For Dog Owners, an Urban Fear Returns

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:11

Some dog owners are on high alert against potential pet snatchers in their neighborhoods

Resident Peter Falk was walking Moey, a fluffy, friendly mixed breed of poodle, Bichon Frise and shih tzu, around 6 p.m. on June 25. He tied him to a fence briefly and went to chat with construction workers across the street. Minutes later, Moey was gone. His leash had been looped around the pole; there was no way he could have run off on his own, and the Falks say he never tried to bolt from them.

"I never thought anything like this would happen," Yelena said. "Even the officers from the 6th precinct said that it does not happen in the Village."

The "it" Yelena refers to is a specter that many dog owners in the city fear ? pet kidnapping. While it's almost impossible to tell if dog thefts are on the rise or decline ? the NYPD does not specifically track reports of stolen pets ? many owners say they are always vigilant, readily sharing horror stories from friends-of-friends who have had the worst befall their pooches.

"I've lived here over 30 years; I've never tied my dog up to go in anywhere," said Kevin Svetlich, who was walking his dog Elle near the Chelsea Waterside dog run last week. He said that while he hasn't felt a direct threat, he knows not to leave Elle unattended even for the all-too-common quick run into a coffee shop. He has a friend who once caught a person walking away with his pet greyhound after tying the dog outside a convenience store in the Financial District for less than five minutes. "You can't trust anyone," Svetlich said.

Seventeen-year-old Elle, a Tibetan terrier who is blind and deaf but still walking on her own, curious enough to stick out her nose to friendly strangers, might not seem like a dog-napper's prime target. But people steal dogs for a range of reasons, including to sell them to shady research facilities, flip them to unsuspecting buyers on Craigslist hoping for a discount off pet-store prices, or even to extort the owners in true kidnapping ransom fashion.

Sometimes, as in the Falks' case, predators target those with missing animals, even if they aren't the ones who stole them in the first place. After papering her neighborhood ? and much of Manhattan, including Times Square, Port Authority, Penn Station and the East Village ? with flyers pleading for information leading to Moey's return, she knew that the promise of a reward might draw some false calls and scams.

Still, when she got a call last week from a man claiming to have Moey and demanding cash, she willingly sent the man money, even knowing it probably was a ploy. "They said they steal dogs and sell them back to their owners," Yelena said. "There was a one percent chance they have my dog, right?" It was a risk she was willing to take, but she wasn't surprised that when they asked for more money and she demanded a picture of Moey, they sent a photo of a different dog. "It's been very, very difficult emotionally with all these ups and downs," Yelena said. Elizabeth Mejia, who lives in Chelsea, has also been worried about her own dog's welfare. Though Sam, her 11-year-old dachshund, remains safe, Mejia said that she's witnessed three different attempts to steal him in recent months.

Mejia said that pup thieves are getting wilier and working in teams, and that they don't always wait for distracted owners to leave the dogs unattended. She said that she's seen pairs of men targeting women walking small dogs, and said that she was almost the victim of a recent attempt.

"A young man I honed in on, he was walking with another young man dressed to the nines in suits coming toward me" around 7th Avenue and 18th Street, she said. "He came toward me, the other one stood around to my right. Behind me is the subway station entrance. He comes two feet away from me and said to me, 'how old is that dog?' So I said, '11 years old, he's got serious health problems, why?' And the guy said to me, 'oh we don't want that one," and walked by me."

Mejia said she heard from a friend about a woman walking her teacup Yorkie on West 19th Street, right outside her brownstone, and all of a sudden she was knocked to the ground, watching a man sprinting away with her dog.

Poppy Stockwell, who lives in Gramercy and sometimes brings her one-year-old King Charles spaniel to frolic in the Chelsea dog run, said that she is careful not to divulge too much information (like his breed or how much she paid for him) about her puppy, named Louie, to inquiring strangers, just in case they have wayward intentions.

"For me, my rule is, I don't just let everybody pet him. There are some people who I don't stop and chat with," Stockwell said. Her mother, Sandra Stockwell, was visiting and said that she makes sure to stay aware of her surroundings when walking Louie. She said that she's heard rumors in dog parks about people tainting bread with poison and leaving it for dogs, or stuffing bits of cheese with sharp objects, supposedly just out of maliciousness.

Despite these anecdotal warning stories, Detective Mike Petrillo of the 10th Precinct in Chelsea said that they haven't seen a rise in reports of dog thefts.

"The ASPCA stopped enforcement, so this falls on the NYPD now," Det. Petrillo said. "People do come in and report [dog thefts], we'd put up flyers. It's definitely something we would take seriously." But he said he hasn't noticed a marked increase in pet-theft reports.

Part of the trouble with tracking dog theft has to do with how the crime gets reported, if it does at all. Mejia said that when she tried to report her attempted dog-napping incident, the officer who greeted her at the 10th precinct dismissed her concerns and said there was nothing they could do. (Det. Petrillo said that he was surprised by Mejia's account, and that an officer could have taken a report for attempted larceny.)

Most dog thefts fall under the category of petit larceny, a misdemeanor that covers the theft of property valued at less than $1,000. But Det. Petrillo said that if a perpetrator uses force or violence, like pushing over the dog's owner or cutting the dog's leash while on a walk, that could be classified as a burglary, a more serious charge. And many popular purebred dogs, like French bulldogs or Maltese puppies, sell for well over the $1,000 limit, making the crime a potential grand larceny.

But as far as tracking dog thefts, the police don't generally classify crimes by what was stolen. Dogs are considered property according to New York law, and for the purposes of crime reporting, it doesn't matter whether your stolen property was an iPad or a Pomeranian. It's also tough for the police to investigate if there are no witnesses or descriptions of who may have taken the dog.

A spokesperson for the city's Animal Care and Control said that the agency is not aware of an increase in lost pet reports due to theft.

That's cold comfort, however, to families who have lost their canine companions.

"Honestly to me, this brings sort of a huge sense of awareness," Yelena Falk said. "You get a sense of safety and security in the neighborhood, and I see a lot of people leaving their dogs outside when they dash inside for a cup of coffee, and I'm thinking, 'you can't do that.'"