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DIGGING DEEPER: Calls for justice for abused animals

BARNEVELD (WKOW) —  A southern Wisconsin family is hoping their dog’s story will inspire people to call for tougher penalties against animal abusers.

Investigators say someone shot the Hellers’ dog Sadie near their home in the Barneveld area.

“I saw her collapse and bleeding,” said Jen Heller. “The screams and the faces of our children … it was terrifying for us to see them.”

Based on conversations with the Iowa County District Attorney’s Office, the family believes the man accused in the crime will be given a plea deal and a light sentence for the felony animal mistreatment charge.

It’s been heartbreaking for them to see other cases in our area, with similar results.

“It brings all that to the surface again and you want to help those people not go through the heartbreak you did,” said Jen Heller.

Activists call for tough take on animal abuse

Animal advocates say in a number of cases of abuse or neglect in Wisconsin, the punishment doesn’t match the crime.

They’re cases that get a lot of attention, like Misty the dog, who was hit on the head and left for dead in Columbia County.

“Time and again I’ll see a case in Wisconsin of egregious cruelty get picked up all around the world, so I’m hearing from thousands of people sometimes demanding to know why we aren’t doing better here in Wisconsin,” said Melissa Tedrowe, a Madison lobbyist with Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Tedrowe works with lawmakers to strengthen protections for animals that are abused or neglected.

The laws in Wisconsin

The strength of Wisconsin’s laws against animal cruelty fall in the middle of national rankings, at 28 for 2018, according to research conducted by HSUS. 37 percent of the laws that could protect animals are in place here in Wisconsin, as of 2017.

Tedrowe says in many cases, charges are dismissed or penalties are low, so she believes the laws aren’t being used properly.

“Knowing what’s available, understanding how to investigate and prosecute an animal cruelty or neglect situation, is really important and we intend to be here through the long haul to help folks in Wisconsin figure out how to do that,” she said.

Attorney Kristin Schrank says from what she’s seen, animal cases are treated differently. When she worked for Milwaukee County’s district attorney, she specialized in animal cases and now that she’s in private practice she focuses mostly on that work.

“It just takes more to build a case than a case of, say, a battery against a human where the human victim can tell you this is what happened,” she told 27 News.

Schrank says she’d like to see a change in the law allowing for a progression of penalties, adding different charges based on the severity of abuse, allowing for harsher penalties when the abuse is more serious, like in the cases of crimes against humans.

But under state law, judges have to consider probation as a first punishment for any crime, then they can weigh a variety of things at sentencing.

“[The] need to protect the community, the defendant’s character, rehabilitation needs,” Schrank said.

She says when members of the public are disappointed in sentencing, they don’t always see all the considerations that go into the decision.

Need for more training

Schrank ultimately believes there could be more training for prosecutors and law enforcement officers investigating the crimes, to see better results for victims.

The Humane Society of the United States is starting a new effort in Wisconsin to teach attorneys and officers how to better respond. They’ll do several training events in the next few years in different parts of the state.

Meanwhile, lobbyists like Tedrowe will continue fighting for additional changes to the laws protecting animals and working with families impacted by crimes. She’s working with state Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) on a new bill to ban wildlife hunting contests.

There is also an effort to bring forward a bill to toughen penalties in animal abuse cases, in Misty’s name.

Hope for the future

Jen Heller hopes her dog’s story inspires others to take a look at the laws, too.

“We are very fortunate that Sadie is still gracing us with her presence, some of them are not so fortunate,” she said.

The bullet that went through Sadie just missed her major organs. She spent months recovering, but ended up surviving to continue providing hope for the Heller family.

The black lab patched a hole in the Hellers’ hearts when they lost 5-month-old Henry, their baby, to a brain disorder. Sadie became a symbol for the family, so the incident made it even more painful.

Now, Sadie is giving new life to the Hellers. She had a puppy, which has become another fortunate addition to a grateful family.

“She’s our family member that’s helped us all heal,” said Jen Heller.

The suspect in the case involving Sadie is set to appear in court again in a few months. There is a scheduled plea and sentencing hearing on April 16.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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