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A new problem in Jerusalem: dognappers

JERUSALEM—Lisa Richlen didn't think much of it when her three-year-old dog, Shayna, disappeared in the woody, terraced park where she'd taken her precocious pet to play. Richlen figured Shayna would turn up at her door later that night—just as she had before.

It wasn't until her phone rang a few hours later that Richlen realized that she, or, more precisely, Shayna, had stumbled into the hands of Jerusalem dognappers.

"We've got your dog," said the voice on the other end of the line. "How much are you going to pay?"

There are many things that divide the 700,000 residents of Jerusalem. Politics. Religion. Class. Culture. Now small-time criminals have found a unique way to exploit the fissures dividing neighbor from neighbor.

They've started snatching people's dogs.

In a city preoccupied with larger political quandaries, dognapping has gone largely unreported to the police. But it's well known among Jerusalem's dog owners.

"Someone invented the idea and it worked," said Daniel Stroul, owner of the Animal House pet store. "It's a good way of making money. People care about their dogs, so they know they are going to pay."

The crime appears to be primarily one of opportunity. And since Muslims generally consider dogs unclean, dognappers primarily target Jerusalem's Jewish residents.

"Jews love their dogs," said Nasser, a plump 10-year-old boy who confessed to having grabbed more than a few canines. Arabs, he said, won't pay anything to get their dogs back.

The play is simple. Dognappers like Nasser linger in city parks, waiting for unsuspecting dog owners to let their pets loose. They look for dogs with collars and tags so they can identify the owners. Then they take their canine captives to the man whom some call The Master.

He calls himself The Dog Lover. The boys know him as Fahed, a quiet, thin, 23-year-old construction worker with curly gelled hair and a leather jacket that give him a James Dean air.

"I love dogs," said Fahed, who, like Nasser, wouldn't give his last name. "To me, dogs are more sincere than humans."

The Arabic-speaking kids come to Fahed because he knows enough Hebrew to call the dog owners and negotiate a deal. Fahed sees himself as a kind of Good Samaritan, a middleman who can reunite worried owners with their beloved pets.

"They don't steal the dogs; they find them," said Fahed. "If a dog comes my way, what can I do? Even if they bring the police, I found the dog and I'm giving it back."

Sometimes Fahed gives the kids $10 and takes over from there. Other times he serves as a go-between for more savvy kids who like to cut their own deals.

The prices vary by dog. One dognapper is revered for getting nearly $500 to return a longtime companion to its owner.

Owners seem grateful as well. Fahed said they have brought him money, gifts and bags of dog food. One owner even brought a cake.

When Richlen got the call last fall about Shayna, she offered $10 and the man hung up. Richlen, an associate director for a migrant workers advocacy group, enlisted the help of a Palestinian friend, who shamed the dognappers into cutting their demands from $75 to $35. A few hours later, Richlen met the young dognapper at a bus stop and the exchange was made.

Like other owners, Richlen didn't contact the police because she just wanted Shayna home safely.

"I think it's really unfortunate that people choose to make money off exploiting other people," said Richlen. "It's extortion. I understand that people are desperate, but there's no justification for ripping off innocent people."

Fahed says he's given dogs back without getting paid when owners tearfully say they have no money. He looks down on other dognappers from a nearby neighborhood who steal dogs and sell them to others. And he's conscious of the political fallout that dognapping has on the socio-political climate.

"One woman said that Arabs are thieves and she had no money," Fahed said. "What could I do? I believed her. Sometimes I feel bad when people lose their dogs. I don't think we should give such an impression."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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