Pet Theft Up Fifty Percent Since Last Year: Evidence of a Downed Economy or Utter Depravity?

Stolen somewhere in New Jersey, a pitbull mix and a bulldog were found in a Newark cemetery tied to headstones, badly hurt, their faces and throats slashed with boxcutters. The pair had been used as bait for fighter dogs in training, their faces cut to give the fighter dogs a taste for blood.

Dogs vanish every day from yards, homes, shops, sidewalks, shelters, and cars.

“The owners think their pets escaped. But no,” says Associated Humane Societies executive director Roseann Trezza, who rescued the Newark pair. “Unless you see someone taking a pet, you can't say for sure it was stolen. And nobody wants to believe their pet was stolen. They'd rather think it escaped.”

According to the American Kennel Club, pet theft has increased by 50 percent since last year.

“In this economy, it's a way to make money,” Trezza says. “Someone steals a cocker spaniel or a Maltese and they can sell it in their neighborhood for $50 or $100. Dog-fighting rings always need bait.”

When Newark cops break up dog fights, they call AHS to rescue survivors. When bait dogs have been neutered and/or microchipped, she knows they're stolen pets. Many are puppies.

“We've also seen pets stolen to be used in religious rites. Or as gifts for someone's kid or girlfriend. Whenever they do it, they're ripping someone's heart out.”

If you were devising a standardized test for deities tasked with determining the fates of human souls, one question could be: What kind of person would steal someone's pet, and why?

Pet theft probes the ambiguous roles animals play in our lives. The law sees pets as property. Pet owners often consider pets members of the family. Rejecting the notion of pet ownership, activists call themselves pet guardians.”

We eat animals, yet we let animals sleep in our beds. We use products that were tested on animals and wear products made from animals, yet we cuddle animals that run to greet us when we arrive home. We slaughter animals for food and sport, sometimes with other animals assisting us. We feed the flesh of animals that mean nothing to us to animals we claim to love.

Is pet theft burglary — or kidnapping?

Passed in 1966, the federal Animal Welfare Act protects “the owners of dogs and cats from theft of such pets,” and prevents “the sale or use of dogs and cats which have been stolen.” The act aimed to stem the then-rampant sale of stolen pets to research labs by so-called “Class B” dealers who were USDA-licensed to sell live animals gathered from “random sources.” The vagueness of that official terminology swept countless stolen pets into labs.

Class B dealers sold over 400,000 “random-source” dogs to labs every year in the late 1960s, but only about 70,000 in 2007, according to the USDA — thanks to increased scrutiny and animal welfare organizations such as Last Chance for Animals and In Defense of Animals, which helped to scandalize the random-source trade.

“The vivisection and research communities were getting their dogs primarily from people who had stolen them,” says IDA founder Elliot Katz. “Especially in country and farm areas, people tend to let their dogs run free. Thieves would go through these areas, steal dogs and sell them to people with Class B licenses who then sold them to labs. It was a cheap source of dogs for the labs, and most of the labs knew exactly what was going on.”

That happens far less now, but the dog-fighting trade keeps pet thieves afloat. George W. Bush signed the Animal Fighting Prohibition Act in 2007, but its effectiveness is hard to track “because dog-fighting is such an underground system,” Katz says. “It's associated with gambling and drugs, so we don't how often it happens and how many animals are involved. When a pet is stolen for dog-fighting purposes, then chewed up and killed, then buried or burned, the evidence disappears very quickly.”

Another underground market deals in stolen purebred pets. Just this month, several pedigreed cats and blue Staffordshire terriers have been snatched from homes near Melbourne, Australia.

Thieves know how much various breeds are worth.

Dog handlers David Peek and Kristina Rickard brought two purebred Akitas and two purebred Welsh corgis from Northern California to show at the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship near Los Angeles last winter. Someone stole their van from a motel parking lot with the dogs inside. Asked by cops to estimate the dogs' value, Peek said $500,000.

“They told us we had to put a number on the dogs,” Peek says now. “How could I do that? The dogs were priceless. We couldn't replace them. They were family. My girlfriend was in hysterics, because we had lost family. The dogs also represented fifteen years' worth of breeding. You can't get that DNA back. You can't replace that.”

He posted news of the theft on Facebook, contacted local media and did a stream of TV and radio interviews. The next day, a woman claiming to have bought the Akitas for $500 in nearby Compton returned them. The next day, a man texted Peek from Victorville — in the Mojave Desert, too far for the dogs to have walked — saying he had the corgis and would give them back. No one was arrested.

Roseann Trezza of AHS credits the media frenzy with those dogs' return.

After probable pet thefts, “we immediately contact the local television station. If there's enough media attention, the dog is almost immediately found roaming the streets of Newark because nobody wants to be caught with a recognizably stolen pet.”

Beyond the Animal Welfare Act, pet-theft legislation varies locally. In a landslide 58-3 vote this June, the New York State Senate boldly passed S946-2011, which makes pet theft a class-E felony, on par with manslaughter, child-porn possession and certain types of rape, punishable by up to four years behind bars.

Last week an Oregon woman reported that her purebred English bulldog was stolen and being held for ransom by thieves who sent texts demanding $1,000 and prescription painkillers. But all pets are literally fair game. When John Dalton went on vacation three weeks ago, he boarded his cat at an animal hospital in Fanwood, NJ. Abby was an ordinary 5-year-old tabby, a shelter adoptee. Thieves broke into the hospital, stole drugs and cash “and took one pet out of the 10 being boarded there: mine,” Dalton says. “They opened her cage, took Abby and all her toys and blankets.”

Police believe the thieves were “a guy and his girlfriend,” Dalton says, “because guys don't steal cats. Guys steal dogs.”