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The Law: Cruelty to Animals

Thirty days is the maximum penalty for cruelty to animals in Illinois. Here, as in every other state, pets are considered property.

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One night last summer Philip Rinn tied a chain around the neck of his two-year-old, 80-pound Labrador retriever and dragged him behind his car, burning several large areas of skin off the dog's body. When the dog didn't die, Rinn ran over him a couple of times until he did, then left him in the ditch. Rinn later said he did it because the dog had chewed up his sofa. He was charged with cruel treatment of an animal and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

People in Saint Charles, where Rinn lived, were outraged by the light sentence. Someone pointed out that if Rinn had been charged with littering he could have gotten six months. But 30 days is the maximum penalty for cruelty to animals in Illinois, where, as in every state, dogs are property. Still, a degree of justice was achieved; the judge ordered Rinn to spend 100 hours cleaning dead animals off the highways.

This case and others have focused attention on the limitations of the state law, and as a result Representative Tom Johnson recently introduced a bill to stiffen the penalties of the 1973 Humane Care for Animals Act. Among other things, the bill would make "aggravated cruelty" to animals--an act resulting in "serious, malicious harm or death"--a Class A misdemeanor. For someone like Rinn that could mean a year in jail or a $1,000 fine. That would be a big change, says Dr. David Bromwell, chief veterinarian for the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Animal Welfare and the person responsible for the drafting of the Humane Care Act. He points out that 20 years ago children and animals were lumped together under one ineffective law, and it would have been unusual for someone to be fined even $20 for animal abuse.

Steven Gross, cochairman of HumanePac, an animal-protection political action committee, is the catalyst behind Johnson's bill. Gross has been working closely with Bromwell, who apparently has the power to make or break animal legislation in this state; at his suggestion the bill includes the Class A misdemeanor language and proposes making all other violations--consisting of various forms of neglect, which are now only petty offenses--Class C misdemeanors.

"I'm just trying to make it so it will sell to the legislators," says Bromwell. "I want it to win. You don't present something that can't win. I'll testify for it, but I want it to be effective." Gross is confident the bill, which now has 20 cosponsors, will pass. "It's very unlikely we're going to have any opposition. Can you imagine anyone coming out and saying no?"

Farmers and trappers blocked a similar bill proposed last March by Senator Beverly Fawell. Shocked by stories she heard of dogs having their feet dipped in lye and cats being skinned alive, Fawell wanted to make "humane violations" Class A misdemeanors and in some cases even Class 4 felonies. "As soon as you start talking at all about cruel and unusual punishment to animals you just get all these people coming down on you," Fawell says. "I had tried to come up with something that made sense and was going to accomplish basically what I wanted to accomplish. But I don't care how many times you work with these people, they don't seem to understand or want to understand. I had people ask things like "What about boiling a lobster?' or "What if you catch a fish and cut its head off while it's still alive?' I said, "Don't give me that. That's not what I'm talking about."'

But Bromwell believes Fawell's bill failed because it was too vague and went too far in attempting to classify some acts of cruelty as felonies. He says the state isn't ready for such a step. Johnson's bill was carefully written to apply only to domestic animals.

But even if Johnson's bill passes, some people think it won't do much good. They say cruelty is almost never punished now, so stricter penalties for it will mean little. "It's a catch-22," says Ann Church, director of state legislation for the Humane Society of the United States. "Law enforcement doesn't want to enforce anything that isn't worth their effort. It takes a lot of effort to go out, catch these people, and bring them in. And they want to make sure it will result in something."

Gross insists a Class A misdemeanor will get results when the abuse can be proved. "I mean, the judge in the Rinn case wanted to kill the guy. He would've given him the one year and the $1,000 fine. But I do agree that there's a point at which you're not going to be successful because the courts will not enforce it. The courts do not really believe in animal rights. That's not part of our culture yet. It's like women's rights. The fact of the matter is that husbands could beat their wives until the 1970s. There were no penalties, and it wasn't until we began changing our views that that changed. And it's going to be the same thing with animals."

Bromwell agrees that the courts can be a problem. "You can't make the penalties so strict--even though you desire it--because the courts won't abide by it. They won't pursue it to that extent." Especially if the penalties for abusing animals are harsher than those for abusing people. He describes a Chicago case in which the molesting of a child by her grandfather was considered a Class A misdemeanor. "That's a heck of a lot worse. So it becomes a question of degree--and I think this is the reason the courts don't pursue it."

Other people point out that if it's hard to make a case in court when the abuse is obvious and shocking, it's even harder to make a case when the abuse is in the form of neglect. Johnson's bill would certainly make the penalties for neglect stiff, but it doesn't change the language that defines the offenses. And that language is both limited and vague, which makes neglect cases difficult to prove in court.

The current Humane Care for Animals Act attempts to provide protection for every species of animal. There are long paragraphs describing how animals can be used in entertainment, how they must be transported, why they can be impounded. There are even two paragraphs on police dogs. But the tiny section that deals with companion animals says only that owners must provide their pets with sufficient food and water, adequate shelter, veterinary care when needed, and humane treatment. No guidelines are given as to what "sufficient," "adequate," or "humane" are--which makes every neglect case a judgment call.

Last January, the coldest in more than three decades, in Lanark, a small rural community 25 miles southwest of Freeport, a 12-week-old puppy named Baby was left outside day and night for more than a month, shivering inside a doghouse that was open to the northeast. He didn't lie on his blanket because it was frozen solid. He couldn't run around to warm himself because his chain was tangled around the doghouse. Baby's owner would bring him a dish of dry food and water every day or maybe every few days. Baby would have to drink the water quickly because it would soon be a block of ice.

Local animal-control officers, the main enforcers of the state and county laws, must issue warnings in neglect cases based on their interpretation of terms such as "adequate" and "sufficient." And it's hard for an officer to observe an animal regularly enough to make such a determination. Moreover, animals vary so much that consistency in applying the law becomes impossible; chaining a Saint Bernard out in the cold is not as bad as chaining out a Chihuahua.

Then there's what Bromwell calls a quirk in the law. "There are people--neighbors, say--who week in and week out have gone over and indulged the animals. Then they'll complain to the department. And we'll go out, and they'll have given the dog food and water--and there's nothing we can take any action on because the neighbor technically has provided it."

Helen Rogers knew this only too well. She could see Baby from her living room window. She saw him get tangled in his chain, she watched him dig for food, and at night she was kept awake listening to him howl. Again and again she phoned in complaints to Scott Young, the Caroll County animal-control officer. Young came out once or twice, but he said that because Rogers and other neighbors had been feeding the puppy there was no evidence of neglect. He admitted that the doghouse wasn't adequate and said he would speak to the owners about moving it closer to the house. But he said the bottom line was that the dog's owners weren't breaking the law.

Phillip Snyder, director of the North Central Region for the Humane Society of the United States, agrees. "Maybe they don't show that dog any attention, or take him off his chain, or bring him in the house and play with him like we would like. But is that a crime? In most cases no. Sadly, animals aren't like people. If a dog could say, 'Look, I'm freezing to death every night, and I don't want to be here,' you've got a case. But they don't speak. So we have to do the speaking for them. And you can speak with your feelings, but in the long run you have to speak about the law."

For nearly two years Rogers had attempted to have her neighbors, the Vietmeyers, punished for the way they treated their previous pet, a small spaniel mix named Sandy. This dog too was rarely fed and got little attention, except when the kids came out to torment her with sticks. Rogers's attempts to get Young to act on behalf of Sandy were, for the most part, ignored. "She's got the chief of police in Lanark involved, the mayor involved," said Young at the time. "Somebody on the county board she's called. I've been on the phone I'm afraid to guess how many times. The state's attorney, you name it, she's called. After a year and a half, two years, yeah, it's starting to become a hassle."

The problem seemed to come to an end when Sandy managed to pull out the stake that secured her chain. A neighbor reported seeing her wandering the neighborhood, and then she disappeared. It took the Vietmeyers more than a day to realize she was gone. Barely a week later Baby was chained outside in her place.

When Rogers got nowhere with Young when she complained about Baby, she started documenting the puppy's living conditions. As Young himself points out, "A lot of times you pretty much have to take the neighbors' word, somebody who's there, because you can't spend 10, 12 hours in the same place." Philip Rinn's neighbors had helped make the case against him by refuting his story that the dog attacked his wife; they testified that the dog had always been extremely docile.

Nevertheless, when Young was asked why he'd ignored Rogers's reports, he said he couldn't rely on what neighbors told him because they were too likely to be having feuds among themselves. "I'm afraid if I go in there and take that dog I could possibly be in court," he added. "I work for the county, and the county could be in trouble." He said he had jurisdiction only in rural areas, not within town limits--which is technically true. But the residents of Lanark have routinely called on him in other cases, and he's responded.

Finally Rogers, along with other neighbors, sent a letter to state's attorney Val Gunnarsson, and he charged the puppy's owner with a petty offense. Rogers also filed a complaint against Young with the county board, and the board suspended him for one week.

Through all this Baby remained chained outdoors in the cold. Only when the mercury dropped to 25 below, with a wind chill of 60 below, did Young, now back on the job, impound the dog and take her to the shelter.

Couldn't this situation have been avoided if the language of the law were a little more specific? It would seem that at the very least such a move would make the job easier for local animal-control officers. "It'd be easier to enforce," says Young. "But who's going to sit down and say exactly what the conditions should be?"

David Bromwell believes the broadness of the existing law allows animal-control officers to punish offenders in a wide variety of situations. "We want the vagueness there. We want the ambiguity, because technically if you made it otherwise the statute book would be a yard thick. And what would be adequate in Chicago would be totally inadequate in another area."

But the Humane Society's Ann Church believes there are ways to make the law clearer without making it unwieldy. "A law will say you have to have 'adequate water,' but it may say 'adequate water' means supplying it twice a day. Well, nobody can stand there for 24 hours and watch it being supplied--and if someone did stand there 24 hours a day it would be supplied. That's why we prefer to use language like 'water has to be available at all times.' It can't be ice."

Illinois allows counties to clarify state law, and some counties have. Dr. Daniel Boyle, director of Du Page County Animal Control, says his county passed an ordinance to clarify what "adequate shelter" is. "I was afraid that someone could convince the judge that propping a piece of plywood against a house is adequate shelter. So we've defined it for a dog as four walls. The conditions inside must be dry and clean, and it has to be a minimum size according to the size of the dog." So far this kind of language seems to be working well for the county.

Church also believes it would help if the law gave the animal-control officers a little more authority. Some counties around the country, none in Illinois, now allow officers to write tickets for violations on the spot, for up to $75. She likes this method because it exacts punishment without bogging down the court system. "Of course the person has the right to go to court and appeal it, just like you do a traffic ticket. But chances are they're going to just pay the ticket and correct the situation."

There's no plan now to make these kinds of changes statewide. "It's not that it isn't necessary," says the Humane Society's Phillip Snyder. "It's just that there are so many priorities. You go not only with what you know is needed, but what you know will pass." Yet he believes the laws on cruelty are far more important than people realize. "I think we have to push for more concern for the relationship between animal cruelty and human violence." In a letter of testimony to the Illinois Senate he reported that 75 percent of people serving time in prison for violent crimes had an early history of cruelty to animals. "I think that's a very important link as to why animal cruelty should be treated very seriously. That's not to say that everybody that abuses animals goes on to commit violent crimes, but that seems like a startling percentage. There definitely is a tie-in. There definitely is a reason to be concerned, and there's a reason to have stronger penalties so that somebody will think twice."

Helen Rogers remains frustrated. "It took me such a long time to get anybody to do anything," she says. And in the end her victory was a small one. Michelle Vietmeyer--she and her husband had separated by this time--was charged with a petty offense and ordered to pay a $150 fine. If Johnson's bill passes, people like her could be fined up to $500 or spend 30 days in jail.

Unfortunately, those who mistreat animals are often repeat offenders, and Illinois law doesn't allow anyone to be restricted from owning another animal for more than two years. And few people, including Vietmeyer, ever have this restriction placed on them. After Baby was impounded, it was up to Young to decide whether the puppy would be returned to Vietmeyer. He never had to make that call. Baby was stolen from the shelter. But Rogers holds her breath every day when she looks out her window, knowing that there's nothing to keep Vietmeyer from getting another dog.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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