A German-Shepard/husky puppy sits alone in a cage in an open field on a chilly morning in early February. In the distance, moderate clouds cover the sky and a few trees are scattered on the left side. Taking up a majority of the right side is a partially withered sign with a no-symbol. It reads “Littering, Dumping up to $100 fine. Keep Lincoln & Lancaster County Beautiful.
A puppy sits alone in a cage off of 14th Street and McKelvie Road north of Lincoln. Photo Courtesy of the Lancaster County Deputy Sheriff's Association.

In early February, the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office got a report on a puppy left in a cage along a Lancaster County road. After recovering the puppy, the office arrested an 18-year-old and cited them for littering and animal abandonment, a Class I misdemeanor.

For Steve Beal, the Animal Control Manager of Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, this puppy was more fortunate than past cases he could recall. 

“In the last seven or eight years, I can think of two cases where something similar has happened,” Beal said. “One was left in a kennel hidden here in town and it unfortunately starved. The other was left hidden in a rural area and also starved.”

Every year, millions of animals get taken in by shelters across the country, with nearly half of the animals being stray. A main cause for stray animals is abandonment by their owner, despite animal protection laws being enforced. 

Yet despite these laws in place in Nebraska, very few face justice for their crime. 

Since it was enacted in 1990, the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature prohibits certain acts involving animals. Under Chapter 28-1009 of the statute, abandoning or neglecting a pet can lead to a Class I misdemeanor or a Class IV felony. The severity depends on the condition the abandoned animal is in. If the animal has a serious injury, is ill or dies, it’s a felony. 

Penalties for abandoning or neglecting an animal can range from a $1,000 fine to two years imprisonment and twelve months post-release supervision.

Data collected from the Nebraska Administrative Office of Probation and Shelter Animals Count reveals thousands of strays are taken into Nebraska shelters annually. But across the last five years, prosecutors filed fewer than 400 felonies and misdemeanors charges.

Beal explained through the Lincoln Municipal Code, abandonment is when an animal is left for over twenty-four hours without appropriate provisions or one’s intent is to discontinue care and maintenance of the animal. 

He said that in 2022, Lincoln Animal Control got over a hundred calls of pet abandonment. But of those, about 10% of them were actual abandonment. In those reports, Beal said most of the people left their property for an extended period of time or were evicted, but left their animals behind. 

According to Beal, most of the calls are along the line of a citizen complaint, where an owner didn’t give their animal proper provisions. But they didn’t leave the animal for more than 24 hours. 

“Our people do a very good job on these investigations,” Beal said. “You can imagine in that profession, if you come across a case like animal abandonment, it’s tough. But, it motivates us more to do a thorough investigation.”

This is only in the state’s capital. According to a national database from Shelters Animal Count, over the last four years, about 4,500 stray animals are taken into shelters. 

This number is small when compared to California, which averaged about 176,431 in the same span. Even the numbers in neighboring states of Nebraska are higher. For Kerri Kelly, founder and executive director of Dolly’s Legacy Animal Rescue in Lincoln, the numbers are severe enough for her shelter to take in animals from other states.

“Our primary mission is to rescue pets who are on euthanasia lists at crowded shelters, primarily in southern states,” Kelly said. “We rescue the large majority of pets from Oklahoma, Texas & Missouri. The pet abandonment numbers there are at record levels, it is just awful.”

But Nebraska’s crackdown on cases related to abandoned/neglected animals is also small when compared to the 4,473 strays taken in every year.

A data report from the Nebraska Administrative Office of Probation showed that through the past five years, the annual average of cases in relation to pet abandonment/neglect is about 75. So for every one pet abandonment/neglect case in Nebraska, nearly 60 strays get taken into a shelter. 

Faye Stevens, the president of the board of directors of the Cat House in Lincoln, knows the problem of taking in strays. Over the last three years, she said the Cat House’s average of strays taken in was around 425 intakes. 

“People tell us that the cat they surrendered belonged to a neighbor who moved away, or put them out permanently because they didn’t have time for it,” Stevens said. “The second scenario could very well be a cat someone considers to be their pet is found. But the owner doesn’t bother to watch ‘lost pets’ Facebook groups or check with Animal Control or Capital Humane Society to see if their cat has been surrendered or reported as found.”

With inflation, the higher costs of living make it difficult for owners to properly care for pets. However, some shelters are also facing this problem. But, according to Beal, if any owner is in a tough situation with an animal, giving them to a shelter is still better than abandoning them. 

“For owners who are in a pinch in Lincoln,” Beal said, “they can take animals to the drop box at the Capital Humane Society and remain anonymous. That could be considered abandonment, but it depends on the condition the animal is in.”