We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.

The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?

On November 12 Mary took her little Norwich terrier, Lola, for a walk in the park across from the Newberry Library, then went to visit a cousin who was in hospice care nearby, leaving her tote bag and Lola in her car at a meter on Walton. About 40 minutes later Walgreens rang Mary’s cell with the news that someone had found her tote bag, which contained a prescription bottle, about a mile away, near North and LaSalle.

Mary called the police and raced to her car. The hatch lock was broken, and Lola was gone, along with her blanket and leash and a shopping bag with her bowl and food. A commercial photographer, Mary had an out-of-town shoot the following day and had planned to drop Lola off at a friend’s later that afternoon. She never imagined she was leaving the 20-month-old dog in danger. “There were so many people around, and it was broad daylight,” she says. But the guilt gnaws at her. “It’s like leaving your children. I should have known better.”

Knowing better isn’t necessarily a defense against a determined dognapper. Less than two hours after Lola was abducted, a 13-year-old boy was walking a bull terrier named Clementine in Lincoln Park when a man leaned over the puppy, brazenly unhooked its leash, and took off with it in a truck driven by an accomplice.

Statistics on animal theft in Chicago don’t exist–police file the incidents under property theft–but Sergeant Brian Degenhardt, head of the city’s eight-officer Animal Abuse Control Team, says he hears about a dognapping at least once a month. He thinks the crime is probably underreported because people assume their dogs just ran away. “The thing that drives me up a wall is when I see people tying their dogs to parking meters and running into Starbucks,” he says, noting that thieves are opportunistic and too many people create opportunities.

Mary says the officer who responded to her call said she’d probably never see Lola again. Since then people have told her that small animals are sometimes used as bait for fighting dogs–to give them “a taste of blood.” She’s also heard that dogs are hawked out of cars on the Illinois-Indiana border, sold on the street, or sold to labs for use in scientific experiments.

More than 1,000 research labs are registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct experiments on animals. “Just about any big-name university does animal research,” says Martin Stephens, vice president of animal-research issues with the Humane Society of the United States. Dogs have been used in cardiac and arthritis research and in studies that determine the toxicity of chemicals.

The USDA determines who can sell live animals for research purposes, licensing two classes of dealers. Class A dealers breed their own animals; Class B dealers do not. According to the recent HBO documentary Dealing Dogs, veterinary schools and research labs buy 65,000 dogs every year, most from Class B dealers, who charge less.

Not all Class B dealers–there were around 1,200 at the beginning of the year–sell to research labs, but according to Darby Holladay, a USDA spokesman, those who do get their animals from “random sources.” These sources include pounds and shelters and middlemen known as “bunchers.”

“Bunchers are basically unlicensed dealers,” says Stephens. “They have been known to resort to all kinds of unscrupulous acts,” including picking up puppies advertised as free to a good home and hopping fences to grab dogs in backyards.

Holladay says the government requires dealers, who are subject to surprise inspections, to “maintain records of acquisition and disposition” for their animals. But it’s easy to fake a paper trail for stolen pets.

In her search for Lola, Mary has run ads in newspapers and distributed more than 1,000 flyers, giving them to pet stores and corner groceries, stapling them to trees, and faxing them to vets across the city. A few times a week she searches the cages at the city pound and local animal shelters. She’s also offering a reward. She describes Lola as “totally friendly,” a “bit feisty,” and “probably the cutest dog on the planet” and hopes she ended up endearing herself to her abductors or new owners–though not to the point that they won’t return her.

Mary has accumulated five legal pads’ worth of phone numbers and leads. “My career has been going by the wayside since this happened,” she says. “My agent is about to kill me.” Among the callers responding to her flyers are strangers offering sympathy, scammers with their eye on the reward (which is why she didn’t want her last name used), and kids having fun at her expense. She says a few girls call periodically, claiming, between giggles, to have Lola. They say they’re bathing or brushing the dog or watching Lady and the Tramp with her. Twice they agreed to meet Mary at the library on Division Street to give the dog back but never showed. Mary has also waited, to no avail, at a McDonald’s and a Burger King for callers who said they had Lola or had information about where she was.

Sergeant Degenhardt says he and his team have been working hard to find Lola and are now “following up with persons of interest.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the same people who took Clementine took Lola,” says Mary. According to a Sun-Times story, Clementine–the puppy that was nabbed two miles from where Lola was taken–was later sold on the street for $200. The new owner returned the puppy several days later, after seeing its picture in the paper.

Mary struggled with the idea of offering a reward. “If you do put up a big reward you’re encouraging dog theft,” she says. But she loves Lola and wants her back. “If they come forward they get a reward–no questions asked.”