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Pet thefts in lockdown to be investigated by new government taskforce of animal experts, police, the Home Office and DEFRA

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THE rapid rise in pet thefts since lockdown is to be investigated by a new government taskforce.

Bringing together police, animal welfare groups and government officials from the Home Office, Ministry of Justice and The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, its aim will be to look at the reported increase in animal thefts and draw up fresh action for tackling the crimes.

Pet thefts have been widely reported across the New Forest and Christchurch, but there has also been a host of false alarms.

In an announcement DEFRA said 'considerable rises' in the cost of puppies and kittens during the last year of the pandemic – prompted by a growth in popularity for pet ownership as changes in lifestyle allowed more time for caring for an animal – may be contributing to the increase in thefts.

The increase in the price of dogs and cats could be partly to blame for the rapid rise in thefts, says the government
The increase in the price of dogs and cats could be partly to blame for the rapid rise in thefts, says the government

According to DogsTrust, the price for five of the UK’s most sought after breeds grew significantly during the first lockdown with some rising by as much as 89%, whilst Google searches for ‘buy a puppy’ increased by 166% in the months between March and August last year.

The new taskforce, unveiled by Environment Secretary George Eustice, will gather evidence to help officials understand all the factors that may be contributing to a rise before recommending necessary measures needed to tackle the problems.

He said: “Pets are much loved members of the family, and these reports will be distressing for all pet owners. Pet owners shouldn’t live in fear so we’ve set up this taskforce to thoroughly investigate the issue and ensure that we have the measures in place to stop these criminals in their tracks.”

Successes in tackling other types of theft, such as mobile phones and metal and how to clamp-down most effectively on illegal markets, will be studied as part of efforts.

Stealing a pet is already a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968, with offenders facing a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. If someone causes an animal to suffer whilst stealing it from its owner, they are also liable to prosecution for offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

Home Secretary Priti Patel, whose department will become part of the new crime-fighting team, said: “Having callous thieves steal a much-loved pet is heart-breaking for families and it is deplorable that criminals seek to profit from this cruel crime.

“We are already taking action to combat such lawlessness by bolstering the police with 20,000 extra officers but this new taskforce will ensure we know how best to combat the driving forces behind this distressing crime and clamp down on the perpetrators.”

DEFRA says the taskforce will aim to report its findings and recommendations in the autumn.

As well as pulling together police and officials from numerous government departments to look at the 'practical aspects' of reducing pet theft, the taskforce will also speak to animal welfare and campaign groups to hear their views on the issues.

Taskforce partner, Deputy Chief Constable Amanda Blakeman, said the new group intended to gather intelligence from across the country.

A new government taskforce is being set up to look at the rise in pets stolen during lockdown
A new government taskforce is being set up to look at the rise in pets stolen during lockdown

She said: “Dog theft is a very emotive issue which has a huge impact on families or individuals and we are aware of a growing concern around this issue. The taskforce will support us in understanding this risk and also identifying trends involving serious and organised crime.

“The taskforce will enable us to gather intelligence across the country and tackle groups who work across geographical boundaries. We hope that this is a step forward in providing reassurance that we are committed to understanding any risks fully, and challenging related criminal behaviour.”

As part of Saturday's announcement pet owners are being asked to remain vigilant to the risk of theft. Police advice includes never leaving a pet unattended while out in public, vary routines when walking dogs and take basic security steps at home such as checking locks on doors and garden gates.

Those with information about the crimes is being encouraged to share it, anonymously, with Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or by completing an online form.

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