When I was on holidays in California in 2007, a dog was drowning and it got washed out to sea. I jumped off a cliff and got the dog but couldn’t find the owner. The story went viral and the owner came forward – he thought the dog was dead. I got invited on a few television stations and they said to me, “Why don’t you become a pet detective?”
I took the idea back to Ireland and went on the next training opportunity I could find in the US.
I’m Europe’s only pet detective, certified at Missing Pet Partnership Worldwide, in the US. Pets are probably more important than people to people. When a pet goes missing and they can’t find them, they call me. I’m the last resort.
I’m from south Dublin, and over the past 17 years I have retrieved probably 8,500 missing and stolen pets – mainly dogs, cats, horses, donkeys and ponies. The operation is based in London, and the UK is where I mainly work, because there are 30 million pet owners in the UK. One in two people in the UK owns a pet (it’s 52 per cent of people in Ireland, according to CSO figures from 2021).
When a pet goes missing, I find out its age, gender, time of day it went missing, its previous history. I’m able to determine how far that animal would be able to travel if it went missing. For any missing feline, for up to two weeks missing, my recovery rate has been 67.4 per cent. For stolen dogs it’s a lot less. Very rarely now will you get a lost dog. They’re always stolen.
Depending on the case and the circumstances, I use DNA forensics if I think an animal has been hit at a certain point. We can also use a search dog up to four days after a disappearance, but that can only be used depending on the weather. If it’s raining, the scent is washed away.
In 2013 I was hired to recover Sandra Bullock’s kidnapped dog in the US, which I got back. Of course, that was very good PR. Since then I have worked for Geri Halliwell of the Spice Girls, Angelina Jolie and Liam Gallagher. Most people who hire me, however, generally don’t have money. The majority would be borderline working class. Pets just mean so much to them.
In an average month I would go to five or six different countries, including Ireland, the UK, France, Germany Sweden, Switzerland – all over, and the US a couple of times. When you’re going on an investigation, you’re meeting a lot of people door to door, and the crack you have with people is something else. The amount of friends I’ve built up around the world is unbelievable.
I don’t do a lot of work in Ireland any more. If I was travelling to Ireland from London for a case, it would probably cost the clients about €1,000, including travel.
There are an awful lot of pets stolen in Ireland, and coupled with little CCTV compared with the UK, there’s no accountability. A lot are stolen to order. Organised criminals make a big living out of this. They follow and target people and know exactly what they’re getting when they break into a house to steal a pet. The dog could be worth €2,500-€3,000 and they’ll already have a buyer for it in another country.
It’s as dangerous as you make it for a pet detective. When I was working in Ireland more often, a few years back, I found it very dangerous. In the UK I have emergency touch buttons on my jackets and my mobile is connected to special branch detectives wherever I’m working. I’ve had people take machetes to me, firearms – whatever. I’ve been set on fire in a vehicle too. All of that skulduggery has always happened in Ireland, though, never anywhere else.
The majority of cases I’ve seen in the UK are by people of Irish descent stealing them and bringing them back to Ireland. They’re supplying puppy farms. Ireland is the puppy farm capital of the world.
Always in the months of November and December, there’s an increase in pet theft. Pets are stolen to order for people at Christmas, especially puppies. Criminals target puppy breeders across Ireland, and virtually all of them would be brought to the UK. They’ll sell them online and will never advertise the real pet as the one that you’re buying. They’ll never ever arrange to meet you where there’s a camera. They’ll use addresses, for instance, where an elderly person has recently died to make sure nobody is living there, and when the buyer is on their way they’ll change the address at the last minute to somewhere off a motorway.
Nowadays people never think it will happen to them. They leave animals tied up and vulnerable. If you’ve got a pedigree cat, you’re better off having a run where the cat is enclosed and can’t get nicked. With regards to dogs, if you love your pet enough, you’re better off having some sort of deterrent such as a security camera, especially in rural areas. Most stolen dogs are lifted in rural areas.
In 2024 we plan to franchise out our company, Happy Tails Detective. We’re going to do training in Ireland, Australia, Japan and South America. Our plan is to set up “pet police departments” in different countries, which would allow people on social welfare a chance to work with animals. Twice a year we’re going to do flash-training courses in Ireland, but we will only take about 10 per course. It’ll be an awful lot crammed into one week for specialised training.
If somebody is interested being trained up as a pet detective, they can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
In conversation with Conor Capplis