The case of Stacy Fiebelkorn, the owner of a now-defunct petting zoo called Mini Zoo Crew, shocked Kane County Animal Control workers and volunteers who stepped up to care for more than 90 sick and starving animals.
Fiebelkorn, of Elgin, was arrested March 5, charged with one count of a violation of an owner's duty to provide adequate food, shelter and water and vet care to prevent suffering, and one count of cruelty to animals, both misdemeanors.
Fiebelkorn gave up most of her animals, and the rest were taken by forfeiture – horses, ducks, goats, ponies, alpacas, chickens, rabbits, donkeys and turkeys among them. More than a dozen were found dead, and some were euthanized when they could not be saved, officials said.
Because her case still is pending, the Kane County State's Attorney's Office would not comment about it, or what the charges mean in general. But other experts explained the ramifications of animal cruelty charges.
Natasha Whitling, spokeswoman for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the organization works on a variety of animal welfare cases across the country.
"Strong penalties help deter acts of cruelty towards animals," Whitling wrote in an emailed response to a question. "In 2014, South Dakota became the 50th state to enact felony penalties for certain acts of animal cruelty."
Each state decides what types of acts constitute animal cruelty and how severe the penalties will be, Whitling said.
"Many states have demanded greater protections for animals in their communities by passing legislation to strengthen penalties for acts of cruelty," Whitling said "When an anti-cruelty law includes felony penalties, a criminal court judge can punish an abuser with higher fines and longer jail sentences compared to a misdemeanor-level crime."
Cherie Travis, an assistant general counsel at the Cook County Sheriff's Office, said she would not comment directly about the Fiebelkorn case. But Travis said she could speak generally about what the charges of animal cruelty and failure of an owner's duty mean generally under Illinois law – and when they warrant a misdemeanor or a more serious felony charge.
"There are a variety of animal cruelty laws, but generally speaking, basic neglect is a Class B misdemeanor," Travis said.
That category of misdemeanor is punishable of up to six months in jail, and a fine of up to $1,500.
"That statute requires that every owner of every animal provide them with basic care, sufficient wholesome food and water, veterinary care to prevent suffering, provide humane care and treatment and shelter from the weather," Travis said.
"No matter what animal a person has – if someone has a horse, a cow, a ferret, a dog or a cat – every owner of every animal has to provide it with basic care," she said.
The longer the period of time in which there is a lack of care or if there is intentional cruelty are factors that increase the likelihood of a felony charge, she said. The lowest class of felony, Class 4, has a punishment of one to and three years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.
Travis said she does training in applying animal cruelty laws for all Cook County Sheriff's deputies, at the Illinois State Police Academy as well as for a variety of jurisdictions, including Kane County.
"If an owner goes away for the weekend and does not leave food and water for the dog, it's probably a Class B misdemeanor," Travis said. "If they have not fed the dog for a week or two, and the animal is in starvation mode, that's more likely to be a Class A misdemeanor."
A Class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine up to $2,500.
"If the animal has suffered serious injury or death, that is a Class 4 felony," Travis said. "The more offensive or egregious the conduct, the more likely it is to be the Class A misdemeanor or a felony."
In addition to strong anti-cruelty laws, Illinois is one of two states in the country that also addresses animal hoarding, Travis said.
"Animal hoarding is a finding, not a charge," she said. "You do not get 'charged' with animal hoarding – you would be charged with neglect or cruelty – but the finding requires the court to mandate a psychiatric evaluation and provide treatment."
In a case she handled a few years ago in Chicago, a woman was a repeat cat hoarder with up to 75 cats in her apartment at one time, Travis said. The court ordered an intervention, allowing animal control to make unannounced visits to assure that she would not begin to accumulate cats again, she said.
Tufts University in Boston hosted a collaboration of research on animal hoarding from 1999 to 2006 to find more effective and humane solutions to the problem. The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium published a community intervention manual to address the problem.
The research found that without intervention, a person afflicted with the compulsion to collect or hoard animals always will continue to do it, according to the Tufts website.
Illinois law also addresses dog fighting. All aspects of it – hosting, attending, promoting or providing the space for it – can lead to felony charges.
"A lot of the public's awareness of animal cruelty and the criminalization of it, has to do with Michael Vick," Travis said, alluding to the dog-fighting case involving the NFL quarterback. "That case catapulted animal cruelty into the spotlight. When people read accounts of what was done to those dogs, it created an understanding that it was not a sport or benign pastime. It was barbaric, and no animal should suffer like that."
For information about animal welfare issues:
• American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals - www.aspca.org.
• The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium - http://vet.tufts.edu/hoarding.
• Michigan State University College of Law - www.animallaw.info.
• Showing Animals Respect and Kindness - www.sharkonline.org.
• Animal Legal Defense Fund - http://aldf.org.
• Kane County Animal Control - www.co.kane.il.us/AnimalControl.