TV6 Investigates: Why did officials wait years to rescue 100+ dogs from Mercer County breeder?

Published: Nov. 18, 2022 at 9:19 AM CST
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With tears in her eyes, Amber Stephenson described a rural Sherrard home she helped rescue 198 dogs from in August.

“There was a swampy disgusting pool,” she said. “There were kennels along the side. There were kennels all along the front of a barn. Then I got to experience what the dogs looked like and you can look at dogs being rescued all day online and on TV but once you get in there you will be haunted.”

Stephenson took photos inside of the property that shows the dogs were living in poor conditions with dirty ages, moldy food, and inches of feces in kennels.

“These dogs were matted,” she said. “They hadn’t been brushed. There were feces dried on their fur and it was heartbreaking. These dogs are purely traumatized and they basically need to learn how to dog again.”

Court documents show 193 collies, three corgis, and two Pyrenees-type dogs were found on the property.

The owner of the property, Karen Plambeck, 59, was arrested and charged with several counts of animal cruelty.

It wasn’t the first time animals in poor health were found on her property. In fact, court records show she was on probation in a prior animal cruelty case at the time of her arrest.

Information obtained by TV6 Investigates indicates the Illinois Department of Agriculture and Mercer County Sheriff’s Office knew about alleged animal cruelty at the home of Karen Plambeck, yet waited years to take away her dogs.

TV6 looked into why it’s taken so long and the requirements in place for Illinois breeders.

TV6 Investigates contacted Plambeck and got no response. Plambeck’s attorney told TV6 he could not comment on the case.

Inspection

In October 2019, Plambeck was charged in Mercer County with cruel treatment of animals and four counts of unlawful inhuman care for animals, all misdemeanors, for her treatment of several horses.

According to court documents, she allowed a halter to remain on a 2-year-old paint mare so long that the halter was embedded causing a necrotic area on the bridge of the horse’s nose.

She also failed to provide a sufficient quantity of good quality, wholesome food to the same horse and several others, according to court documents. Those same horses were found emaciated and dehydrated by investigators.

Plambeck was later charged with disorderly conduct, also a misdemeanor, for breaching the peace by allowing her dogs to bark for hours on end, according to court documents.

Court records show she pleaded guilty on May 2, 2020, to the disorderly conduct charge and was sentenced to 24 months of court supervision. As part of her plea, she agreed to allow the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Department of Agriculture, or animal control to come onsite to check on the status of the animals, according to court documents. Prosecutors dismissed the remaining charges against her, court records show.

TV6 Investigates requested inspection reports for Plambeck’s property. They show in 2019, an inspector wrote “sanitation in kennel is poor. Dog cages and runs have not been cleaned.” That report was marked “unacceptable.”

The reports show the property was inspected for a few months, noted as clean, and deemed acceptable. However, those inspections stopped in August 2020.

Since then, FOIA requests show Plambeck’s neighbors were calling the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office complaining about barking dogs and stray dogs, goats, horses, and cats. According to one complaint, a neighbor complained about “the smell of burning animal bodies” for several weeks.

In August, Mercer County Animal Control got a complaint from a woman who said some of her dogs had been sold to a person in South Carolina, and Plambeck was hired to transport them, court documents show. When the animals did not arrive, the woman told Mercer County Animal Control, who went to Plambeck’s property.

Once there, court documents show investigators found some of the dogs had mange, maggots, parvo, and necrosis. None of the dogs had access to fresh water, court documents allege. One of the dogs was so emaciated it could not stand up and had to be euthanized. All of the animals were seized and taken to Mercer County Animal Control.

‘Red flags’

According to the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s website, Plambeck is a licensed dog breeder. Even with a license and several complaints, neighbors claim she had dogs for more than ten years.

“Obviously someone missed the red flags,” said Tracey Kuehl, a volunteer with Bailing Out Benji, an Iowa nonprofit fighting animal abuse.

Kuehl says getting a state breeder’s license is too easy.

“In the case of Illinois, you send in your $350. In Iowa, you send in $175 and you get a license. There’s more work to fill out an application to get Medicare, go to college, or to get your driver’s license than there is to get into the business of breeding dogs,” Kuehl said.

Licensed breeders must follow the USDA’s “Standards of Care.” Those standards say the dog’s kennel does not have to be any larger than six inches taller than it is in each direction.

“How big your washing machine is, that’s about the size of six inches higher or longer than a nose and a tail on a beagle,” Kuehl said.

There is also no requirement the dog has to leave the kennel and no requirement on what constitutes dog food according to those standards. The ASPCA’s website called these standards “merely survival standards, designed to keep adult dogs just healthy enough to reproduce.”

In Plambeck’s case, officials were supposed to inspect her property annually according to Illinois Department of Ag standards. When TV6 requested those reports there were none after August 2020.

Kuehl said the agencies responsible for inspections are often overwhelmed with thousands of facilities to look into - from breeders to zoos to pet shops.

“Animals start to deteriorate, they start to die, they’re emaciated and everybody gets all excited about ‘oh, my gosh, how did this happen?’” Kuehl said. “That’s where you start to run into loggerheads and why it’s easy for someone to slip through the cracks.”

Court documents show officials were sent to Plambeck’s property in 2019 to check on the welfare of her horses. She had dogs at that time too, yet they were not seized. TV6 asked Mercer County Sheriff Dusty Terrill why and was referred to the Illinois Department of Ag, which didn’t respond.

“So, how is any kind of an animal welfare law benefiting those animals if the regulatory agencies allowed them to stay in the bad situation?” Kuehl said.

Kuehl said not only are the standards loose and lacking, but also the enforcement, which she said allowed breeders operating in inhumane conditions to continue their practice.

Recovery

Since the dogs were rescued they have been living at Mercer County Animal Control getting checked out by local veterinarians.

“The dogs went from underfed, dehydrated, and scared to thriving. The most important medications we have given are food, water, and love,” Dr. Jeremy Joy, Rabies Control Administrator for Mercer County, said.

Several pet rescues and volunteers from across the country have come to help. Hundreds of dollars worth of dog food and pet care have been donated to the effort.

“We would like to help the animal control here get them in situations where they can be in homes and be rehabilitated and get the love and the comfort and human touch that they need,” Sarah Rebernick, vice president and adoption coordinator for Minnesota Wisconsin Collie Rescue, said.

“Just amazing these people take time off of work and travel long distances when they can. Just amazing it gives you a boost in faith in humanity,” Joy added.

The dogs have already shown big signs of improvement in their physical and emotional well-being.

“You go in the pens now and bend down and you have five of them on top of you trying to get some love,” Joy said.

While the dogs future’s look bright, those involved in their rescue say what they saw inside will live with them forever. They said they believe the animal welfare act and breeder laws need to be strengthened to ensure another case of animal cruelty similar to Plambeck’s case doesn’t happen again.

“Somebody needs to take some responsibility whether it’s Mercer County, whether it’s the Department of Agriculture...the ball was royally dropped hard,” added Stephenson.

Court documents show Plambeck was arrested again in September for communicating with a witness in the case. According to the criminal information filed in the case, Plambeck told the woman who hired her to transport her dogs to South Carolina that if she “dropped the charges” against her she would tell her where her missing dogs were located.

Plambeck pleaded not guilty to communicating with a witness about the case. Plambeck’s next court appearance is set for Dec. 12 at the Mercer County Courthouse.

How can you help prevent cases like these? According to the ASPCA:

  • Never buy an animal sight unseen or online.
  • Look at the breeder’s website. Look up inspection reports for the breeder’s facility.
  • Don’t assume you are doing the animal a favor by buying it from a breeder who raises animals in poor condition. The ASPCA says by doing that, you are only perpetuating the reproduction cycle of the animals left behind.
  • If you think an animal needs help contact law enforcement or your local animal control immediately.
  • Call the Humane Society of the United States hotline with any concerns about animal cruelty: 1-877-Mill-Tip
  • Contact your U.S. Representative and urge them to support Goldie’s Act - a federal bill that would require inspectors to seize animals in distress immediately and require harsher penalties for those in violation of animal cruelty and neglect.

Plambeck’s website for her “Royal Star Collies of KC Ranch” breeding business (pictured below) has since been taken down.

Karen Plambeck's website
Karen Plambeck's website(KWQC)