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Does Starvation of Dogs Count as Torture?

Posted by Scott Heiser, Director of ALDF's Criminal Justice Program

"Judge Denies Defense Call for Mistrial After Woman Vomits" So reads the headline of one of the many news stories on the trial and sentencing of Diane Eldrup who operated a “shelter & boarding facility” in Deer Park, IL, named “Muddy Paws.” The facts adduced at trial describe a classic animal hoarding situation:

  • The floors were covered with trash and feces.
  • Starving animals were locked in cages stashed away in a very cold and dark building.
  • Although food and water were readily available to the defendant (even stacked on top of some of the cages), the defendant failed to provide adequate food or water.
  • Animals were caked in sticky dried urine and feces.

This mother of a 9-year-old son caused protracted, mass suffering that resulted in the deaths of no less than 14 dogs—these 14 are included in the charged conduct, but there are media reports of over 30 dead dogs. It is no wonder that photos from this case induced vomiting.

While exceptionally horrific, mass animal neglect (hoarding) is painfully common. However, the legal significance of this case lies in the fact that it expressly raised the issue of whether starvation qualifies as torture—a question we get from investigators and prosecutors all over the country.

Predictably, the defense didn’t think it did. Thus, at the close of the State’s case, the defense moved for a judgment of acquittal on the torture charges, arguing that the State failed to prove that the defendant intended to cause pain and suffering by failing to provide food to these suffering animals. Under 510 ILL. Comp. Stat. 70/3.03, the crime of animal torture is defined as:

“A person commits animal torture when that person without legal justification knowingly or intentionally tortures an animal. For purposes of this Section, and subject to subsection (b), ‘torture’ means infliction of or subjection to extreme physical pain, motivated by an intent to increase or prolong the pain, suffering, or agony of the animal.”

The trial judge, Judge James Booras, denied the defense motion and sent the case to the jury, noting there was evidence in the record indicating that the defendant felt that her possession of the dogs compromised her marriage, and that the defendant was hiding animals from investigators. These are good facts from which to infer the defendant’s motive and intent - they are however arguably frosting on the cake, and the case should have gone to the jury even without them. Why? Because the failure to provide food for such duration that animals die of starvation (a process that takes approximately 30 days) is no mistake. It is a hoarder’s affirmative and repeated choice not to engage in required conduct as dogs howl, then whimper and ultimately die; the intent is readily inferred from the defendant’s daily refusals to act to abate the suffering and torturous deaths.

While each state’s law is different, if you as an investigator, peace officer or prosecutor have a starvation case, give us a call and we’ll guide you through the “starvation = torture” analysis of the law in your state. You might be surprised what’s out there…

One last point: Congratulations to the three prosecutors from the Lake County State’s Attorney’s office who so diligently worked this case (Suzanne Willett, Michael Mermel, and Raquel Robles-Eschbach) and to the entire investigative team, for a job well done. Regardless of what one thinks of the sentence imposed (30 months of soft incarceration—meaning Eldrup has leave to spend her days attending treatment and visiting her son)—these are incredibly important cases and it nice to see such a quality effort on the part of these fine professionals.


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