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05 February, 2009

‘Dognapping’ on the rise in New York City

News Report
New America Media

Editor’s Note: In the latest indication of the deepening economic crisis in New York, a new phenomenon is on the rise: dognapping. The crime is entering the ranks of urban legend: Everyone knows someone who knows someone whose dog has been abducted and who had to pay ransom.

NEW YORK -- Sometime between the collapse of Bear Stearns and the demise of Lehman Brothers, it became clear to New Yorkers that things were going from bad to worse.

It wasn’t the collapse of two financial giants that sent shockwaves around the world, as hundreds of billions of dollars in capital vanished in a matter of days. It wasn’t the desperate negotiations by the Federal Reserve to keep the giant global insurer AIG in business. It wasn’t the by-the-seat-of-your-pants emergency Troubled Assets Relief Program, known as TARP.

No, it was a news item posted on NY1, the all-New York news channel that warned New Yorkers about the impending collapse of all civility, if not civilization itself, and revealed the true depravity at the heart of the economic crisis engulfing the unofficial capital of the world: New York’s dogs were now at risk of being kidnapped.

“As dognapping numbers continue to rise, the American Kennel Club is urging owners to be on alert and take extra precautions to keep their pooches safe,” NY1 reported on May 19, 2008.

With Wall Street collapsing, few took note of the story. But as the American Kennel Club’s Lisa Peterson recommended then, precautions could be taken. "It's very easy to micro-chip your pet,” Peterson announced. “The chip is about the size of a grain of rice. You go to the veterinary office and the vet implants the chip right under the skin at the shoulder blade. It's painless; it's like getting a yearly shot. And then it's very easy to enroll for a fee to keep your dogs information current in a recovery service."

Words to the wise, but in a city where there is little wisdom – as evidenced by the collapsing value of everything – her advice fell on indifferent New York ears.

Alas, in an indication of the deepening economic crisis in New York, dognapping has taken on a life of its own, terrifying pet owners and entering the ranks of urban legend: Everyone knows someone who knows someone whose dog has been abducted and had to pay ransom.

As the anxiety has increased, so have fears among pet owners. Last fall, just when the stock market fell below the 8,000 mark, emails began to circulate around New York with the subject line: “DOGNAPPING attempts in NYC with RAZOR and RANSOM.”

Warning New Yorkers about the threats their pets encountered in economically repressed times, advice ranged from double-leashing your dog, to carrying whistles.

According to a clerk at Zoomies, one of the premier purveyors of pet supplies in the West Village, the sale of “everything” is down – except for leashes. “People really are putting multiple leashes on their dogs.” This was echoed by the manager of Calling All Pets on the Upper East Side.

On the other side of Central Park, a young woman who is a professional dog walker, when questioned on the corner of 74th and Central Park West, admitted her own fears. “I changed my class schedule to make sure I could take my charges [five dogs on eight leashes] home before the sun sets,” she said. Identifying herself as Rachel, she then produced her protection from her purse: a can of pepper spray. “If this will stop a rapist,” she said, “it will stop a dognapper.”

But what if dognappers work in pairs?

Dog walkers’ greatest fear is that, as they are about to cross the street, a van will block the crosswalk, and someone will grab as many leashes as he can before speeding off in the getaway van. Each precious pet bears a dog tag with the owner’s information, including the telephone number to which a ransom call can be placed.

“If that happened to me, I couldn’t live with myself,” Rachel offered, before heading off to finish walking her charges.

A clerk at the Starbucks located on Broadway and 75th Street expressed the general anxiety when he warned this reporter, “If you leave your dog tied outside, and it’s stolen, we’re not responsible.” When asked if such a thing had happened at this location, he replied, “Not yet. But it will.”

But if dognapping seems an obsession of Manhattan’s wealthy -- in some neighborhoods, purebreds are found everywhere -- it is not. Across the East River, there have been several celebrated dognapping cases.

“Dognapping has become a problem recently in the Brooklyn area,” Taylor Owen told readers of the New York Daily News last year. “Toy dogs are the most common target, but the sentimental value of pets make all of them targets. Many people are not able to get their dogs back until they have made offers of more than $750, and ransoms ranging into the thousands are not unheard of.”

And there is no end to the theories: Some New Yorkers believe this is all about ransom money. Others think there may be a black market in dogs being sold for research. Still others believe economic hardship is driving certain Asian immigrant communities to eat dogs. “I’ve heard that the Vietnamese are ‘adopting’ dogs from the ASPCA – for food,” one woman, who had a Chihuahua in a designer Fendi purse, offered, whispering.

For the record, the New York City Police Department does not have reports of any unusual increase in stolen or missing pets, but as an officer in the Flatiron district said, “You never can tell, because these are the kinds of crimes that people don’t report to the cops. They’re afraid that if the police get involved, they’ll never get their dogs back.”

There is no refuge, it seems, for dog owners who are stricken with anxiety. It appears that, as economic uncertainty reaches new heights, the credit crisis has become like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz: “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”

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