A large protest supporting a starved dog signaled Butler County’s recent boost in animal cruelty cases

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, after being applauded by animal rights protesters for attending an animal cruelty case Thursday morning, said such charges have been filed more frequently because the dog warden is under the jurisdiction of law enforcement instead of the humane society.

“When you have a law enforcement arm, this is what happens,” Jones said. “I believe these things have always been going on. But now when we do these things, the public sees it. Dogs starved to death. Cats put in freezers. Cats set on fire. This isn’t the first dog starved case.”

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He said these type of cases are happening “far too much.”

The most recent case involved David Neanover, 36, of Reily Twp., who had his misdemeanor cruelty to a companion animal charge upgraded to a felony charge Thursday after his dog, Lou, who allegedly was starved and found to have rocks in his stomach, recently died.

On Thursday morning, 30 minutes before Neanover was scheduled to appear for his arraignment in Butler County Area I Court, about 50 animal rights protesters gathered outside the court.

They held signs with sayings such as “Hell has no fury like angry dog lovers,” “Send him to jail without his food,” and “Real men don’t abuse animals” and encouraged motorists along South High Street to honk in support of Lou.

When Judge Robert Lyons set bond at $25,000 cash for Neanover, the packed Butler County courtroom erupted in applause. The judge warned those in the room to refrain from more outbursts.

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A few minutes later, when Neanover was handcuffed by Butler County Sheriff deputies, someone in the back of the courtroom yelled, “Who’s smiling now?”

Jones said he’s hoping to encourage state legislators to pass laws that carry a stiffer penalty animal abuse.

“We are going to send a message today,” the sheriff told the media outside the courtroom.

Katherine Hartung, a representative from Joseph’s Legacy, an animal rights organization, called the bond “an amazing step forward” and a trend she hopes continues when animal cruelty is considered a felony.

After several non-prison sentencings for animal cruelty under the state’s new law that can make the crimes low-level felonies, prosecutors and judges have faced pressure from the community to seek harsh punishments. Many have been disappointed in the results, but legal officials said the sentencing guidelines simply don’t allow the kinds of sentences that passionate advocates want.

Butler County Common Pleas Judge Greg Stephens once told a crowded courtroom before sentencing a woman for three counts of felony animal cruelty that he was restricted by the law. The judge explained the woman didn’t have a previous conviction and, by statue, animal cruelty is not considered a violent offense — two factors that would permit a prison sentence on the low felony.

The woman was placed on probation, along with other sanctions, and she also was ordered to serve 60 days in the county jail.

The charge of cruelty to a companion animal had been a first-degree misdemeanor for years, with a maximum sentence of 180 days. Now it can be classified as a fifth-degree felony in certain cases, usually when there is a prior charge of abuse or extreme cruelty, according to Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser.

The maximum penalty is up to 12 months in prison for a fifth-degree felony, but by law that is rare, whether for a drug charge or animal cruelty charge.

For a judge to send a person to prison for a fifth-degree felony, by law, the defendant has to meet certain criteria, such as prior felony convictions, a firearm being involved, the defendant holding office or a position of trust or the victim suffering serious physical harm.

Butler County Sheriff’s Office dog wardens responded to 6165 Main St. and found the dog with no food or water and covered in severe open wounds and obviously starving, Jones said. The medical staff at Animal Care Centers was surprised when X-rays showed rocks in the dog’s stomach. He lived his life on a very short chain and was “deprived food for quite some time,” according to the Animal Friends Humane Society’s Facebook page.

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