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Dog Theft Action - turning the tide


DTA founder Margaret Nawrockyi pictured with Ian Cawsey MP

EXACTLY THREE years ago Margaret Nawrockyi’s life changed when she gained her own, personal direct experience of dog theft. Her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Astrid was stolen on 9th March 2003 and has never been recovered.

"I was working in my garden with my husband John. It was a beautiful, early spring day and my dog Astrid was enjoying this unexpected bit of extended freedom," says Margaret. "At about 2.30pm I decided to go indoors and called Astrid. When she didn't respond I didn't panic. We looked around our garden and onto the lane. I still wasn't particularly concerned. We live in such a small village it was impossible for her to have walked off the lane without being noticed. I called at every house in our village and the one adjoining it. Many neighbours joined in the search - I was moved by their concern and support - but despite her microchip, we never saw Astrid again."

Margaret did everything she could and more to trace Astrid. She put up posters, she contacted local radio, TV and newspapers, she notified several ‘missing and found’ dog websites and she reported Astrid’s theft to the police. Although Humberside police were sympathetic to Margaret’s plight, she soon realised that dog theft was not considered to be a priority by all police forces – if indeed it was treated as a crime at all.

Through talking to many other victims of dog theft, it became apparent that many of them had suffered a bad experience when reporting the theft to their local police stations. Many of the local forces would not record the theft as a crime, some officers openly remarked "Oh well, it’s just a dog, isn’t it? Surely you can get another one?"

It was one of those life-defining situations. Margaret says: “You have a choice: You can either stay where you are, trapped in a never-ending slough of despair, wracked by fears and uncertainty about what has happened to a much-loved pet, or you can do something about it. So that is why, together with fellow victims, I set up Dog Theft Action.”

A Growing Problem

For over five years, OUR DOGS has reported on the growing trend of dog theft and the lack of action on the part of police and politicians to take it seriously. In all this time the situation hasn’t improved – in fact, it’s got worse, with far more ‘casual’ dog thefts taking place.

However, there is now a glimmer of hope for concerned dog owners with the formation of Dog Theft Action. The group was founded in January 2005 and made its first public debut just one year ago at Crufts. In the short space of 12 months, DTA has made significant strides and has taken the issue to the highest agencies in the land, and has caused Government Ministers to acknowledge that there is a problem and that thousands of its citizens are being targeted by callous thieves.

"The theft of a dog is like the kidnapping of a member of your family," says DTA co-founder Laura Lucas, "It consumes your life, you can’t carry on as normal. You do everything you can to alert people to the theft, but when you turn to the police, who are supposed to be the guardians of law and order in this country and to have them dismiss the matter as not worthy of being listed as a crime, then it’s adding insult to injury."

One of DTA’s main strengths is that it acts independently of any one missing dogs organisation, and will deal with all agencies and individuals who can help stem the tide of dog thefts.

DTA are in favour of ensuring that dogs are correctly identified, by microchip and/or tattoo, as well as wearing their collar with a nametag, even if thieves might remove this. DTA want dog owners to be reassured that microchip scanning does take place, properly, all over the country. They are pushing for vets to scan all new dogs routinely prior to treatment so that the presence of a chip can be identified and cross referenced with the Kennel Club’s own pet registry, PetLog. In the same ways, tattoos can be checked with the National Dog Tattoo Register. There is evidence that some vets are already performing this service, but it needs to be an accepted widespread practice.

No problem with Dog Theft

The apparent apathy towards dog theft by some police forces is exacerbating the problem. One of the missing dog registries noted a fourfold increase in stolen dogs in just 12 months, drawing from its own information gathered from victims of dog crime. Yet, incredibly, many police forces refuse to recognise that there is a problem.

Back in 2001, OUR DOGS ran an in-depth feature about dog theft. Kent was then cited as the county in the UK where the most dog thefts occurred – and Kent police the worst for not recording the incidents as crimes, but merely noting the dogs as ‘missing’. A spokesman for Kent police commented to OUR DOGS at the time: "We do not have a problem with dog theft in Kent."

Four years later, OUR DOGS asked Kent police the same question and – incredibly – were given the same answer! The complaints, the articles, the sheer outrage at dog theft and the lack of police action had singularly failed to move the force to change its procedures. It is this sort of entrenched attitude that DTA has set out to change.

Of course no-one blames the police for the actual crime and everyone must surely acknowledge that every police force has its priorities when it comes to tackling crime, but again, as with so many other so-called ‘minor’ crimes, dog theft receives a low priority which leaves dog owners, along with other victims of theft, mugging, burglary, minor assault, vandalism etc. feeling disenfranchised and alone.

Procedures

A young woman whose dogs were stolen has been subjected to abusive text messages from the alleged thief and police said they cannot act, despite having the caller’s mobile phone number and a guarantee from the mobile network to release his home address details to the police.

Sharrne Wright from Tydd St Giles near Wisbech, Cambridgeshire had the three dogs – all Cavalier King Charles Spaniels stolen from the back garden of her home on Thursday, April 7th 2005. Sharrne had left the dogs in a 6ft high pen whilst she went out at 1.30pm. One of her daughters was alone in the house and reported hearing a loud noise in the garden, but locked the doors and stayed indoors because she was frightened. When Mrs Wright returned home at 4.30pm she was horrified to find the mesh at the top of the run bent over where someone must have leaned into the pen to lift up the dogs – and all three dogs had been stolen.

Sharrne contacted the police but was not given a crime number initially. "According to the to the police officer I spoke too, a PC Julie Coles, said ‘dog theft just doesn't happen round here’," Sharrne told OUR DOGS. "It wasn’t until later when I contacted DogLost that she issued me with a crime number.

Before involving DogLost, Sharrne put up posters advertising the dogs’ theft locally, with her mobile phone number given as a contact, offering a reward for the dogs’ safe return. But her anguish at the loss of her dogs was compounded further when she started receiving text messages from a man claiming to have stolen the dogs and threatening to do them harm if Sharrne did not grant him sexual favours.

"I started receiving these disgusting texts last Thursday and they were still continuing at all hours of the day and night," Sharrne added. "I showed the messages to PC Coles and have written down every one, as I have to delete them to keep my phone’s memory clear for any genuine messages about the dogs. But PC Coles’ attitude to the messages was that ‘they could be worse’.

Having noted that the caller’s number was displayed on her mobile, Sharrne contacted his mobile phone provider O2 and was reported the matter. The company said that the caller was a registered user with a name and address on file, but that they could not release this information to her. However, they would release his number to the police if they contacted the company formally to ask for this information. But when she suggested this to PC Coles she was told that it could take up to six months for them to do so, as the calls merely constituted "nuisance phone calls" and as such were not serious and that there were "procedures to follow."

Following OUR DOGS’ enquiries into the matter, a great deal of local media coverage took place, which led to a grudging comment from Cambridgeshire Police that "further investigations" with regard to following up the identity of the obscene caller were under way.

Thankfully, the oldest Cavalier, Charlie, was found by a member of the public wandering along Oxney Road, Peterborough on April 21st and was reunited with a delighted Sharrne and her family. Apart from some missing teeth, which may have been loose anyway and an associated gum infection, as well as being rather thin, Charlie was in good health and was immediately checked over by a vet. Although nervous for a day or so, he soon settled down with his family again.

The Government View

The best that can be said about the Government’s view of dog theft is that they haven’t got one. However, in the months since DTA was founded, MPs from all parties have taken notice of the issue – many have received letters from their own constituents complaining about the lack of official response to dog theft.

Two Early Day Motions about dog theft were raised in Parliament and have attracted a great many signatures, with the hope that enough MPs will support the motion and thus generate a Government debate on dog theft.

Prominent MPs such as Labour’s Ian Cawsey, who is a former Chairman of the Associated Party Group for Animal Welfare (APGAW), and dog-loving Conservative Andrew Rossindell are both on the DTA's Advisory Panel, along with experts and well-known figures from the world of dogs and animal welfare.

"We made tremendous progress in just a few months," adds Margaret. "The message is beginning to filter through. Dog crime is an opportunistic crime – many thieves steal dogs on impulse, to sell for a few quid or to ransom back to their owners. But if they knew that the crime would be taken seriously, they’d certainly think carefully before committing it. After all, there’s no such thing as ‘just a dog’ to a dog owner."

DTA’S MAIN AIMS:

To provide vital information to the victims of dog theft to assist them in their search for their stolen/missing dog.

To promote responsible dog ownership so that incidence of dog thefts are reduced.

To act as a catalyst bringing together all agencies that could have a potential impact on this issue.

Getting The Message Across

During the course of 2005, DTA took several opportunities to get their message across including staging displays at high-profile events such as the Wag & Bone Show in August and the Kennel Club’s Discover Dogs event in November.
Perhaps the crowning achievement for DTA’s ongoing campaign came on November 15th when the Kennel Club hosted the Dog Theft Action Summit at its London offices. The meeting was organised by DTA in conjunction with the Kennel Club.

The meeting was chaired by Ian Cawsey MP for Brigg and Goole and was attended by several DTA co-ordinators and advisors, senior Kennel Club staff, & representatives from several organisations, including the RCVS, BVA, BSAVA, Dogs Trust, Pet ID, the National Dog Tattoo Register, WAG anti-puppy farm group and Hertfordshire Police.

Attendees were given several first-hand accounts of the impact of dog theft from some of those present, and the discussions that followed covered a wide range of topics including the roles of the police, Government and dog wardens, and what steps needed to be taken to combat this growing problem.

Several action points were agreed by the attendees including the setting up of a single national database for lost and stolen pets, the production of a series of leaflets informing the public, vets and dog wardens of what to do in cases of dog theft, and feeding back the results of the meeting to the Home Office, the Government department responsible. These action points are set to be progressed during the course of 2006.

Rosemary Smart, Kennel Club Chief Executive commented: "The meeting provided the ideal platform for an invaluable discussion on the important issue of dog theft. The Kennel Club is committed to helping to tackle this problem alongside Dog Theft Action and the other organisations present, and we have already begun work to ensure that the action points agreed at the meeting are dealt with as quickly as possible."

Whilst it was tremendously encouraging to see so many organisations sitting down and working together with DTA, it was at the same time very disappointing that there was no ‘official’ police presence. No one from ACPO or any of the other police governing bodies attended. In fact, ACPO refused bluntly to come and failed to send a representative, even after Home Office Minister Hazel Blears suggested that they should re-think their decision, which beggars the question, if senior police officers ignore their direct superior at the Home office, what chance do the public have of being taken notice of?

That said, it was pleasing to see two serving police officers attending. PC Duncan Askew and Sgt Yvonne Mann of Hertfordshire constabulary both have taken a keen interest in dog theft and expressed several helpful points in how to take the campaign forward. It’s a sad reflection on the police as a whole that senior officers show no interest in what amounts to a major crime epidemic in the UK, but a glowing tribute to the men and women ‘on the beat’ who do care and put themselves out to actually tackle crime.

The work of Dog Theft Action’s dedicated Co-ordinators and Advisors just goes to show what ‘the little people’ – and specifically ‘dog people’ can do when they put their minds to it. In less than a year, DTA had managed to raise the issue of dog theft at the highest echelons of society and encouraged many disparate organisations to come together in a hitherto unheard of spirit of mass co-operation.

Margaret Nawrockyi concludes: "DTA wants to make a difference. I don't want the dog owning public to live in fear of losing their beloved pet as I have done - it's a devastating experience. I call upon all dog owners to support the DTA by writing to their MPs asking for a better response to dog theft. There must be millions of us - then the government, the police and the local authorities will have to take notice!"
www.dogtheftaction.com

Commentating and Advising

Peter Purves, well-known commentator for the BBC’s Crufts programmes and a dog owner himself is an Advisor to Dog Theft Action. Peter says: "The aims of DTA are admirable, and I support them wholeheartedly. Any attempt to co-ordinate the rescue centres, local authorities and police in finding, identifying and returning lost dogs to their owners is to be applauded. To many dog owners their dogs are their children, they are one of the family, and the idea that the police see a dog as ‘lost property’ is something that needs to be seriously addressed. I wish DTA every success, and am happy to add my name in its support."