Case study: Going undercover for a campaign

Dogs Trust investigated covertly how new rules led to a rise in puppy-trafficking. Susannah Birkwood reports

Dogs Trust investigated covertly how new rules led to a rise in puppy-trafficking
Dogs Trust investigated covertly how new rules led to a rise in puppy-trafficking

Conducting an undercover investigation can be difficult and dangerous – and the Dogs Trust was advised to ensure that no members of the team who worked on a recent covert project were identified in any media coverage.

"There is a degree of security that we've been told to put in place, so we can't give out certain details and shouldn't have our names mentioned," a spokeswoman for Dogs Trust told Third Sector.

The investigation was about whether the government's Pet Travel Scheme, introduced in 2012, was leading to a growth in the illegal importation of puppies to the UK. The scheme reduced the length of quarantine time for pet dogs, cats and ferrets coming into the UK from six months to just three weeks, and Dogs Trust believed that the relaxation would result in a big increase in the number of puppies being trafficked into the country from eastern Europe because they could be sold in the UK at much higher prices.

But when the charity put this to Nigel Gibbens, chief veterinary officer at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it felt its concerns fell on deaf ears. "He just wouldn't listen," says the spokeswoman. "He told us that if we could provide evidence that this was becoming more of an issue, he'd see what action they could take."

So the charity asked animal welfare organisations in eastern Europe to help it to identify the main countries from which puppies entering the UK were coming. Lithuania and Hungary were identified as major areas to investigate because rabies was a risk there and large numbers of puppies had entered the UK from those countries since 2012.

Next, the charity contacted the agency Tracks Investigations, which placed investigators in each country on the charity's behalf. Over the course of two months, the investigators secured covert video footage of 15 puppy breeders and dealers who had trafficked puppies to the UK.

The investigators also posed as dealers in order to catch out vets who were willing to falsify pet passports so puppies that did not meet the requirements for entering the UK could still travel. They identified puppies that were about to be transported and photographed the trucks that brought the animals into the UK.

One of the challenges the charity faced was ensuring the investigation did not do anything that might be perceived as fuelling the smuggling trade. So when investigators in Hungary succeeded in buying two puppies from a breeder who provided passports with falsified dates of birth and fake rabies vaccination details, they made sure that the dogs were rehomed responsibly, close to where they had been bought.

So what did the investigation accomplish? The spokeswoman says it provided the charity with the evidence it had been asked for, demonstrating that the Pet Travel Scheme was indeed being used as a cover for the illegal import of puppies into the UK. This has enabled it to approach not only Defra but also numerous MPs and members of the European Commission and to get questions about puppy smuggling tabled in the European Parliament.

It also persuaded the Conservative MP Neil Parish, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare until the dissolution of parliament, that it was one of the most pressing animal welfare issues that should be addressed in the next parliament.

"The evidence gave us a route to key opinion-formers," the spokeswoman says. "People come to us now asking for our research and what the solutions need to be. Having the report and the video evidence gives us more credibility and demonstrates that this is an issue that can't be dismissed any more."

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