Why it’s right to make animal abduction a specific offence. And here’s what else should be done.

13 Aug

In the last week, new details have emerged about the Government’s plan to tackle pet theft, a crime which has rapidly increased over lockdown.

As demand grew for pets (it’s estimated that 3.2 million households in the UK had acquired one since the beginning of the pandemic), thieves soon spotted an opportunity to intercept the market, particularly with dogs. In March, DogLost reported a 170 per cent rise in theft – and another source suggested it rose by around a fifth in 2020, with 2,438 dogs reported missing.

David Bowles, Head of Public Affairs for the RSPCA, tells me we may not even know the extent of the issue “because [dog theft data is] not recorded that well by police forces”. He says that the thieves involved are a mixture of “opportunists, who’ve thought that they can make a quick buck from stealing somebody’s dogs”, “criminals who would normally steal or burgle people’s houses” and “there probably is some link to criminal gangs.” 

The impact they have goes further than the immediate crime. Jane Stevenson, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton North East, tells me that there are “people who are too nervous to walk their dogs now, especially older female pet owners… The fear is certainly building”. So with that in mind, the Government has felt pressed to act.

In answer to this growing problem, Robert Buckland set up the pet theft task force earlier this year, which includes government officials, the police and charities to make recommendations on how to deal with the matter. 

Although these recommendations haven’t been revealed yet, newspapers have caught wind of the fact that “pet abduction” could be made into an offence – meaning anyone guilty of it could receive a maximum sentence of around five years. The new offence would most likely be added to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Will this do the trick? My own view is that it will make a substantial difference. The most important thing about the “pet abduction offence” is that it takes into account the emotional impact of a stolen animal.

Currently, sentencing is determined by the monetary value of a pet, which is classed as property (so the punishment for a stray that cost, say £50, would be low indeed). A pet abduction offence would make a clear delineation between inanimate object and beloved family member – and result in higher sentences, which should have a deterrent effect.

Having said that, there are some other things that come up in my conversation with Bowles and Neil Hudson, MP for Penrith and The Border (and the only vet in the House of Commons), that indicate other ways in which the Government can better animal safety. 

One surrounds data collection – and particularly microchipping, which has been compulsory for dogs for the last five years. Bowles tells me that it has been “very effective”, increasing the “rate of reunification between dogs that are stolen or dogs that are straying and their owner”, but there are some problems with how the information is collected. For one, “many people do not update their dog records when they move home” – meaning it’s hard to reunite them with their pet again. 

Two, the number of databases holding information on microchipped pets has grown over the years, with there now being 14 in total. But these tend to act in an uncoordinated, independent manner. As Bowles tells me: “So for instance, if the RSPCA pick up a dog in the street and scan it, at the moment we have to ring 14 different numbers to find out who’s on that database.” The Government is reportedly looking at this. It’s clearly a crucial part of making sure the authorities can respond quickly when a pet is stolen.

When I speak to Hudson, he reminds me that “there are other animals being stolen as well”, which sometimes gets forgotten in the pet theft debate, such as “horses and livestock”. He says of the legislation “we’ve got to get it right and make sure that animals of all forms are protected.” Furthermore, Hudson thinks legislation should be tightened “on the movement of animals”, which poses public health risks at present. “There are dogs being imported that potentially have diseases like brucella canis, which is a zoonotic disease.”

One of the most pertinent points that Hudson brings up is that “education” is essential to ensuring that people do their “due diligence” when buying a pet, which should be from a “creditable source”. With demand for pets reaching such huge levels, it could be the case that people are tempted to overlook troublesome signs about “breeders”. Just as important as sentencing is the ability for the buyer to walk away when something’s not right. Could a new certification system be what’s needed here? 

In summary, the pet abduction offence is an important step, but technological improvements, and better vetting processes (for breeders) are needed too.