By Dean Close, Editor

Imagine getting a phone call from your favorite TV character, at 2:52 a.m.

That actually happened to me, sort of, this week.

I didn’t hear the phone, which sleeps in another room, but at 2:52 a.m. Wednesday, a man named Michael Weston, from Reno, Nev., called. He left a voice message.

It was not, alas, the Michael Weston of the USA Network’s “Burn Notice.” Remember him? The former spy who used his technology, weapon and intelligence skills to help others while trying to figure out who got him “burned,” or tossed out as a spy?

This Michael Weston, a real one, it seems, had read our story about the animal hoarding case in Vinton, and was calling at 2:52 a.m. to tell me that if we don’t make the people involved spend 15 or 20 years in jail, our city will look very, very bad.

I did not return Michael Weston’s call, but I will tell him, and you, right now that what he suggests is not going to happen.

I do not know if the people we wrote about will face civil citations or criminal charges, but I can very confidently tell you that they will definitely NOT spend anywhere near 15 years or more in jail.

That’s because as shocking as this week’s story was, under Iowa law, animal neglect, abuse and even torture are among the most minor crimes. All are misdemeanors (with the exception of second offense animal torture).

It’s a coincidence, of course, that the Animal Legal Defense Fund released its 2017 report ranking Iowa the “49th worst” state when it comes to protecting animals from abuse and/or neglect just two days after police removed 1,000 or so animals from a house in Vinton.

As it did in 2015, and 2016 the ADLF ranked Kentucky 50th and Iowa 49th. Iowa has been ranked near the bottom of the ALDF report for the past several years. We were #48 in 2012 and have been #49th every year since then.

Iowa’s designation is not because of what happened in Vinton this week, but because of our state’s laws.

Under Iowa law, animal neglect is a simple misdemeanor (punishable by fine and up to 30 days in jail).

Animal torture is an aggravated misdemeanor (up to 2 years in jail) for the first offense and a Class D felony (up to 5 years in jail) for subsequent offenses. But to convict a person of torturing animals, prosecutors must prove an intent to cause suffering.

Animal abuse, under Iowa law, is also an aggravated misdemeanor, but Iowa law defines animal abuse as something done to someone else’s animal.

And while many in the media joined the Humane Society members in declaring the Vinton case to be one of “hoarding,” neither Iowa’s Chapter 717 or Vinton’s animal ordinances mention hoarding, or any kind of specific limits on the number of animals one person is allowed to keep.

While some media reports mentioned “illegal do-it-yourself” surgery allegedly performed, the Iowa code governing veterinary care for animals seems only to make it a crime to operate on an animal if the person doing the operating receives a fee for those services.

According to the ALDF, Iowa’s laws regarding animal protection have the following weaknesses:

  • Felony provisions available only for cruelty against select animals and fighting
  • No felony neglect or abandonment provisions
  • Inadequate definitions/standards of basic care
  • No increased penalties when abuse is committed in the presence of a minor or involves
    multiple animals
  • No statutory authority to allow protective orders to include animals
  • No mandatory forfeiture of animals upon conviction
  • No restrictions on future ownership or possession of animals following a conviction
  • Felony provisions available only for cruelty against select animals and fighting
  • No felony neglect or abandonment provisions
  • Inadequate definitions/standards of basic care
  • No increased penalties when abuse is committed in the presence of a minor or involves
    multiple animals
  • No statutory authority to allow protective orders to include animals
  • No mandatory forfeiture of animals upon conviction
  • No restrictions on future ownership or possession of animals following a conviction
  • No provisions for veterinarians or other select non-animal-related agencies/professionals to
    report suspected animal abuse
  • No duty for peace officers to enforce animal protection laws
  • Humane officers lack broad law enforcement authority

While law enforcement officials are reviewing the Vinton case to see which laws and/or city ordinances may have been violated in this week’s well-publicized Vinton case, my study of Iowa’s laws and Vinton ordinances seems to suggest that prison sentences for any animal neglect or abuse cases are rare and never long, and that the most likely punishment for anyone convicted of animal abuse or neglect would be a fine.

Local ordinances governing animal housing, neglect or abuse can include fines, as municipal infractions.

It’s possible that we will hear some discussion in future meetings about reviewing the local ordinances to see if leaders believe any changes are necessary. Vinton’s ordinances do not discuss “animal hoarding,” or limit the number of animals residents can keep in their homes. Some cities, such as Cedar Rapids, do have ordinances that make it illegal “to harbor or maintain animals in such a condition as to create unhealthful or unsanitary conditions for humans or animals occupying the premises” within city limits.

It’s also interesting to compare animal protection rules from city to city. Cedar Rapids, for example, prohibits owners and pets from one activity that was among the favorite of some of my dogs: Riding in the back of an open pick-up truck.

See Vinton’s three ordinances governing animals below:

Chapter 85: Control of Dogs and Other Animals
Chapter 86: Dangerous and Vicious Animals
Chapter 87: Injury to Livestock and Animals

Iowa’s laws defining and outlining punishments for animal abuse, neglect and torture in Chapter 717B are found HERE.

See the complete ALDF 2017 report on the “best” and “worst” states HERE.