PAWS Atlanta, a no-kill animal shelter in Decatur, is set up to take in animals in need and send them back into the world with new owners — but not the way it happened early Friday morning.

Manager Laura McKelvey said she and two other employees had to go to the shelter in the middle of the night after being alerted by their security cameras about a dog abandoned in their parking lot. As they tried to trap the dog, they saw a suspicious person and heard breaking glass.

They called 911, but when DeKalb County police showed up around 2:30 a.m., the burglary suspect had already left with three dogs. The thief had taken a toy Yorkshire Terrier named Princeton and two mixed-breed puppies, Emilia and Violet.

McKelvey said she thought the dogs were targeted for their potential monetary value.

“It’s going to be small breed dogs and puppies that people are going to think they can sell,” she said.

A fourth dog, a senior poodle mix named Lincoln, was dropped by the thief on the way out.

Craig Brazeman, an Atlanta-based private investigator who has taken on several cases of dog theft pro bono, echoed McKelvey.

“There’s definitely a black market for these dogs,” Brazeman said.

McKelvey said police responded quickly after they called 911. A DeKalb police spokeswoman confirmed the incident was under investigation.

“We have filed a report with the police,” McKelvey said. “We hope they can figure this out, but if they can’t, we still hope someone will return those animals to us. Or if they see them somewhere for sale, we can go get them back.”

Toy Yorkies can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars if purchased from a breeder, but Atlanta’s animal shelters are filled with mixed-breed puppies like Emilia and Violet. Still, puppies tend to be more valuable than adult dogs of similar breeding, and McKelvey said the loss of the two puppies was “particularly devastating.” Emilia and Violet had been abandoned at PAWS Atlanta in poor condition.

“When they first came to us, they were very shut down and shy and sick,” McKelvey said. “They were very, very sick. We’ve had them a couple of months, trying to get them nursed through it.”

McKelvey said the suspect threw a rock through the facility’s adoption area window. A fence behind the building was knocked down, which led McKelvey to suspect two people were involved. They would have needed a car to get away before the police arrived, she noted.

Another shelter manager who does much of the maintenance has already gotten new doors to install, McKelvey said.

“But the real expense will be adding more cameras and beefing up the security,” she added.

The metro Atlanta area has seen several cases of “dog-napping” in recent years, a trend that accelerated nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, Time magazine reported.

Earlier this year, two men stole a French Bulldog puppy valued at $10,000 from the Dunwoody location of Petland, a pet store chain that has been repeatedly targeted in recent years. Dunwoody police, who offered a $5,000 reward in the case, have not responded to questions about the theft.

Petland has been targeted by dog thieves at least five times since 2019. Another French Bulldog puppy worth $7,000 was stolen when a man placed the dog in a paper bag and walked out with it. Months later, in April 2020, two men stole five puppies worth about $15,000 from Petland.

The following month, suspected burglars again targeted the shop, but Petland’s owner was prepared this time. Police said the owner was sleeping in the back of the shop when two men used a trashcan lid to break a window into the store. The suspects were in the process of grabbing three more French Bulldog puppies when the owner confronted them with a shotgun.

When one of the suspects moved toward the owner, he fired a shot, sending the suspects running. The two men escaped without injury, and no pets were taken.

Brazeman said he believes dogs are stolen because they’re easy to find and potential thieves know “someone is going to pay for them.” In one case he investigated, a client had two French Bulldogs stolen from a veterinary office in Buckhead. One was tracked down in Miami, Florida, and the other was found when someone reported a person trying to sell a French Bulldog out of the trunk of a car at a gas station.

Clients often turn to Brazeman’s firm when they get frustrated with law enforcement, he said. Whether it’s a matter of manpower or willpower, Brazeman explained that police are often not able to prioritize dog thefts at the level victims expect.

Even for people who can hire a private investigator, success isn’t guaranteed.

“We’ve investigated about a dozen dog thefts in the past few years,” Brazeman said. “Sadly, we’ve only found about half the dogs.”

McKelvey said PAWS Atlanta has always dealt with pet abandonments and unscheduled surrenders, but the problem has gotten worse in recent months.

“Rescues and shelters are so full right now, people are getting desperate,” she said.