Woman jailed after allowing dog to starve to near-death in her backyard

One of the most callous cases of animal neglect RSPCA South Australia inspectors have investigated concluded in the Port Adelaide Magistrates Court today with the imprisonment of the female defendant for two months and two weeks.

The 49-year-old woman pleaded guilty and was convicted on an aggravated cruelty charge for causing serious harm to a dog, found starving and near-death in her backyard.

SA police officers attended at the woman’s Findon property on the evening of 15 December 2020 in response to a report of an emaciated, distressed dog. The defendant showed the officers through to the backyard, where they found the dog lying on its side on scraps of blanket beside a fence.

The three-year-old male Staffordshire Bull Terrier cross named Harvey was whimpering and unable to get up from the ground. Harvey was in such an emaciated state that his entire skeleton was clearly visible. An officer comforting the dog noticed ants, fleas and other insects crawling over his entire body and an overwhelming smell. The dog was opening and closing his mouth, as if extremely thirsty.

RSPCA SA was notified and Harvey was rushed to an emergency vet clinic. The examining vet observed the dog could only lift his head briefly and was groaning continuously. She believed the dog was near-death and suffering immensely and made the decision to euthanase the animal. The vet stated that she had never seen a dog with such a disastrous body condition, either from starvation or illness.

On his subsequent examination of Harvey’s body, RSPCA SA Chief Vet Dr Brad Ward said it was “one of the worst cases of body waste I have seen in a career of 13 years with RSPCA”. A post-mortem confirmed malnutrition and starvation as the cause of death, and revealed Harvey had eaten grass in his final days. His body weighed just 14.9kg.

Three years earlier, in December 2017, Harvey had spent a few days in RSPCA SA’s Lonsdale shelter after being picked up as a stray by Onkaparinga council. At that time, he weighed a healthy 24kg. He was reclaimed by his then owner. (South Australia’s dog and cat registration website, Dogs and Cats Online (DACO), shows that Harvey’s registered owner changed on 2 July 2020.)

The defendant told RSPCA inspectors that the dog belonged to her daughter, who she said had moved out about three months prior. She said she was often away and only home two or three times a week, and that no-one else was watching Harvey when she was away. She agreed that the dog would go without food for four or five days at a time and that she wasn’t “on the ball” with providing water.

At a previous court appearance on 12 May 2022, the defendant absconded from the courthouse after being granted leave by Magistrate Jayanthi Pandya to attend the duty solicitor’s office to obtain legal advice. The defendant instead fled the Court and a warrant was issued for her arrest. She was arrested on Monday 12 September, and during a brief court appearance that day her defence counsel requested a Home Detention Bail Enquiry Report.

The defendant’s application for bail was opposed on 23 September 2022 due to the severity of the offending, the overwhelming prosecution case, the fact that the defendant had pleaded guilty on 12 May 2022 and her poor history of compliance with bail. Magistrate Pandya agreed with RSPCA’s submissions in the matter and refused bail in all forms.

In sentencing today, Her Honour said the defendant had cruelly left the dog outside and alone to deteriorate to the point where he could no longer stand up. Her Honour described the body-camera footage of the moment Harvey was found by SA police officers as shocking and disturbing, with the dog barely able to lift his head but wagging his tail when he heard a friendly voice.

In the defendant’s record of interview with RSPCA inspectors, Her Honour said the defendant displayed a “worrying flippant approach to the demise of Harvey”. Her Honour dismissed the defendant’s claims that she could not afford to feed the dog, noting she was able to fund a packet-per-day smoking habit.

“It is difficult to comprehend how you could buy cigarettes and not food for this animal”, Her Honour said, adding that the defendant had provided no explanation for her offending.

“To divert responsibility to your daughter leaves me questioning your remorse.

“Pet ownership is not a responsibility to be disregarded or approached carelessly.”

With time served, the defendant is now eligible for release. She was ordered to pay $358 in legal costs, $313 in vet fees as well as the victims of crime levy and court costs.

Harvey when in RSPCA SA care in December 2017 after being picked up as a stray by Onkaparinga council. He weighed a healthy 24 kilos at this time.

Under SA’s Animal Welfare Act, the maximum penalty for animal cruelty is $20,000 or two years’ imprisonment. For an aggravated cruelty offence, the maximum penalty is $40,000 or four years’ imprisonment.

RSPCA South Australia is the state’s only animal welfare charity with inspectors empowered to prosecute animal cruelty under SA’s Animal Welfare Act.

Members of the public who witness animal cruelty or neglect are urged to immediately call RSPCA’s 24-hour cruelty report hotline on 1300 477 722.

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