A new criminal offence of pet abduction is to be introduced following a surge in thefts during the pandemic, as the government looks to crackdown on offenders.
The new offence will recognise animals as companions and as sentient beings, rather than solely as property, as the law currently does.
Justice secretary Robert Buckland said the changes would better reflect “full impact” of pet theft. “I think the message is going out loud and clear that this is a serious matter,” the cabinet minister told BBC Breakfast.
Mr Buckland added: “I felt theft wasn’t an adequate way to described the impact of this particular crime on owners and indeed the pets themselves. It’s important that we work really hard on the way these offences are detected and investigated.”
It follows the recommendation from the government’s Pet Theft Taskforce, launched in May in response to skyrocketing rates of pet abduction during the pandemic.
The group was tasked with making recommendations to make it more difficult for thieves to steal and sell pets, whilst making it easier for the police to catch them.
The taskforce determined that dognapping comprised the majority of pet abductions during the pandemic, accounting for seven out of 10 thefts. Reports of stolen dogs rose by about 20 per cent from 2019 levels, with some 2,000 complaints in 2020.
The group believes the rise in pet abductions was driven by a surge in demand for canine companions beginning in the first national coronavirus lockdown last April.
This surge in demand caused prices for the most sought-after breeds to rise steeply, some by nearly 90 per cent, creating a lucrative black-market industry for organised criminals.
Currently, pet theft falls under the Theft Act 1968 which considers a stolen pet to be a loss of property to its owners, with a maximum jail sentence of seven years. But there is limited evidence that such harsh punishments are ever handed down, as sentence severity is partially determined by the monetary value of items stolen.
As a new, separate criminal offence, stolen pets would be recognised as sentient beings. The offence will also recognise the emotional distress caused to both the animal and the owner, and will prioritise the welfare of the stolen pet. A maximum jail term for the offence has yet to be confirmed.
Other taskforce recommendations include requiring more details when registering microchips, particularly when transferring a dog to a new owner; enabling easier access to microchip databases to make it easier to register pets, and track those that have been lost or stolen; and raising awareness around prevention measures and ongoing police initiatives.
Home secretary Priti Patel said that the new law would give police an additional tool to bring thieves to justice whilst raising awareness about the crime.
“Stealing a pet is an awful crime which can cause families great emotional distress whilst callous criminals line their pockets,” Ms Patel said.
“The new offence of pet abduction acknowledges that animals are far more than just property and will give police an additional tool to bring these sickening individuals to justice.”
Chris Sherwood, RSPCA chief executive welcomed the plans that recognised the seriousness of pet theft. He said: “Pet theft can leave families in utter turmoil and have serious welfare implications for animals ripped away from everything they know.
“The new Pet Abduction Offence will acknowledge the seriousness of this crime and we hope will encourage courts to hand down much tougher sentences to pet thieves,” he added.
Taskforce partner Deputy Chief Constable Amanda Blakeman said that police forces would now be better able to respond to pet theft, through the “specific crime that recognises pets as valued members of the family with a significant emotional impact”.
She also urged anyone purchasing a dog to use the Blue Cross or RSPCA website ensure they were buying from a responsible and genuine seller. She added that police continue to advise all dog owners to remain vigilant and avoid leaving their pet unattended in public.
The new pet abduction offence is expected to be brought in through primary legislation in due course, potentially being added to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament.
Diane James, from the Blue Cross national pet charity which has campaigned on the subject, said: “We hope changes to sentencing laws are brought in swiftly but would still advise owners to continue to be vigilant and follow advice to prevent becoming a victim of this abhorrent crime.”
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