AFEW SECONDS WAS ALL IT TOOK FOR CHIHUAHUA PUP LUPÉ TO SLIP OUT THE DOOR AND INTO THE hands of an opportunistic thief. She was at work in Vancouver with owner Emily Olmstead when the door was accidentally left ajar. Despite Emily's swift action to find her, Lupé's whereabouts are still a mystery.
"I miss her more than anything in this world and I don't think I could ever have a dog again," says a distraught Olmstead, who spent the end of last summer scouring the city streets and putting up posters during her heartbreaking search.
While Lupé was snatched in broad daylight, Husky Keymo was taken from his yard in Jacksonville, Florida, in the dead of night. Just after midnight in February, his owner Ella Jones returned to her home and let Keymo off the leash in the front yard. In the time it took her to get ready for bed, Keymo was gone. She noticed food on the sidewalk and believes he was lured away. In the days following his disappearance, she talked to neighbours, handed out posters to everyone she met, drove around nearby streets, and contacted local radio and TV stations. She also posted his profile on the Petfinder.com website and put up a reward for the much-missed puppy.
"A co-worker gave him to me from her litter and the first time I saw him, I loved him," says Jones, her voice shaking with emotion. "He was a companion, he was like my child and I just want him back home."
Emily and Ella, like a growing number of owners, have become victims of criminals who see companion animals as a quick and easy way to make a buck. There are no reliable figures for the number of dogs stolen in North America each year, as the police often don't distinguish between property theft and pet theft. However, the non-profit organization Last Chance for Animals based in Los Angeles estimates that two million pets are stolen every year, and PetLynx, a companion animal registry, estimates that one million animals go missing in Canada each year.
When Dorothy Pizzuti of Atlanta, Georgia, started the pet locator website Dogdetective.com in 1999 it was a site dedicated to lost and found dogs. Today it also features a dedicated section for stolen dogs.
"We've had a lot of reports from people about their dogs being stolen, so that's why I added that option about two years ago," Pizzuti say. "We average 250,000 visitors every month with 1,500 new members joining each month. About 10 percent of dogs reported as lost are reported stolen. It happens more than I thought it did."
With pedigree dogs costing hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, it's no surprise that some dogs are stolen and sold on the cheap. Why go to a reputable dog breeder when you can get what you want at half the price? Some steal dogs to use as dog-fight prey, a few may end up in puppy mills for breeding, and others are taken for ransom. Earlier this year, a family from Glendale in Colorado paid $1,500 dollars to get back their Yorkshire Terrier after he was stolen from their car. But there are other reasons for stealing a dog, according to former CBS journalist Linda Fields who runs Findfido.com from her home in northern Pennsylvania.
"There are people who actually go around and look for dogs to steal and they are doing it for a number of reasons," says Fields. "One could be that they intend to resell the dogs to laboratories or secondary sources, which is totally illegal but it happens. There are also scammers out there that people need to be aware of. People will call up and say wire me this money and I will send you your dog back when in fact they have no intention of doing that or they may not even have your dog."
Rumours of "bunchers" stealing family dogs for sale to laboratories have been circulating for years and Last Chance for Animals provided concrete evidence of the practice when it launched an undercover investigation of the dog dealer, C. C Baird of Arkansas. Last summer, Baird, who had previously been fined for animal cruelty violations in 1997, pleaded guilty to a string of violations under the US Animal Welfare Act. His wife, Patsy, also entered a guilty plea and a number of associates suspected of stealing dogs are also under investigation. A documentary on the case called Dealing Dogs was shown on HBO in February.
While some police forces will be happy to file a report, it won't be priority number one down at the local station house. The best chance you have of recovering your four- legged friend is to become your own private detective, says Pizzuti.
"Immediately go to shelters and put up posters in your area," she urges. "Start off with a 3-mile radius. If, after three days, you don't have your dog back, go to a 10-mile radius. Wait five, ten days and if you don't have your dog back, go to a 50-mile radius. Just keep going out. Go up to a 100- mile radius because we've had dogs 100 miles from home in three days. Some people will give up after a couple of weeks but we've had people who have found their dogs a year later. So don't give up."
Real animal lovers can play their part by refusing to buy cut-price dogs without the right paperwork or adequate background checks.
"There is obviously a market out there and the problem is that people buy stolen dogs," says Olmstead. "I feel that if you can't afford to buy a dog, you should not buy a stolen dog. People need to be made aware of what goes on." ■
Yolanda Brooks is a freelance writer who recently relocated from London, England, to North Vancouver, BC, Canada. Hailing from the land of Crufts, she thought she lived among the world's biggest dog lovers but she now realizes that North Americans really are world leaders when it comes to canine worship.