Illustration by C.J. Burton for TIME
March 12, 2021 8:44 AM EST

For years, Roosevelt Rodriguez and his dog Chanel had a routine. The Houston heating technician would get home from work, swing open his front door and greet his French bulldog, who’d spin and dance in excitement as he repeated her name over and over again. Then, Rodriguez would quickly change out of his work clothes while Chanel sat by the open front door, waiting for him to come outside with her.

But on Feb. 22, when Rodriguez stepped out of his house to walk the 25-lb. dog with the cream-colored face, his yard was empty. Puzzlement turned to panic when an elderly neighbor waved him down and uttered five words: “Someone just snatched your dog.”

“It hit me hard,” says Rodriguez, 30. “I didn’t want to believe it.”

It’s the reality many animal lovers are facing as a surge in pandemic pet adoptions offers opportunities for criminals to seize on nationwide demands and shelter shortages. More pets, particularly small and easy-to-grab breeds and puppies, are being stolen and resold by thieves eager to prey on petless people’s desires for animal companionship. “It’s gotten progressively worse,” says Karin TarQwyn, a private investigator in Nebraska who specializes in missing pets. Calls to her small agency by people needing help finding French bulldogs, an expensive and highly coveted breed, have increased about 60% to 70% in the last 18 months, averaging about three to five requests a week.

Pet detective Karin TarQwyn with her team of K9s
Courtesy Karin TarQwyn

Not only are pets yanked from yards, cars and stores, but those in high demand are targeted in home invasions and armed robberies on the street. “People will see a French bulldog in someone’s window and just break into the house,” says Craig Brazeman, who owns a private investigation firm in Atlanta. “It’s very unnerving.”

On Jan. 5, Sarah Vorhaus, 30, was walking her two dogs in San Francisco around 6 p.m. when three men approached her. One of them, who was holding a gun, punched her in the face multiple times, police said. The group fled with her French bulldog. Vorhaus, left bleeding and screaming at the top of her lungs, believes the assailants may have been targeting Chloe, her 6-month-old French bulldog, because they didn’t touch her 8-year-old Shiba Inu.

French bulldogs can cost up to $10,000 and are a favorite among celebrities, including Lady Gaga, whose dog walker was shot and seriously wounded Feb. 24 in Los Angeles by gunmen who made off with her two French bulldogs. The attack prompted warnings from prominent animal groups, including the American Kennel Club, of potential dognapping crimes. On March 3, the nonprofit Adopt-a-Pet.com issued an “emergency alert,” cautioning of a rise in pet thefts by “brazen” thieves. “Criminals are definitely getting a lot bolder now,” TarQwyn says.

That’s not surprising given the millions of people left jobless as a result of COVID-19 and the uptick in violent crime in cities across the country, says Robert D’Andrea, whose shepherd-mix puppy was stolen at gunpoint by three men in Venice, Calif., on Feb. 27. “It’s more a statement of the society we exist in right now rather than an individual person,” says D’Andrea, 24. “People have turned to desperate measures.”

In the U.K., dog thefts have increased 170% from 2019 to 2020, according to DogLost, which works to reunite lost dogs with their owners. So far in 2021, at least 106 dogs have been reported stolen, compared with 55 from the same period last year, says Karen Harding, the group’s police liaison. It’s more difficult to track pet-theft patterns in the U.S., where no major advocacy group or law-enforcement agency collects new data. The American Kennel Club and Adopt-a-Pet.com say their evidence of an increase has been anecdotal, but pet detectives, both amateur and professional, say there’s been an obvious rise in the last year.

“It’s gotten out of control,” says Brazeman, a traditional private detective, who works missing-animal cases for free. Brazeman entered the pet detective world a year and a half ago when thieves broke into a local veterinary hospital in Atlanta and stole two prized French bulldogs. Both were recovered. Recently, he says, there’s been a “serious increase in animal thefts,” as criminals realize there will likely be minimal action by law enforcement.

For dog thieves, little to lose

Because pets are lawfully viewed as personal property nationwide, those who steal them have relatively little to lose. Pet thefts are mostly considered misdemeanors, and the punishment is similar to the consequences of stealing someone’s couch. It varies by state, but if the perpetrator has no prior criminal history, the penalty is typically a small fine and often little to no jail time.

In Connecticut, somebody who steals a pet, or even kills one, wouldn’t face more than a $1,000 fine or more than six months in prison. It’s even less strict in Michigan, which punishes dognappers with fines as low as $50 and no more than a year in jail on the off chance they’re caught, charged and convicted. “The risk for criminals to go up and steal somebody’s dog off their property is so low that it’s just profitable,” TarQwyn says. “You will have more luck if somebody stole a stereo out of your car than if they stole your dog out of your backyard.”

That leaves pet owners with few options beyond hiring detectives, offering huge rewards and hoping for the best. Vorhaus’ initial $8,000 reward for Chloe has grown to $20,000. In an Instagram post announcing the larger reward, Vorhaus said she would give up the money with no questions asked. “Please, I beg you,” she wrote, “come forward and we will pay.” A spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department says the investigation is still active but has not yielded any arrests or new updates.

Following widespread attention by the media and police to Lady Gaga’s case, as well as the singer’s offer of a $500,000 reward, her dogs, Koji and Gustav, were recovered safely two days after they were stolen. Los Angeles police said it didn’t know if the reward had been paid. But people with less fame and fortune have not had such luck. In Decatur, Ga., where Scott Meyer’s 1-year-old French bulldog, Jack Jack, disappeared from his backyard in December, criminals have taken advantage of Meyer’s despair. After he posted a $1,000 reward for Jack Jack’s return, Meyer says he twice responded to people who claimed to have his dog. Both times they tried to rob him instead. “I was super naive and extremely vulnerable,” he says. Still, out of love for Jack Jack, Meyer says he would offer a larger reward if he had the money.

Lady Gaga leaving her apartment with her dog Koji in New York City.
MPI67/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

At best, Rodriguez says he can afford a reward of $700, a quarter of what he paid for Chanel. That might not be enough. When a French bulldog goes missing, TarQwyn says the minimum reward she suggests her clients offer is $3,500. “People are going to be willing to pay,” TarQwyn says. A brief Internet search found the dogs generally cost about $4,000 to $6,500 if purchased from pet stores and breeders and slightly less on websites like Craigslist and puppyfinder.com. Because they’re more rare, French bulldog puppies with blue or gray coats can go for as much as $10,000.

Despite Craigslist saying on its website that it does not permit posts about pet sales or breeding services, the ads proliferate the site. One titled “French Bulldog Stud Special” in Liverpool, Texas, solicited mates for a dog named Frank. “I have videos of his sperm evaluation,” the ad says. “He will produce small pups.” Craigslist allows posts about rehoming pets with small adoption fees, but animal-rights activists say this is easily abused by criminals who pretend to be looking for new homes for pets they’ve stolen. One ad purporting to “rehome” an English bulldog asked for either $1,500 or a “trade” for a French bulldog. Craigslist did not respond to requests for comment.

Experts warn that many of these ads are scams. In 2020, nearly 4,000 people in the U.S. and Canada paid online scammers for puppies that never arrived, according to the Better Business Bureau. That’s nearly five times as many reported pet scams as in 2017, the BBB says. The nonprofit says reports about phony pet websites spiked as soon as lockdowns started.

Robert D'Andrea with his puppy Sosa, who was stolen at gunpoint in Venice, Calif.
Courtesy Robert D'Andrea

On Aug. 13, 2020, Cassie and Jermaine Graves, of Raleigh, N.C., had to euthanize a $300 puppy they bought off Craigslist after learning almost immediately that the dog was severely anemic and riddled with intestinal parasites. Within 24 hours of getting the dog, which they had named Jasmine, she was buried in their backyard, and the Craigslist sellers became unreachable. “It was traumatic,” Jermaine Graves says. “It’s very messed up, it’s like they have no heart.”

Easy targets

Pet owners are easy targets for criminals. Most view their furry companions as family members, according to a 2018 industry survey, and they treat them as such. Nowadays, despite economic uncertainty from the pandemic, people have largely maintained or even increased their spending on their pets, according to a recent report by BluePearl, a veterinary hospital network.

It’s a level of devotion that keeps Stephanie Bubak searching for Aiko, her family’s Husky-mix puppy, who was captured on video being carried into a stranger’s minivan on Feb. 21 in New York City. After Aiko accidentally escaped his yard and wandered onto a neighbor’s property, Bubak obtained videos from the neighbor’s surveillance camera showing two men picking up Aiko. “We will hit the owner for a reward,” one can be heard saying on the video, which was obtained by TIME. “I won’t give up,” says Bubak, 32. “In my head, I’m getting my dog back some way, somehow.”

Before COVID-19, some 2 million pets were stolen on average each year in the U.S., according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Despite America’s growing love for the four-legged friends, only a few states have laws that stiffen penalties for stealing pets. California, for example, categorizes the crime as “grand theft” if the stolen dog is worth at least $950, and Virginia classifies dog thefts as a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, without having to prove a monetary value. Oklahoma allows for restitution up to three times the amount of the value of the stolen dog. New York increased the maximum pet theft fine from $200 to $1,000 in 2014—the first time in more than four decades that the penalties were raised. And New Hampshire and Pennsylvania recently introduced legislation that would increase penalties as well.

In the U.K., where more than 513,000 people signed an online petition for new laws recognizing that dogs are not inanimate objects, government officials last year said existing laws were sufficient and rejected calls for tougher penalties, the BBC reported. Animal rights activists in the U.S. hope some good can come out of recent attention to violent robberies of pets, most notably Lady Gaga’s, and that a pet-friendly White House will help boost needed changes in the law. “We need a hero to help end this war on our babies,” says Trisha Trapasso, who helps run the Facebook group, Find Frenchies, which has seen an increase in new members requesting permission to post about their stolen French bulldogs.

In Houston, any shred of optimism that Roosevelt Rodriguez once had about finding Chanel is nearly gone. For two weeks, he monitored the Internet for signs that someone might be trying to sell her. But he came to a grim realization. At first glance, Chanel may look like a puppy. But she’s nearly 5, and criminals know they won’t profit much by selling an older dog. “I’m starting to conclude that may not happen,” says a defeated Rodriguez. At this point, he can only pray that whoever took Chanel will love her the way he does, and that wherever she is, she’s not scared.

Roosevelt Rodriguez's missing dog, Chanel, who was stolen from his yard in Houston on Feb. 22
Courtesy Roosevelt Rodriguez

Rodriguez is haunted by his mistake of leaving the door open and not getting Chanel microchipped, and he’s reminded of his errors each time he comes home from work to a silent home. Instead of seeing his smiling dog at the front door, he scrolls through old videos and photos of her on his phone. There’s nothing, he says, that makes him feel the same way as Chanel did. Rodriguez is holding onto her toys, including her favorite squeaky hot dog, in case she comes back tomorrow or a year from now. He has no plans to get another dog. Chanel, with her comically big smile, is irreplaceable.

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