A kind old lady feeding her neighbour’s cat is not attempted theft, is it?

A kind old lady feeding her neighbour's cat is not attempted theft is it?
A kind old lady feeding their neighbour’s cat is not attempted theft, is it? Image: MikeB
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You may know (the answer to the question in the title) and I recently wrote about the UK government introducing the crime of pet theft. ‘Ordinary theft’ under the Theft Act 1968 covers pet theft but it doesn’t do justice to companion animal theft because of the emotional distress caused to both companion animal and their caregivers.

Update: Christopher Wake, of South Croydon, London, writing to The Times said the following: “As a pet owner I acknowledge the emotional distress involved in the theft of family pets but new legislation is not required. The Theft Act 1968 allows for a five-year prison sentence, the same as in the proposed pet abduction bill. Unless the police investigate such crimes more thoroughly and judges are directed to impose stiffer prison sentences, this new legislation will achieve nothing that can’t be achieved by present laws.”

Comment: perhaps the government thinks that with a specific law concerned only with pet theft, judges and the police will take the matter more seriously and there will be more prosecutions and longer sentences? Also I suspect that the new law will include reference to the emotional distress caused when sentencing. This is a vital difference.

That’s the motivation behind the UK government’s new Bill currently passing through Parliament called the Pet Abduction Bill.

The punishment will be tailored to the theft of companion animals with a possible five-year prison sentence on conviction and/or a fine. It’s great news for animal advocates like myself.

But picture the scene, as The Times suggests today; of a strange cat which might well be a neighbour’s cat strolling into the garden of an elderly lady who lives 10 houses down from the cat’s owner. The cat likes to go into the garden because the kind old lady likes to feed the cat. And the food she provides is better than the food provided by the owner!

Minutes later the police, with sirens blaring and lights flashing, race up to this gentle and kind old lady’s front door. They bang on the door and she shuffles up to it, opens the door and is shocked and bemused and a couple of coppers confronting her 😖. Not a pretty scene and not one which needs to happen under what will become the Pet Abduction law when it has successfully passed through Parliament.

RELATED: Volunteer ‘steals’ well-behaved shelter animal to save his life as he was listed to be ‘euthanized’

The Times reports that kindly old ladies “and others who believe they are providing a home for strays will not be criminalised, MPs have heard”.

The Prime Minister is backing the bill and it successfully passed through unopposed on its second reading in the Commons.

However, Sir Edward Leigh, a former Tory minister, said he was worried that the bill risked penalising “innocent ladies”. He has a good point. It’s a very difficult point because ostensibly, on the face of it, feeding someone else’s cat and enticing them away from the owner might be regarded as theft!

Sir Edward added that “Cats are prone to wander, that’s why we love them. And there are these sometimes very kindly old ladies who see a wandering cat and they pick them up, they take them home and feel they are looking after them.”

He said that he remembers his wife’s grandmother who the family referred to as “Granny Meow”. She had 14 cats 💕. And every single one of them she had picked up because she thought they were strays. Edward said that “She was a completely innocent old lady and no question of stealing.”

The member of Parliament sponsoring the bill, Anna Firth, said that it would not punish cases where there had been no malice or intent to steal. This goes to what is called mens rea in the criminal law. There has to be an intent to do something criminal or a recklessness as to the consequences.

If an old lady feeds a stray cat simply with the intention of feeding the cat and benefiting the cat’s welfare without any intent to take that cat from their owner then it would not be theft under this new law. Anna Firth also said that there is a defence of reasonable excuse.

Comment: I can see a problem arising though because although the old lady will be genuine and wants to be helpful, the cat’s owner might not be so kind and gentle. They might be annoyed and irritated because they can see the gradual ‘theft’ of their cat. They might make a formal complaint to the police.

Annabel Berdy, senior advocacy and government relations officer at the Cats Protection charity, said: “No matter what the animal, pet abduction is a particularly abhorrent crime, leaving owners devastated and pets at high risk of mistreatment. We look forward to continuing to work with other animal charities and politicians to help push this bill forward and bring about further protections.”

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