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No bone unturned: On the trail of the dog-rustlers

A wave of canine kidnappings has been sweeping across the UK. But now a specialist search-and-rescue team is helping pet-owners to bite back. Tom Peck reports

There are bemused looks in the cathedral city of Hereford on a sunny Friday lunchtime as a van with high-visibility panels in yellow and red pulls to a stop to establish a "mobile incident unit".

At the wheel is Tom Watkins, a former police officer dressed in a white shirt, black tie and luminous jacket with a radio around his neck. The crime scene: a Tesco car park. The mission: to track down Jazzer, the latest victim of Britain's pet theft boom.

"Missing... pet... search... team?" Shoppers wheeling trolleys mouth the words as they pass as the team of detectives on the case of the stolen collie-alsatian cross, who, witnesses claim, was taken from outside the supermarket two weeks ago. Jazzer's owner, Einar Russell, a wheelchair user, says he popped into the store for only a few minutes.

"Jazzer always sits outside without any collar or lead but this time I came outside and she wasn't there." Mr Russell, 43, who damaged his spinal cord in a car accident more than ten years ago, was so upset by the loss that he has flown to Germany to be with family. "Before my accident I was an outdoor person. The dog gets me out but now she's gone."

Cue Mr Watkins, 37, who spent six years in the police force before setting up Animal Search UK, one of the country's leading pet search companies. "All is not lost," he says. "Publicity is key. You need to get posters in the hotspots. Petrol stations, newsagents, the doctor's surgery. Not necessarily where the pet might be, but where people are."

Some teenagers claim to have seen Jazzer being led away by a middle-aged woman and a younger, possibly teenage boy, but it is not conclusive. Mr Watkins has come to the crime scene in his converted St John Ambulance with one of his volunteer assistants, Sharon Webb, an American whose kitten, Rufus, Mr Watson tracked down in 2007. The team question shoppers and hands out flyers. Mr Watkins introduces himself to the store manager, and asks to view the CCTV of the evening in question, but the incident hasn't been captured.

Pet owners are on their guard across the country after a recent spate of thefts. In Oswaltwistle in Lancashire last month a grandmother was left distraught after her miniature pet poodle. Last week, the owners of a 16-week-old puppy that was snatched by motorcycle thieves were reunited with their pet after CCTV footage was found and press coverage led to a tip-off.

Mr Watkins has received more and more calls from owners who believe their dog may have been stolen. It is a cruel black market, but there is money to be made.

Between 60 and 100 missing pets are uploaded on to his website every day. "In one form or another," he claims, 65 per cent are reunited with their owners. Sometimes, inevitably, it is bad news but in one case a cat was found 180 miles away from its home. Another was reunited with its owner five years after it went missing. Mr Watkins charges £275 plus expenses for a day's search.

Back on the trail of Jazzer, Mr Watkins is quietly optimistic. "If it is genuinely missing, we will get sightings," he explains. He has a call centre outsourced to Cheshire which is manned 24 hours a day. "If it's been stolen, we might be told, 'Jim Jones at 45 Argyll Street has it' or what have you. We can then decide if we want to pass that information on to police, or do some surveillance.

"We're in Hereford, where the SAS are based. I know a man who can hide in a hedge for a week and leave no trace he was ever there."

The walls of his office, a purpose-built hut in his suburban back garden in Hereford, are adorned with pictures of searches gone by. He has just filmed a missing pet reconstruction video, to help track down Rufus the border terrier, who disappeared in Nantwich last September. It garnered much media attention.

Though the hunt for Jazzer remains in its early stages, as Mr Watkins affixes one of his posters next to the trollies at Tesco, a man approaches him to say he has found a dog, less than a year old, who he has been looking after at home, and doesn't really know what to do with. "Here's my card," he says. "Put him on the website." If he has an owner who is looking for him, it is a giant leap in the right direction.