Pet abduction is to be made a new criminal offence in England after a “worrying” rise in reported thefts during COVID lockdowns.
Although stolen animals are currently treated as a loss of property, this won’t be the case under an upcoming legislation change which is to take into account and recognise the emotional distress that comes from the loss of a pet.
According to the government, the new offence of pet abduction will also prioritise the missing animal’s welfare and will help police to track incidents and offenders.
Sentencing guidelines have not yet been finalised, but previous reports have suggested that the offence could carry a prison sentence of up to five years.
Chris Sherwood – Chief Executive at the RSPCA – said the new pet abduction offence would recognise the “seriousness” of the crime, adding: “We hope this will encourage courts to hand out much tougher sentences to pet thieves.”
The proposal for the introduction of the criminal offence is one of a string of recommendations in a report by the Pet Theft Taskforce – which was set up in May 2021 to tackle an increase in incidents during lockdown, and is comprised of government officials, police, prosecutors, and local authorities.
After receiving evidence from animal welfare groups, campaigners, academics and other experts, the taskforce found that around 2,000 dogs were reported stolen last year.
Its report also found that seven in 10 pet thefts recorded by police involved dogs.
Quoting data from animal charity Dogs Trust, the taskforce’s report said that the price for five of the UK’s most desirable dog breeds grew “significantly” during the first nationwide lockdown – with some rising as high as 89%.
The taskforce suggested this potentially made dog theft more appealing to criminals seeking to profit from the spike in demand for pets.
Addressing the findings of the taskforce and responding to the report, Environment Secretary George Eustice said the pandemic has seen “the price of pets increase sharply” which has “created a stronger incentive for these criminal gangs”, adding that: “Pets are much loved members of the family in households up and down the country, and reports of a rise in pet theft have been worrying.
“Pet owners shouldn’t have to live in fear, and I am pleased this report acknowledges the unique distress caused by this crime.
“Its recommendations will reassure pet owners, help the police to tackle pet theft, and deliver justice for victims.”
The taskforce’s recommendations in the report also included:
- Requiring additional information when registering a microchip, especially when transferring ownership.
- More straightforward access to the different microchip databases available to make it easier to track lost or stolen dogs.
- Improving collection and recording of data on pet thefts.
- Further initiatives by police and others to raise awareness about prevention tips.
Officials hope the proposals by the taskforce will make it more difficult for thieves to abduct and sell on pets, make it easier for police to apprehend offenders, and that sentences and penalties handed to offenders will reflect the impact on the animal.
The UK government will now look into implementing the report’s findings and introducing the pet abduction offence.
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