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To “crack down on pet theft” following a reported increase in pets being stolen during the pandemic, the government has announced plans to introduce a new crime of animal kidnapping. The new legislation will recognize the animals’ welfare and that they are worth more than property.

The government’s improved ownership records are encouraging, and it may be followed by car ownership. If a pet’s ownership is officially registered, couples and families will have a foundation for what happens to Rover or Fluffy following a divorce or separation. This would be helpful. However, the creation of the crime of abduction will almost certainly cause law enforcement to become involved in co-ownership squabbles between separating couples. Warring parents’ abduction of their children is a difficult legal issue; however, the removal of their fur babies may be more difficult still.

Consider what would happen if the law of the land regarded pets as sentient beings and took their well-being into account. What happens if Fluffy was bought by Mike but cared for by Diane? If Mike and Diane are married, they may be able to use the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. If they aren’t married, there isn’t much. Following separation, claims of abduction are likely to follow; how can the cops determine where Rover should live? I couldn’t discover any mention of co-ownership squabbles in the Pet Theft Taskforce’s policy paper. I’m hoping this topic has not been overlooked.

The abduction of a beloved pet by a stranger is unthinkable, and if the authorities and prosecution don’t regard it as a serious problem, perhaps urging police to prioritize it and/or raising penalties for convictions are better options. If the government is intent on creating a new criminal offense, it must first evaluate how such a change will affect marital and co-ownership disputes. Unintended consequences are likely to result from poor legislation.

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