Animal cruelty: misdemeanor vs felony

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CHEYENNE, Wyo.- She's an 86-year-old woman who is currently fostering two Dalmatians. The dogs come from an owner who died nearly two weeks ago from cancer, and both the dogs are very sick, as well. Jeannine Stallings has always been an animal advocate and doesn't question the value of any animal's life. To her, they are like family.

Stallings reached out to us about a previous story about animal cruelty. Her question: why a certain case would change from a misdemeanor to a felony. For Stallings, it was obvious this case involved someone who knowingly killed their pet. Although law enforcement might arrest someone on probable cause, it comes down to the district attorney to make the call to proceed.

However, making that decision can become difficult.

We went to the District Attorney's Office to find out what separates the two. Laramie County D.A. Jeremiah Sandburg told us there are two ways an attorney can look at the statute. Sandburg said, "The first reading, the broad reading, would make any situation where a person tortures an animal a crime." He added, "That would theoretically include a situation where a cook at a seafood restaurant was putting in live crabs or lobsters into the hot pot of water."

Sandburg says in this situation, it's obvious the intent is to kill the animal and it's being done in a torturous way. Therefore, the broad reading would make that case a felony.

We all know that boiling a lobster won't get you in prison. Having a "formula" that fits all cases doesn't always work. Sandburg said, "There's not going to be one fact scenario that applies to every situation. They're very fact heavy, and we have to look at all the facts to make a determination of how we next proceeded."

Sandburg says the only way to do this is to narrow how they view the case and look at the intent behind the action. In the situation above, the intent might've been to cook dinner. Unless it can be determined that the action was done to only intentionally torture an animal, then it becomes difficult to classify it as a felony.

In Laramie County, the District Attorney's Office says there have only been five felony events since 2000.

In addition, Sandburg explained that in the statutes, a pet is considered someone's property. He explained that if a neighbor kills someone's dog, the animal cruelty is considered a property crime. Determining the value of the animal's life (whether it's a family pet or a cow that will soon be slaughtered) makes the process a challenge.

For Stallings, she believes that the punishment should be greater than a "slap on the wrist." She said, "Frankly, they don't take animal cruelty very seriously in Wyoming." Stallings added, "I feel like most people who feel like I do, they feel like they're not property. They're truly part of the family."

When asked what she would change in the court system, Stallings said, "I like the wording of both statutes, the misdemeanor and the felony, but I think it's more a change of attitude."

Stallings believes the right thing to do is to question and speak up if something doesn't seem right. She said, "I think we have a fine staff with our local prosecuting attorney group, but I just do not personally agree with them... I'm going to speak up if I feel I should and maybe shouldn't."

The District Attorney's Office tells us that a misdemeanor charge can lead to a $5,000 fine and one year in prison. A felony can result in a larger fine and a maximum of two years in prison.