DANETTE and Jim Bader were stunned when they came home from work recently and found their two purebred Siberian Huskies, Angel and Misha, missing.
For the past three years, the Baders had let their dogs romp during the day in their 11-acre yard in Marthasville, a rural community 50 miles west of St. Louis.
The dogs wore receiver collars and were trained to stay inside an electronic fence. Angel was also hooked up to a 50-foot dog run.
"A red pickup truck with dog cages was spotted the weekend before they disappeared. They disappeared on a Tuesday and that was about it," says Mrs. Bader.
Missouri, the self-proclaimed "show-me state" is quickly gaining the reputation as the "steal-me state."
Since the beginning of the year, more than 200 dogs have been reported stolen in St. Louis and several adjoining counties. In Missouri, dog theft is a felony.
The recent rash of missing pets has prompted Sheriff Michael Baker of Warren County to join forces with law-enforcement and animal-control agencies from seven eastern Missouri counties. By pooling leads and information on suspects, they hope to collar a dognapping ring that has been snatching pets from yards and kennels.
Local experts consider Missouri a hub for top-dollar canine dealing and say the missing dogs are a sure sign animal dealers are gearing up for springtime dog auctions.
Nationwide, according to one animal-rights group, as many as 2 million dogs and cats are stolen each year and wind up in breeding facilities, dog-fighting rings, or biomedical research laboratories.
Many animal-rights activists say pets are being stolen, then sold to animal dealers licensed by the US Department of Agriculture.
These so-called "random source" dealers are brokers who typically gather dogs by legal means from dog pounds or animal shelters. They may buy a dog for about $20 to $40 dollars, depending on the dog's size, then resell the animal to research laboratories for an average of $250.
Missouri has about 300 random source dealers and some 40 registered research facilities. It leads the nation in the number of USDA-licensed animal dealers.
Another source of dogs for random source dealers are the weekend "dog and gun trade days," which, in essence are big flea markets held in rural areas.
"The 'dog auctions' or trade and sale days are not illegal," says Barbara Peterson, manager of the Stolen Pet Program for In Defense of Animals, a California-based national animal-advocacy organization.
"What is illegal is [when] there's a concentration of what we call 'bunchers', which are basically unlicensed dealers, middlemen, who will, in some cases be physically the ones who steal dogs," says Ms. Peterson. "They will characteristically come to these trade and sale days or dog auctions and sell to licensed dealers or other bunchers."
Bunchers not only sell dogs to licensed animal dealers, they also sell to people who own, train, and fight pit bulls.
"A fully trained guard dog - a Doberman, for instance - won't last two minutes with an adult pit bull," says Don Anthony, former director of the Missouri Humane Society.
Investigators with the Humane Society say Missouri is one of the leading states in the country for dog thefts, estimating as many as 25,000 are sold by bunchers here every year.
Curt Ransom, chief investigator for the Humane Society of Missouri says, "A lot of these dealers are the farm wife or the farmer that just can't make it on one type of farming."
Meanwhile, law-enforcement agencies in St. Louis report little progress yet cracking the latest dognapping ring.
"What we understand from our information is that a person stealing dogs would not dispose of those dogs locally. They will go to the opposite side of the state or into the adjacent state," says Maj. Ray Runyan, chief deputy of the Warren County Sheriff's Department.
Under the Animal Welfare Act, random source dealers are required to tag each dog they buy.
They're also required to keep an inventory listing the tag numbers, names, and addresses of the sellers and a brief description of each animal. When a USDA inspector visits a dealer's facilities, this inventory must be produced.
But a 1991 USDA task force found dog dealers routinely falsified records. Since then, some officials say more spot audits of dealers have reduced the sale of stolen dogs.
Dog cops can't cope
But the Agriculture Department, which employs 79 inspectors and 53 investigators to handle 13,000 licensees, concedes it has a continuing problem with random source dealers.
Mike Dunn, assistant secretary for marketing and regulation , says his agency's hands are all but tied when investigating shady animal dealers.
When violations are found, Mr. Dunn says, "it is extremely difficult for us to be able to get that individual out of business." He says dealers consider the "minimal" fines as "merely the cost of doing business."
Officials at medical research laboratories say they are well aware of concerns about pet theft. Each animal is examined for tattoo identifications and scanned for microchip ID, they say. Pet owners are encouraged to have the rice-size chips imbedded under the skin of their animals.
Dunn says the USDA is considering introducing legislation that eliminates random source dealers.
But the National Association of Biomedical Research, a lobbying group that represents 350 institutions ranging from universities to chemical companies, strongly opposes the introduction of such legislation because it would raise medical research costs.
Barbara Rich, the group's executive vice president, says buying animals bred for research is twice as expensive as buying random source or "Class B" dogs.
"Right now, the average cost of a B dealer's animal is about $250," says Ms. Rich. "Your average purpose-bred animal is about $500, although the cost can go up to $1,200 to $1,500, depending on the animal."
Animal-rights activists don't expect the legislation to ban random source dealers any time soon. They say each time the USDA comes under scrutiny, it proposes new regulations. But such proposals are frequently shelved or, if passed, are not enforced.
This offers no comfort to Danette Bader, who continues to search for her two Huskies.
"The hardest part about the whole thing is not knowing where they are," she says. "Some days I wake up and think they're in a happy home with kids to play with. Other times I'll think they're at a breeder's facility where they're not being cared for properly, or at a research facility having these horrible tests done."