The kidnapping of pets is made a criminal offense under the government’s plans to crack down on dog rapers.
Ministers want to amend the law to reflect the gravity of the crimes committed by animal thieves, taking into account the emotional distress the animal can cause and recognizing that it is far more than just property to its owners.
The proposal is one of several recommendations in a report on the results of the work of the Government Task Force on Animal Theft, which was set up in response to the increase in such crime during the coronavirus pandemic and pressure from MPs across the House of Commons to impose tougher penalties.
It is hoped that the plans will help police crack down on criminals, make it easier for officers to follow up on such incidents, and make it more difficult for thieves to steal and sell pets.
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The report said: “There is a growing public feeling that criminal law and the condemnation of animal theft offenses do not adequately recognize an animal as something other than mere property.
“We are aware of calls from some activists to recognize that animals differ from inanimate objects by creating a new crime or changing sentencing.”
Chris Sherwood, CEO of RSPCA, welcomed plans to recognize the “gravity” of the crime, saying, “We hope this will encourage the courts to impose much tougher penalties on animal thieves.”
Environment Secretary George Eustice said reports of spikes in pet thefts were “worrying” and owners shouldn’t have to “live in fear”, adding that the recommendations would “reassure” them.
Pet theft is not a specific crime and is currently considered a loss of property for owners under the Theft Act 1968.
The new offense would recognize animal companions as sentient beings.
Although criminal offenses have a maximum sentence of seven years under the Theft Act, ministers admitted that there is little evidence to support this, as the severity of the penalty is determined in part by the monetary value of the stolen item.
The task force, made up of government officials, police, prosecutors and councilors, examined evidence from animal welfare organizations, campaign groups and academics.
The report found that seven out of ten animal thefts registered by the police involve dogs, with evidence suggesting that around 2,000 dog theft crimes were reported to the police in 2020.
Although the risk of theft associated with an estimated UK dog population of 10.1 million
Citing information from Dogs Trust, the results showed that the price of five of the UK’s most sought-after breeds rose “significantly” during the initial lockdown, with the price rising nearly 90% for some.
Google searches for “buy a puppy” increased by over 160% in the months between March and August 2020 after the lockdown began last year.
This potentially made dog theft “more attractive” to criminals, including organized criminal groups, who wanted to capitalize on the increased public interest in owning a pet, the report said.
The results recommend that the laws be developed “at the pace”.
Previous proposals for the new offense could lead to tougher sentences, with a maximum prison sentence of around five years still to be confirmed.
It is believed that the measure could be added to the Police, Crime, Conviction and Justice (PCSC) bill going through parliament.
Further recommendations are:
– Requesting further information when registering a microchip, especially when handing over a dog to a new owner;
– Easier access to the numerous microchip databases that are in operation to facilitate tracking of lost or stolen dogs;
– Better and more consistent tracking of pet theft as data on crime is limited;
– More awareness campaigns with advice on how to protect pets.
Ideas also considered by the task force included requiring proof of identity for all online pet advertisements and allowing owners to register their dogs with the police, including photos, DNA and UV tags, and contact and microchip details .
Diane James, of the Blue Cross animal rights group, said, “We hope that changes to criminal law will be introduced quickly, but we would advise owners to remain vigilant and follow advice to prevent that they become victims of heinous crime. “
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