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'It pulls at your heartstrings'

Pet stealing is usually done for spite or profit, and culprits take measures to ensure the puppies are hard to track down, writes Jana G. Pruden

Looking back, it seems to Sarah Donnelly they were planning a robbery all along.

The two men showed up at her acreage in central Alberta later than agreed, and something about them made her uneasy. When they acted, they did so quickly and with purpose – grabbing veterinary records off the table and pushing her down, then running out to a waiting blue sports car with the spoils of the heist: an eight-week-old French bulldog puppy named Marlow.

"I feel incredibly violated," said Ms. Donnelly, a teacher and rancher who sometimes breeds litters of puppies to sell. "The anxiety of the whole situation is really starting to set in. I'm brutally angry that my kids were home, and things could have gone way worse than they did."

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Related: Toronto police locate stolen van carrying 16 dogs

Related: Police searching for four suspects after dog stolen at knifepoint in Toronto

Ms. Donnelly chased the puppy thieves down the highway in her own vehicle until the 911 operator told her to stop.

RCMP spokesman Sergeant Jack Poitras said it is not clear how often pets are reported stolen in Alberta because the thefts are categorized under broader property offences, and no statistics are kept specifically about animals. But he says he has seen dognapping and animal theft cases throughout his career, and that his own dog, Benji, was stolen from his home in Ontario 27 years ago, the day his daughter was born. The dog, a terrier poodle cross, was never found.

"You've been there. You know what it's like," Sgt. Poitras said, speaking about cases like Ms. Donnelly's. "It's always one of those things where it pulls at your heartstrings."

The robbery was only one of several high-profile dog thefts in recent weeks. On Nov. 14, a group of men in Toronto stole a shih-tzu Pomeranian at knifepoint from a man out walking. Four days later, a van from a dog-walking company was stolen with 16 dogs inside. The pets in the van were found safe later that evening. The shih-tzu Pomeranian, Charlie, has not been located.

A kitten named Vlad, shown in a handout photo, was purchased through a Kijiji ad that claimed it was a hairless sphynx, but it quickly grew hair. Owner Shaniya Yung of Blackfalds, Alta. says the cat was either shaved or doused with a hair removal product.

In Ottawa, a Labrador retriever-German shepherd was stolen from outside a restaurant, and was found later with a woman at a pet store.

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(In addition to the dog theft from Ms. Donnelly, Alberta had several allegations of cat fraud, in which people reported buying expensive hairless kittens that turned out to be regular kittens with their hair and whiskers removed.)

Rob MacArthur, a pet detective and private investigator in Ontario, said recovering stolen pets is much harder than finding those that are simply lost, because the perpetrators may take steps to prevent the animal from being identified. In some reported dog thefts, pets have been dyed or shaved to change their appearance. Mr. MacArthur said thieves may even have a "less than reputable" veterinarian remove the animal's microchip.

"The problem with stolen pets is that if someone stole it, they are going to make sure it doesn't get found," he said. "Stealing is either done out of spite or for profit. They aren't going to just take it and give it to the pound."

Ms. Donnelly was selling the dog, a rare blue bulldog with blue eyes and a white blaze on his forehead, for $4,000. Although other puppies in the litter were less expensive, she said the men specifically wanted Marlow.

Ms. Donnelly says the men were young and well-dressed in designer clothes, and a woman was waiting for them in the car. They spoke little English, and told Ms. Donnelly they were from El Salvador. One said his name was Diego. In the days since the robbery, Ms. Donnelly said she has heard from other French bulldog breeders who have been contacted by the same suspects.

"I think it's really important they get caught because this was totally, totally premeditated," she said. "This wasn't a fluke. This wasn't spur of the moment."

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Police released composite sketches of the men based on her descriptions. They also released a photo of Marlow sitting on a blanket.

Ms. Donnelly said she is grateful for how many people have shared the information about her stolen puppy, and she is now offering a reward for his return. She said she is worried he may be sick from a sudden change of food, and that he has a hernia that will need to be fixed.

"It's not about the money. It's really not. I hate knowing he's out there and I don't know where he is, and I don't know if he's okay," she said. "He was just a sweet little puppy, and he deserves better than this."


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