When Jim Carrey played goofy pet detective Ace Ventura he had film fans in stitches – but looking for missing animals in real life is no joke.
Just ask former detective inspector Colin Butcher, who has been recovering pets for more than 17 years.
As a police officer, Colin came face to face with some of Britain’s most hardened criminals and helped jail serial killers, drug gangs and armed robbers.
But since leaving the force, he has faced new challenges. Since 2003, he has helped shut down more than 100 illicit breeders and fake rescue centres, as well as exposing puppy farms and animals taken by professional dog walkers.
His successes also include recovering stolen cats, racehorses, alpacas, parrots, snakes, a hamster, sheep, and pet birds.
But in the past year, since the first lockdown, the number of dog thefts have soared and most of Colin’s work is on the scent of heartless thieves.
He receives about 30 frantic calls or emails a week from distraught owners.
The former Surrey and Metropolitan Police forces officer, who set up the UK Pet Detective Agency, said petnapping is now big business as the price of pedigree and gundogs rockets.
Colin, 58, said: “We are witnessing a big increase in opportunistic dog theft right across the UK. The thieves are usually career criminals always on the lookout to steal something of value. Dogs are being stolen from cars and back gardens, so dog owners be careful.
“2020 has been the worst year on record for dog theft. We have seen the same level of crimes during January 2021 as we did last year. My advice is do not take chances and never leave your dog unsupervised.”
We joined him on Tuesday afternoon at the scene of his latest investigation. Four days earlier a two-year-old red corgi Amber was stolen from the home of 95-year-old Barbara Parker-Milligan as she sat in her conservatory.
Her son, Douglas Embelton, 65, who lives with her in Yateley, Hants, was picking up her prescription and shopping. Nothing else was taken from the property.
Douglas said: “I’m absolutely heartbroken. Barbara was so traumatised by the burglary that she collapsed and had to be rushed to hospital on Saturday.
“I can’t sleep or eat. I am worried sick Amber is not being treated well. We are desperate for anyone who knows of her whereabouts to get in touch.
“She is part of the family and we just want her home unharmed.”
After obtaining CCTV footage and making door-to-door enquiries, Colin, who charges £95 an hour for his services, suspects she was taken by men known to Amber’s owners. He said: “The thieves had previously been touting for business trying to get the occupants to have their front garden wall fixed. They had been turned away about six times.
“But on Friday afternoon when Doug was at the supermarket he saw these men again. They arrived at the property minutes later. This is a targeted theft. The heartless thieves crept into the house while an elderly lady was indoors and stole the family dog.”
Douglas said: “Although we reported the burglary to the police, I contacted Colin as I felt not enough was being done to find Amber. It might cost us several thousand pounds but we are determined to get her back.”
In the village of Lydd in Kent, at about the same time Amber was stolen, an elderly lady was walking her pugs when a man in a balaclava swiped one.
The pages of Doglost.co.uk are crammed full of similar details of thousands of stolen beloved family pets.
For the dognappers it is easy money and the risks are low as only about 1% of dog thefts end up in court. Even if they do, the thief will most likely receive a small fine of around £250 or a suspended sentence, often with the dog not returned.
But a thief could steal one dog that is then bred for five years making them thousands of pounds.
Based on freedom of information requests to police forces, Dr Dan Allen, director of geography at Keele University, found about 2,000 dogs are stolen each year.
Colin suspects the true total is much higher but said accurate figures are unavailable because dognapping is not recorded as a specific crime.
For example, if a dog is taken with other goods, it falls under theft. Google searches for “buying a puppy” increased by 175% in just one month of lockdown, with registered breeders unable to meet the rise in demand.
The price of a pug leapt from £684 to £1,220 and French bulldogs from £1,251 to £2,128, according to welfare charity Dogs Trust.
A dog’s breeding potential also makes them valuable. Colin said: “Police have cracked down on illegal puppy smugglers, so thieves are turning their attention to other people’s dogs to meet the demand.
“I’ve heard of teens riding around on bikes who put their arm through the gap in a car window and steal the dog. They are then sold for £500 online.
“Thieves target dog owners who are distracted when checking their phones, getting kids into the car or by shopping bags. Dogs have been snatched on walks or outside shops.”
He also warned of drug users turning to dognapping and unscrupulous breeders hiring Airbnb properties to pretend it is a family home to get round new laws stopping commercial traders selling kittens or puppies.
He said many thieves lurk online, checking for people posting pictures of a new puppy or they target kennels and breeders. Many crooks can now find a dog’s microchip and remove it.
Back in Hampshire, Colin is looking for the men seen outside Barbara’s home and wants anyone offered a corgi looking like Amber for sale to get in touch.
This is not a 90s Jim Carrey comedy, it’s far more serious than that.
A Hampshire Police spokesman said they could not comment on an ongoing investigation.