Think of a missing dog, and you might imagine a black and white poster with a blurry image of a dog printed off on a home computer emblazoned with the promise of a reward. But for pet detective Colin Butcher, tracking down missing pooches is more a much more high-tech business.
Butcher, who also runs a private detective agency, first got into the business in 1994 when he found two stolen German Shepherd puppies whilst serving in the police. A decade ago, he branched out into tracking down all creatures great and small.
As dog thefts have risen by over a fifth in the past two years - with over 5,000 dogs reported stolen in England and Wales since the start of 2013 according to a BBC investigation – heartbroken owners need Butcher’s skills more than ever.
The Independent spoke to Butcher about what it is like to be a real life Ace Ventura, and how he can reunite an owner with their missing dog in less than 24 hours.
What sort of people contact you about their missing dogs?
We deal with thefts, disputed ownership, illegal breeding, and bogus charities. The majority of people we deal with are dog owners whose dogs have been stolen or are missing. Or they might be offering a reward, receive a call about their lost dog and want to know if the caller is genuine.
How many people get in touch with you a day about their lost dog?
On average we get a dozen calls a day about lost pets, two thirds of those will be about a dog.
Have dog thefts changed?
There has been in increase in attacks on dog walkers in last 12 months. This was unheard of a few years ago. In most cases it is where a dog walker’s vehicle is stolen or isn’t secured, and the thief is opportunistic. Thieves want a target where they can maximise the reward for their risk. Sometimes it can be in inside job involving a disgruntled dog walker. In the world of animals sometimes there is a lot of malicious intent floating around. And in some areas dog walking is very lucrative and new walkers are resentful.
How do you deal with a call?
We ask key questions to get info to identify whether it’s a suspected runaway or a theft. We then identify the type of dog thief we’re up against. We have one of four categories. Opportunistic thieves who snatch unattended dogs from gardens, outside shops, or from cars. Then you have specialists who target dog walkers, kennels, and break into homes.
Occupationists are people who an entrusted to look after a dog that come into their possession, but they steal them. That can include kennel maids, dog walkers, and dog wardens. The we have the crazies. Those could be ex-lovers who steal their partner’s dog. Or animal haters someone who are fed up of their neighbour’s dog barking next door. Or fishermen who leave poison on tow paths for dogs, as well as rogue farms and game keepers who aren’t not protecting livestock but just hate dogs. The Croydon cat killer is definitely on the crazies list.
How high-tech is your job? Do you use sniffer dogs to find dogs?
It's very high tech. To track a thief down, we first look into what was going on before the theft because they generally aren’t thinking about hiding their identity before the incident, but they are after stealing a dog. So we’ll knock on doors, get to community hubs like parks, coffee shops, and see who was kicking around before the theft usually people will know who it is.
Sniffer dogs are useless at finding dogs. But as we have a private detective agency behind the scenes we have a covert CCTV van which we use if we suspect someone is slipping out early to walk the stolen dog in the park. And we can place covert cameras and audio devices in public areas like parks with the permission of the owners.
We have another box of tricks called a peli case, which is waterproof and contains video and audio recorders, and its own power supply. We can put the equipment in the ground or outside. We’ve also got tracking devices and tiny cameras. It’s aabout getting your eyes in locations where people feel they are confident they won't be seen.
If we suspect someone is up to no good we arrange to meet them somewhere and before they arrive we put a recording device on a table. Then we ask them some questions and leave them on their own for five to ten minutes. In one case someone made a quick call and said that we didn’t suspect them. We also have 12,000 volunteers on social media, so if we suspect someone is selling a stolen dog we engage a volunteer as a potential buyer. Then we follow them back from the meeting place or intervene during the course of the purchase to retrieve the dog.
What are some weird cases that you have dealt with?
In London at start of the year a woman was on her way home and saw a French bulldog tied up outside Tesco and she just stole it. She said she didn’t really think about it she just did it. She got a caution and wrap on the knuckles because the owners wanted to be lenient.
We dealt with another client where her dog walker said that her dog had run away in a remote area where she had never been before. Then the dog walker stopped working and moved away shortly after. We were confident she’d stolen the dog. She lived in a remote area so we just attached a device to the outside of a barn door nearby and we saw her going past in her car with the dog.
In case a family's Chihuahua was stolen from a kennel when they were on holiday. We got it back by making an overnight purchase in a ropey estate. The person who returned it said they found the dog at a car boot sale. But we had managed to link it to a local breeder who would buy Chihuahuas no questions asked. It turns out the kennel maid tipped off her boyfriend on how to get into the kennels at night and he sold it to the breeder. When he said he didn't know where the dog was we told him we have a DNA match and 12,000 secret volunteers who could visit him at any time in the next six months. Within a few hours a call came in that someone had found a dog.
What is your success rate?
It’s pretty good. The sooner we’re involved after the dog goes missing the more successful our search. If you contact us 24 hours after the theft, there is an 80 per cent chance we can find your dog. Every day you leave it the likelihood of success drops.
How can people prevent their dogs being stolen in the first place?
Just think about what they’re doing. If you wouldn’t leave a phone somewhere in case it got stolen, don’t do the same for your dog.
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