At least three black Labrador retrievers have disappeared from the Hardin community and nearby areas, and while one of the dogs has been recovered and returned home, the others are seemingly "missing without a trace" and the dogs' owners fear they may have been taken by pet thieves looking to profit from their crimes.

At least three black Labrador retrievers have disappeared from the Hardin community and nearby areas, and while one of the dogs has been recovered and returned home, the others are seemingly “missing without a trace” and the dogs’ owners fear they may have been taken by pet thieves looking to profit from their crimes.

White Hall High School student Robyn Gregory, 17, said her black Lab, Cricket, disappeared after a suspicious incident at her family’s home just off U.S. 270 in Hardin on the morning of Saturday, Nov. 24.

Robyn Gregory — a daughter of Robert and Cynthia Gregory — said her family’s automobiles were in use and out of the driveway, possibly indicating that the residence was unoccupied. Gregory heard some noise from inside the residence and looked out to investigate. She spotted an apparently elderly black man, who had gray hair and a gray beard, standing beside a silver Honda Accord. The man had one of the back doors of the car open while attempting to coax Cricket into the vehicle.

When the unidentified man spotted Gregory, he closed the rear door, re-entered the car and slowly drove away. He stopped again after a short distance and exited the car, looked back at the dog and apparently contemplated calling to it once more until Gregory stepped out into the man’s full sight. At that point, the man got back into the car a second time and drove out of the neighborhood.

Gregory said she gave the event little thought until the following morning, when a neighbor who is familiar with Cricket said she had seen the dog in a car at a nearby convenience store. The woman’s descriptions of the car and its driver matched those of the man and vehicle that Gregory had encountered the previous day.

A short time later, a woman contacted Gregory and reported finding Cricket near her German Springs Road home, abandoned and tied to a tree with chicken wire that had been wrapped around its neck. Cricket had been been identified by a rabies tag from a local veterinarian who provided the woman with Gregory’s contact information. The dog, frightened but apparently unharmed, was transported home and has since been kept inside.

There are no leash laws in unincorporated areas of Jefferson County.

Gregory said the matter wasn’t reported to the sheriff’s office, but a family friend who works as a law enforcement officer is “checking out the situation.” Meanwhile, Gregory and her family are also friends of the convenience store’s manager, who reviewed video from a security camera at the operation. The video showed Cricket being loaded into a silver Honda Accord, apparently by the same man Gregory saw outside her home. The car’s license plate was not visible, Gregory said.

Gregory said her friends’ black Labs disappeared within a week of one another during the past month. Gregory said she and friends had been told that a message had been placed on a community bulletin board at another nearby store, offering a $200 reward for a lost or stolen black Lab. A Commercial reporter visited the store Thursday and found no such announcement, but a clerk — unfamiliar with the message — said it could have easily been posted and then removed.

Gregory theorizes that someone might have seen the notice and figured he or she could profit by stealing black Labs and then returning them to their owners for reward money.

A few observers pointed out that some area hunters unfortunately make it a practice to round up unleashed dogs or remove them from fenced areas and then pen them in wooded locations before releasing them so that they can stir deer or other game while running away. After being released, the dogs are usually left to fend for themselves and often wind up falling prey to the elements or wild animals.

Also, dogs — including those that may have been penned — and cats are sometimes taken for breeding purposes. Purebred dogs are normally the favorite target of pet thieves since pedigree translates into street value in the trade. Dogs and cats may also be sold to research laboratories. Some stolen dogs — usually German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers and American Pit Bull Terriers — are used as “bait” in training fighting dogs. And there have also been incidents of pets being stolen and ritualistically tortured or killed.

Arkansas law states that a person commits the act of cruelty to animals if he or she knowingly subjects any animal to cruel mistreatment or abandons an animal without providing for its continued care. Anyone who pleads guilty to, does not contest or is convicted of the offense can be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to community service and up to a year in jail. Each offense can be prosecuted separately with collective penalties.

“No one is obligated to pay anyone anything to get their dog or any other property back,” said Major Lafayette Woods Jr. of the sheriff’s office. “It’s the owner’s choice. If someone demands payment for returning property to its rightful owner, it can become a civil matter that may have to eventually be ruled upon in court, but no one has the right to deny anyone of their property or demand payment of any type to return a person’s property, period. The owner can pay a reward if he or she chooses, but the owner determines that.”

Woods said such schemes, although isolated, have occurred here previously. He recommended some steps to help ensure safety when dealing with someone on pet transactions.

“If you want to pay reward money for a recovered pet, that’s fine,” he said, “but don’t pay anything or agree to anything before you see the pet and determine its condition and if it’s actually your pet. Try to get the name of the person in possession of the pet before you meet them, and demand to meet only at a neutral location. Don’t go alone to meet someone, and don’t meet anyone after dark, unless it’s absolutely necessary. And if you have to meet after dark, make sure it’s at a well-lit location such as Walmart’s parking lot.

“The main thing is that if you become suspicious of the person you’re dealing with or any strangers you might see in your neighborhood, call the sheriff’s office or your police department,” he said.

Woods said it’s wise to keep your pets inside, especially when you’re not at home. Also, don’t allow your pets — including a cat — to roam freely and unsupervised in your neighborhood. If taking your dog for a walk, keep it on a leash.

“Spay or neuter your pets,” Woods said. “The procedure lowers their desires to roam and medical labs many times won’t accept animals that have been altered.”

Woods said pets should be “properly identified” with collar-attached ID tags and licenses. Microchips provide additional security. He also believes it’s wise to never give animals away for free to strangers, have new owners sign a pet adoption contract to ensure proper treatment of the pet and demand proof of ownership before returning a stray animal to a an unknown person who claims to be the pet’s owner.