When pets go missing, it’s not just a matter of losing a four-legged friend, it’s so much more – our animals are so often a much-loved member of the family. That’s why, according to pet detective Tom Watkins, there’s ‘nothing like the adrenaline rush of reuniting a pet with its owner’.
No animal is too small to pursue, from hamsters to a Chilean degu; Tom even tracks down birds, such as the South American rhea, a flightless bird that could run faster than Usain Bolt, but was eventually cornered while bunkered down on a golf course five miles away.
Cats tend to be the slipperiest because of their super-flexible spines that enable them to wriggle free (and their claws, of course), so if it’s a case of simply going walkabout, cats are the premier escape artists. But when it comes to stolen pets, nearly all of them are dogs – as was the case last February in the high-profile theft of American pop star Lady Gaga’s French bulldogs Koji and Gustav.
The pandemic has seen dog ownership in the UK shoot up from 9.5 million in 2019 to 12 million, with the increase in dog-napping an unwelcome side effect of the boom. Pedigrees have always been prized, but trendy hybrid designer breeds, such as cockapoos (a cocker spaniel and poodle mix), also command high prices.
‘There is a global industry revolving around dog theft, resale and breeding for significant amounts of money,’ says Tom.
A vicar’s son and former Midlands police constable, Tom put his crime-fighting expertise to good use back in 1999 by launching Animal Search UK. As Europe’s biggest search-and-rescue service for missing pets, with staff backed up by more than 86,000 ‘Pet Patrollers’ (or volunteers), it tracks AWOL pets down through sightings via its publicity network. Of his caseload, 90% involve pets with wanderlust, while the other 10% are stolen.
It’s the latter that can be the hardest, and sometimes most dangerous, cases to crack.
At 6ft 1in, burly Tom is not easily scared, and can recall only one occasion when he felt in danger during an operation. A reward had been offered for a lost dog; Tom played middleman by collecting the ‘found’ canine from a highly dodgy character, and handing over the reward.
‘We couldn’t prove he had stolen it from outside its owner’s garden, despite a tip-off, so we had to play along with the thief’s story to ensure his co-operation,’ he explains. ‘Delicate handling was definitely needed to avoid spooking him,’ adds the ex-copper, who, as a civilian now, no longer has powers of arrest.
A longer version of this article appeared in the October 2021 issue of Saga Magazine: subscribe today
Like the police, he relies on ‘intel’ and informants in the shape of his Pet Patrollers, to whom he sends email alerts about pets missing in their area.
'Cases of theft will normally have already been recorded by the police, with a crime number issued, so we will contact the officer involved if we get any useful intel,’ explains Tom.
Over the past three years, Animal Search UK has scored an average success rate of 70%. Since its first formal records in 2012, it has registered more than 284,000 cases, which includes around 10,000 repeat offenders – pets that go missing more than once. The initial AS service is free: database registration, which searches for potential matches and website ads with up to ten photos – as well as a free 24-hour phoneline for witnesses who have spotted a pet from a poster.
Charges are made for extra services: an £18 Facebook-sponsored advert in the owner’s area, an ad campaign of ‘Missing’ posters and leaflets and the real nitty-gritty – boots-on-the-ground search around the owner’s neighbourhood, typically paid for from pet insurance.
AS’s search base in Hereford has a marked rescue vehicle with more than 40 items of equipment, including thermal imaging cameras to detect a body-heat source in the dark, a microchip scanner, a Dictaphone with a recording of its owner’s voice to lure a pet out of hiding, as well as animal treats.
‘I always felt vulnerable in the police because I don’t like violence,’ explains Tom. ‘But I still wanted to help people in some way. What I love about my job is that we are potentially changing someone’s life by reuniting them with their pet, because they are such loving companions. Our leaflets and posters have our 0800 number on them, so members of the public with sensitive or sad news – such as a pet killed in a road accident – can ring anonymously. For an owner, “not knowing” is the worst thing ever, and if we can get an answer, that can bring comfort or closure.’
After nearly 22 years, Tom has become quite the animal behaviourist. Dogs, he says, are more likely to stay to heel, unless they get excited and slip their lead. Yet despite their escapist reputation, cats are more focused on survival than dogs. ‘Cats gravitate towards food, shelter and water so we’re likely to find them in built-up areas where there are humans, whereas dogs run around haphazardly trying to find their owner,’ says Tom.
Like every good TV detective, Tom has a loyal sidekick – search team leader Andrew, 63, who joined AS two years ago. Tom and Andrew’s double-act scored a success a few months ago after a client took her cat Milo on holiday with her and rashly let him out of the car for a toilet break at a motorway service station in Hampshire. When Milo ran off, his owner Suki nearly had kittens (forgive the pun). Yet Tom and Andrew had a hunch he wouldn’t go far. After searching the complex and local village, they received a call a month later. Milo had been spotted ‘slinking around the car park’ and was safely captured with a tempting bit of fast food.
There was a happy ending to the Lady Gaga saga, too, when she got her dogs back unharmed. Although her dog walker, Ryan Fischer, was shot by the thieves, he is making a full recovery.
Tom admits that his ‘one remaining ambition’ is to see Animal Search UK rolled out to other countries, and he’s sceptical about calls to arm dog walkers in the US after the Gaga case.
‘That’s drastic,’ he says, suggesting ‘less OTT measures, such as walking your dog in daylight, and varying your routine. There’s a phenomenon I’ve named “clip and run”, where thieves clip a lead on a pet – often before they’re noticed by the owner, who may be concentrating on their mobile phone. People need to be on their guard.’
He has his own celebrity success story in the case of model, TV presenter and footballer’s wife Abbey Clancy’s cat Maggie. The feline wandered off for a week in 2013 from her mansion in London’s plush Belsize Park and was found a mile or two away in edgier Camden Town. Abbey had pined so much it had distracted her from her Strictly Come Dancing practice, but with Maggie back in her designer basket, Abbey went on to win the contest - which goes to show that a pet is the key to many people’s wellbeing.
‘Anyone who has a pet will relate to the saying that they are family,’ says Tom. ‘A photo of my first dog, also called Maggie, still has pride of place on my desk at Animal Search UK, even though it’s 20 years since she passed away aged 17. She was my best friend throughout my childhood – and you never forget that unwavering love.’
To register a missing or found pet, visit animalsearchuk.co.uk. General enquiries: 01244 355247
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