PokéBase - Pokémon Q&A
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It seems to me that it would be perfectly legal (and produce the same result) to just catch the Pokemon and trade it with whoever wants them. So why do they do it the illegal way and steal them? Or am I missing something?

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Number one, for plot. They need something different than just, "fight gym, get stronger" in the anime. Second, they probably don't want to have to train up a new Pokemon when one already strong is right there [eg. why Team Rocket is always after Pikachu. It's something funny for the kids to laugh at, and it provides plot. Inside the lore, Pikachu is a very strong Pokemon and they want the rewards for obtaining it].

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