Pets may be as dear, or dearer, to us than our own human family members, and so it can be odd to see them as ‘chattels’. They are ‘things’, akin to personal possessions such as clothes and furniture. They are owned by people as their property and the law currently pays no attention to the fact that pets, as any animal lover will tell you, clearly have emotions. We may not understand every meow and bark, but we can tell when they are happy, sad and/or hungry.
Over the coronavirus lockdown, the demand for pets rose exponentially. While this was good news for rescue centres who were inundated with requests, those lacking in moral fibre turned to ‘dognapping’ to make a profit. This became a problem which was the subject of many high-profile campaigns and the government decided that it had to act.
A ‘Pet Theft Taskforce’ was set up in May 2021 to investigate the reported rise in pet theft. Dog theft was the main focus, however it also looked at ‘petnapping’ more widely. It found that the price of some breeds increased by 89% over lockdown and searches for ‘buy a puppy’ rose by over 160%.
Organised Crime Groups are thought to have responded to the sudden demand, adapting their criminal behaviour in response. Estimates suggested that there had been around 2,000 incidents of dog theft. To put that into context, there are thought to be around 9.6 million dogs in the UK. While the proportion therefore seems low, the Taskforce recognised that the emotional impact of losing a pet is very serious.
The Taskforce made a series of recommendations:
New pet abduction offence
Pets are more than inanimate objects, but a source of comfort and love to many. The fact that they are therefore seen to be mere property is incongruous with how we see them. It is thought that a new offence of ‘pet abduction’ would go some way to address this: the welfare of the animal would also be considered, not just the loss to the owner.
Identifying and tracking cases
Pet theft, as it is not a specific crime, is not appropriately nor adequately tracked. The data for this type of offence is therefore unreliable. The Task force recommended that that consistent recording and data collection by all police forces would help identify pet theft and ‘build a stronger evidence base of the scale of the problem’. This in turn would mean that the offences could be tracked through the criminal justice system, and the public could see how they are sentenced as compared to other theft types.
Enhancing ownership records
Presently, there are number of databases which hold pet microchip records, and not all comply with the 2015 dog Regulations. The Taskforce recommended a single point of access to the data by vets, police and local authorities so that information could be more readily accessible and stolen pets found more quickly. It also suggested that breeders and/or keepers be required to submit more information to the database (such as links to other members of the litter, or to the mother) to improve traceability.
Other recommendations included improving the traceability of online sales, especially as pets can be bought or sold on online platforms with the sellers remaining anonymous. Suggestions for improvements included requiring sellers to have ID and a voluntary code of practice for websites. However, there is no guarantee that this would necessarily solve the problem, as sellers could use fake ID, false addresses, or simply turn to less-than-reputable websites.
The Taskforce also recommended that more should be done to address the welfare of dogs on the marketplace, particularly where they are stolen so they can be used for breeding. Regulations (from 2018) are already in place requiring those who sell and breed dogs commercially to have a licence and since 2020m pet shops and other commercial sellers cannot sell puppies and kittens in England that they have not bred themselves. A review of the regulations is due in 2023 and it is suggested that there could be additional ‘light touch’ regulation for those who are not commercial sellers who would otherwise not be regulated.
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