The pictures were disturbing – emaciated dogs left to fend for themselves when the person responsible for their care walked away from the house, leaving it to the landlord or a bank or whomever.
The dogs – three pit bull mixes, one a puppy – were found dead inside the house in the 5000 block of Bowser Avenue when a cleaning crew arrived to improve the filthy property before it went to auction nearly two years ago.
The file with the pictures sits on Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards desk. No charges have been filed, and its not likely any will since investigators cant determine when exactly the dogs died.
And even if she did file charges, the possible penalty would be much less than Richards would like to see. Under Indiana law, abandoning an animal to its death is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by no more than a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
In a recent case involving animal hoarding, Richards filed only misdemeanor animal cruelty charges, even though many cats were found dead inside the house.
Indianas animal cruelty laws are largely consistent with those of many other states, but local officials wish they were beefed up to provide not just sturdier penalties, but also greater opportunity for preventing future animal abuse.
If she could, though, Richards would like to see such behavior – abandoning animals to die of starvation – treated as a felony, especially when there are resources available for those who can no longer take care of their pets.
If you starve your dog to death, whats the difference between that and beating a dog to death? she asked, adding a list of other offenses against pets such as leaving them in extreme cold or heat until they are dead or chaining it up without access to food and water.
Belinda Lewis, executive director of Fort Waynes Animal Care and Control, said her staff is somewhat limited in abandonment-type cases.
Allowing animals to die as the result of negligence of the owner, such as being left in a hot car, is a misdemeanor in Indiana, Lewis said.
Every case that we look at needs to be investigated for its own merits. But if we think it does rise to the level of a felony, we cant do anything about it, she said.
Unless a defendant has a prior conviction for animal cruelty, Indianas animal statutes classify most crimes against domestic or vertebrate animals as misdemeanors. Only if a person has committed such a crime in the past does the offense rise to the level of a felony.
A good start
The passage of the states puppy mill bill in 2009 strengthened a number of areas in Indianas animal laws, such as cruelty and some regulation of puppy mills.
That, says Anne Sterling, the Midwest director for the Humane Society of the United States, was a good start.
It added penalties for medically neglecting dogs and cats, as well as requiring shelter for animals – something that was surprisingly missing.
That was a real problem, Sterling said. That to me was the big victory in the whole puppy mill bill.
But there are always ways to make it better, she said.
The changes to the laws included adding the phrase cruelly confined to the animal cruelty statute. That provided a provision for criminal charges when an animal is trapped in a hot car, or chained away from food and water for an extended period of time.
Such a change enabled Richards to charge a Fort Wayne couple with Class A misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty when two separate cat colonies were found at their rental homes in March.
Richards charged Constance J. Anderson, 50, and Jeffrey G. Tourney, 45, both of the 600 block of Irene Avenue, with felony counts of criminal mischief and several misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty, and specifically used the language that the cats were restrained in such a way that their health and well-being was jeopardized.
On March 1, city officials received a call about multiple cats abandoned inside a house on Elmer Avenue. When officers from neighborhood code enforcement and animal control arrived at the house, the smell of cat urine was present more than 15 feet from the house and numerous cats were visible through the windows.
The house reeked of cat urine and decaying carcasses. It took days to capture all the living cats inside the Elmer Avenue house and many were found in poor condition. As animal control officials and others investigated, they found the inside of the house was covered in cat feces and urine. Most metal surfaces were rusted, and the thermostat showed 58 degrees inside the house, which had no gas.
They also found a cat skull on the kitchen floor, and inside the refrigerator, covered with a brown sticky substance, were the bodies of 13 dead cats, according to court documents.
On March 8, Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control officials told The Journal Gazette that a total of 98 cats were found inside the house: 84 living and 14 dead.
The couples cat hoard at the Elmer Avenue house, which was ultimately condemned, caused $64,000 in damage. In a different house where the couple were staying at the time of the discovery, a new cat colony caused $13,000 in damage, according to court documents.
At the second location, 23 live cats and 21 dead cats were found, including dead cats in the freezer and bags and boxes of dead kittens were also found, with some of the kittens bodies in pieces and others appeared to have been struck with a blunt object.
Anderson told investigators they did not contact Animal Care & Control because they did not want to get into trouble, according to court documents.
The cases against the two are pending, with a hearing scheduled for early August, according to court records.
Holes in the laws
Illinois and Texas are among a handful of states that require counseling for those who have been arrested for animal abuse.
Indiana does not.
Most judges and prosecutors should notice the behavior, especially in repeat offenders, and require counseling. But if animal cruelty were a felony on the first offense, it would be much easier to mandate therapy and monitor the offenders behavior, Richards said.
The maximum penalty for a Class A (highest level) misdemeanor, such as animal cruelty, is no more than one year in jail. If that sentence were to be suspended, that means theres no more than one year the courts could monitor a persons behavior.
By making animal cruelty a felony, even on the first offense, Richards said it would allow the courts to not only mandate a lengthy counseling period as part of probation, but also restrict the offenders access to animals for that period of time.
A Class D (lowest level) felony is punishable by up to three years in prison.
It gives you more ability, if theyre fixable, to fix it, Richards said.
Indiana also does not allow courts to include protection for pets in domestic violence orders, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Both Lewis and Richards see animal cruelty as a kind of signpost or indicator of larger problems in a family or an individual.
Richards sees definitive connections between animal cruelty and domestic violence or neglect.
It can be the beginning of much more ugliness to come, she said. People dont understand that when you abuse animals, you have a lot of bad stuff going on.