Denise Felling

Denise Felling

An Iowa woman who pleaded guilty to debarking four dogs in Lancaster County became the first person convicted of felony animal cruelty charges filed here by the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The felony charge became law in August 2017 after the passage of the Animal Abuse Statute Overhaul bill, more commonly known as Libre’s Law — named for a puppy that was rescued from near-death in Quarryville in 2016.

Denise Felling, 55, was charged with eight counts of cruelty to animals in November by Pennsylvania SPCA Officer Jennifer Fields. Felling was accused of shoving a rodlike object down the throats of four dogs at properties in Quarryville and Kinzers.

Pennsylvania prohibits debarking of any dog for any reason unless the procedure is performed by a licensed veterinarian using anesthesia.

On Dec. 20, Felling, previously licensed as a veterinarian in Iowa, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to up to 23 months in prison. She received credit for time served — from Nov. 9 to Nov. 30 in Iowa and then after Nov. 30 in Lancaster County Prison — and was released the day of the plea.

Earlier charges

The first person charged with felony animal cruelty under Libre’s Law in the county was Jeffrey Bryan Chapman Jr. He was charged in January 2018 by East Earl Township police with shooting and killing a cat on his property.

Chapman was accepted into a court diversionary program in August 2018 and could eventually have his court record expunged.

Felling’s defense attorney, Christopher Sarno, said Felling anesthetized the dogs and removed vocal cord tissue to soften their ability to bark without pain.

“The biggest problem in this case was the public’s reaction to it,” he said.

Fear that a jury would not be impartial was a factor in her decision to enter a guilty plea, Sarno said.

Nicole Wilson, director of law enforcement for the Pennsylvania SPCA, said the fact that Felling was given jail time at all was “in and of itself a success.”

Animal welfare legislation, including Libre's Law, strengthens Pennsylvania's standings on national lists

‘Dedicated to prosecuting’

Wilson said the Pennsylvania SPCA is following leads on other animal cruelty cases, including “other individuals connected to using Miss Felling.” She declined to comment further.

“We are fully dedicated to prosecuting cases under Libre’s Law,” Wilson said.

Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman, who pushed for harsher penalties statewide after Libre’s case, said his office fields and evaluates near-daily reports of cruelty made through email and phone tip lines.

“We continue on the right path in providing better protections for our animals via harsher laws — specifically a felony statute — against those who perpetrate the most serious incidents of abuse,” Stedman said in an email Thursday.

“It is a shame that it took the suffering of Libre to deliver meaningful change, but some good certainly came from the bad,” he said.