She’d heard that rabbits were being mistreated, that a dog was starving to death. But when an activist allegedly threatened the animals’ owners with jail time if they didn’t surrender the animals to her, she was the one who was charged with the unusual crime of coercion — or what her attorney calls “the blackmail charge.”

Janice Karpel, 60, of St. Louis Park faces up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine if convicted of either felony charge in two cases against her in Isanti County. The value of the animals she confiscated is $600 for a 10-year-old Weimaraner that ultimately died and $536 for 23 rabbits, four geese, four ducks and two chickens.

“Coercion is essentially blackmail and you just don’t see it charged,” said Joe Friedberg, Karpel’s attorney.

It is rarely charged in Minnesota under these circumstances. Hennepin County has had a total of eight coercion cases since 2009, all of them white-collar cases, said Chuck Laszewski, a spokesman for the county attorney’s office. Coercion is commonly referred to as extortion and associated with racketeering cases, said Brad Colbert, a criminal law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

Karpel’s case is something very different.

“Janice is trying to save the lives of these animals,” Friedberg said.

According to court documents, in November 2011, Karpel confronted a man at the Cambridge bakery where he worked and told him that the manner in which he cared for his rabbits, geese, ducks and chickens was illegal. Karpel allegedly told him that if he didn’t sign a form and surrender the animals, he would probably lose his job because she would summon pickets, the media and the police.

Wallace Anderson told authorities he signed under duress.

Three months later, in February 2012, Karpel returned to Cambridge. Court documents say she contacted the Isanti County sheriff’s office and said she was with an organization called CARE. She told a dispatcher that she was going to a private residence within the hour, regarding a starving Weimaraner.

According to the court complaint, Karpel told the dispatcher, “They’re either going to surrender the dog to me or … we’ll bring charges against them.”

Karpel and another woman then went to Lonny Olson’s home and told him they wanted to see the dog because they had received reports that he had neglected the animal.

Olson told authorities he was informed that if he didn’t relinquish his dog, he would be charged with a crime. But Karpel told authorities that she never told Olson he would be charged with animal neglect.

Karpel said she believed Olson was deliberately starving the dog, which was described by a veterinarian as frail, according to court records. The dog, named Max, had an infection, a high white blood-cell count and a fever when examined by a Princeton veterinarian two months later.

Max was no stranger to veterinarians. According to court records, Olson had brought the dog to a Cambridge veterinarian in August 2011, when the animal was treated for an abscessed tooth and fever. Olson brought the dog back to the vet in November and December 2011, concerned that the animal was losing weight, according to court records.

Friedberg questions whether Olson was providing the proper amount of food for the dog. “He wasn’t feeding it enough,” Friedberg said.

Both cases are scheduled to be heard in Isanti County court on March 28. Karpel is also charged with trespassing and theft, both gross misdemeanors.