A Franklin County judge has ordered a large number of animals seized in an investigation last month returned to a St. Clair area woman.

Associate Circuit Judge Dave Tobben heard testimony and arguments Wednesday from both sides in the case of Velma Muessemeyer, 75, known locally as the “Rabbit Lady,”

After taking the case under advisement, Tobben issued his judgment Thursday.

Tobben, in his ruling, noted that while the state’s experts stated that “generally there was indication of neglect,” and that some of the animals were underweight and/or ill, “there was no evidence that the vast majority of the animals were in danger.”

On Tuesday, Nov. 12, members of the Missouri Humane Society’s Animal Cruelty Task Force and Franklin County deputies removed 253 animals from Muessemeyer’s property off of Parkway Drive just east of the St. Clair city limits.

An investigation led to a warrant ordering removal of the animals, including 192 domestic rabbits, 25 goats, 10 cats, 21 chickens, four dogs and a duck.

Prosecuting Attorney Bob Parks said the humane society reported that a number of the animals were in such poor health that they had to be euthanized.

Criminal Charges

Parks said he was “extremely disappointed” with Tobben’s ruling but that will not stop his office from proceeding with criminal charges against Muessemeyer.

Muessemeyer is charged with 21 separate misdemeanor counts of animal abuse based on reports filed by the humane society.

Parks said he issued charges in the “worst cases” of animal abuse documented by humane society workers.

Criminal summonses were issued in the case.

The prosecutor said the misdemeanor charges are based on individual cases of alleged animal neglect and are separate from the hearing to decide custody of the animals.

The penalties for misdemeanor animal abuse range from one day to a year in the county jail, and up to a $1,000 fine on each count.

The prosecutor said his office will ask the court to order restitution payments to the humane society for removal, treatment and care of the animals.

Parks said as of Friday, that bill had increased to more than $80,000.

Muessemeyer told The Missourian that she raises rabbits for sale and she denied that the animals were housed in unsanitary conditions.

Authorities, however, alleged that the rabbits were housed in raised wire-bottom cages with feces piled in the cages as well as underneath them. Many of the cages were encrusted with dirt and hair and had little to no shelter from the weather.

Most of the cages held multiple rabbits with some housing as many as 10. Water for many of the animals was frozen, dirty and contaminated with feces, authorities alleged.