Historically, when dogs disappeared in Los Angeles, it got blamed on marauding coyotes and mountain lions roaming the Hollywood Hills. Or, closer to home, loose collars, broken back doors, and holes in fences.
But the February dognapping of Lady Gaga’s prized French bulldogs Koji and Gustav—after her dogwalker Ryan Fischer was shot in the chest while bravely battling the thieves—was a wake-up call to all L.A. pet owners: keep your harnesses close and your dogs closer. Especially the small, fuzzy, expensive purebreds ubiquitous in our town. The same coddled creatures you’ve observed being wheeled around in ruffly baby carriages or perched in baskets on the Venice bike path now seem more vulnerable than ever to sudden disappearing acts.
Obviously, pets get lost or vanish for all kinds of non-nefarious reasons. But according to experts, pet theft is far more common than any random disappearance. There are plenty of ways canines get snatched and many reasons to snatch them: for ransom, to resell them to the highest black-market dealer, for breeding purposes, for research, or, much worse, for blood sport—that is, dogfights.
Has the number of petnappings actually risen in L.A.? “We have definitely seen an increase,” says JoAnn DeCollibus Powell of Dog Days Search and Rescue in Simi Valley. “The number of dog thefts in the U.S. is said to be 2 million annually. Anecdotally, we’re hearing about a lot more incidents here this year.” Her group was involved in the recent, well-publicized search for Orlando Bloom’s lost teacup poodle, Mighty. As it turned out, Bloom’s dog was not stolen, contrary to popular belief. “Our team found part of his dog in Montecito; it had been snatched by another animal.”
The most experienced lost-or-stolen dog finder in Los Angeles is Chris DeRose—an actor who appeared on CHiPs and The Rockford Files. Four decades ago, he founded Last Chance for Animals, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating animal exploitation, and quickly became an expert on canine crime.
“One of the reasons dog thefts were rampant,” DeRose explains, “was that Class B dealers were actually licensed to steal pets by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for many years. They’d ‘legally’ steal your dog and sell it to breeders or researchers. Five years ago, we got the practice of Class B dealers—a Class B license is issued to dealers whose business includes the purchase and/or resale of warm-blooded animals—declared illegal.”
But that hasn’t diminished the number of purloined pets. Potential thieves now are more selective and specific. DeRose explains, “The dogs that fetch the highest price points are French bulldogs and other purebreds or posh mixes: English bulldogs, Maltipoos, Goldendoodles. Dobermans were really hot for a while; coats were being made from them. German shepherds. Designer dogs are stolen from yards, from a Ralphs parking lot. All it takes these pro thieves is, literally, seconds.”
According to Karen TarQwyn, a world-renowned pet detective, the reason French bulldogs are the most coveted is “the personality of the dog. French bulldogs are friendly—if you go into a grocery store and tie your bulldog outside, don’t expect it to be there when you come back. The only way to get one back would be to post a high reward. Or look on Craigslist where stolen dogs often turn up for sale.”
LAPD detectives report they’ve been seeing an uptick in the theft of French bulldogs and other small breeds. Seven, a French bulldog pup, was heisted outside a North Hollywood Target in late March, after two men observed a family checking out with the dog, a Christmas gift for eight-year-old Elani Valencia. Elani’s uncle went to the car first with the puppy, sensing danger. The two men followed him, pulling a handgun as they ran up to the car and snatched the dog. A reward was offered. Six days later, Seven was “found” and returned home.
Also in March, LAPD released a photo of a four-month-old, grey-and-white Sheltie pup, stolen by a woman in a Lakers shirt from a residence on the 800 block of South Grand Avenue downtown. In the South Bay area, two Yorkshire terriers and a poodle were nabbed from different homes within a few weeks one another. Both dogs had been left in their yards unattended.
DeCollibus Powell says that reward signs will help to get thieves to return dogs, but DeRose is wary. “Beware of reward signs. Don’t pay up front. People make a living off that. There are so many scams, I can’t tell you.”
Not all pets are picked up for profit. Bigger breeds sometimes end up in dogfighting rings. As for the littlest pups, “I hate to say it,” DeRose sighs, “but they are often used as ‘bait dogs’ in dogfights. They throw them into the ring to give bigger dogs a taste of blood. It boggles the mind. There’s a ton of money in dogfights. An owner can make a hundred grand on one fight. My suggestion is, never try to bust a dogfighting ring; they will kill you. Or their Rottweiler will.
“When dognappers demand a ransom,” DeRose continues, “we do a kind of hostage negotiation. A stolen animal in the state of California is considered stolen property. But police don’t care if your dog is stolen or disappears. You’re usually on your own.”
Despite the high-dollar value of some of these breeds, the LAPD has not made pet crimes a priority. Its Animal Cruelty Task Force, which became operational in 2005, has since been disbanded. Their phone line refers you to Los Angeles Animal Services, now closed on account of COVID-19. You’re better off googling local dog shelters and search-and-rescue operations like Pawboost.com.
Of course, many people turn to pet psychics to help them locate missing dogs. But DeRose suggests you go with the tried-and-true. “Pet psychics, I don’t know,” he says. “I had one friend who had her cat missing; a psychic said it was in the Hollywood Hills. She found it under her steps.”
Pricey, portable breeds are a dognapper’s delight. Three breeds top their target list
Bulldogs need to be artificially inseminated and delivered by caesarean, so they’re wildly expensive. Says pet detective TarQwyn, “They might as well have dollar bills on their paws.”
“They’re extremely rare,” says DeCollibus Powell, “But they also have the fluffiest coats of almost any breed. Resale value is off the charts.”
These golden retriever-poodle mixes are so smart that they seem almost human, only better behaved. Breeders can’t keep them in stock.
*Estimated resale value on the black market
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