make a bit more’. Breeders are also putting prices up for dogs because they can.”

Dr Daniel Allen (Image: Dr Daniel Allen)

His research found just 1% of dog thefts in the UK last year resulted in a person being charged. He also found a continued rise in dog theft crime in the three years up to 2018, while at the same time there was a huge fall in prosecutions – making dogs a less risky target for thieves.

Dr Allen adds: “Any pet theft that goes through magistrates courts, the most they will ever get is six months.

“Even in crown court, where sentences can be bigger, they are rarely given out.”

In once case, a gang admitted stealing 15 puppies in Lincolnshire in 2015 but were only given suspended sentences of 12 to 18 months.

“None of them went to prison,” Dr Allen says. “In terms of punishment, it doesn’t reflect the severity or impact of the crime.

“Pet theft reform is basic – we don’t want a new law, we want pet theft to be identified as a specific crime in itself.

Mark Randell

“That’ll make it transparent in terms of the future so we can see what’s going on. They’ve got it for bike theft, we know exactly how many bikes have been stolen because they’re classified in themselves. Dogs aren’t.”

Mark Randell of Hidden in Sight, which works to bring animal abusers to justice around the world, has 40 years’ experience analysing criminal motivation.

The former senior police officer says the number of dog theft crimes are on the rise because dogs are fetching higher prices.

He adds: “It’s a commodity. It’s low risk – it’s very hard to identify a stolen dog, a dog can’t tell you it’s stolen. It’s very good monetary value for the thief. French bulldogs were trading before the pandemic at £1,500 up to £2,500 a dog. In terms of monetary value they’re very attractive to steal and sell on.”

Freya Woodhall and Willow (Image: Freya Woodhall)

He also warns a proportion of dogs that are stolen can end up in dogfights.

“You have to look at the different kinds of dogs to help you identify the motivation of the thief,” he says. “If it’s a French bulldog, it’ll be useless in a dog fight; it’ll be traded on. If it’s a Staffy, it could end up in a dogfight.”

Some owners never stop searching for their beloved pets.

Mum-of-four Freya Woodhall, from Much Wenlock, Shropshire, has launched a nationwide campaign to find her spocker (half springer, half cocker) Willow.

She was stolen aged two from the family’s garden in 2018. “She’s got to be out there somewhere,” Freya says. “I didn’t know how rife dog theft was until we’re in this awful situation. We named her, she’s part of our family, she’s loved and cared for, gave us her unconditional love.

“To suddenly have that ripped from you is indescribable.”

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