By R.G. Dunlop and John Boel
Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting
LEBANON, Ky.—As the visitors approached, three black dogs at the Marion County Animal Shelter leapt against the front of their wire-enclosed pen.
Water covered the concrete floor of their cage, mixing with piles of feces. The dogs had no clean, dry place to stand, sit or lie, as state law requires.
Kay Turpin, the county’s animal control officer, quickly directed a shelter worker to remove the dogs from the flooded cage.
She explained to reporters that a stopped-up drain had caused the inches-deep water, and that it had gone unnoticed because the worker hadn’t yet gotten around to cleaning the cage.
“We would never (knowingly) leave dogs in a pen like that,” Turpin said, adding that she thought the shelter “most definitely” met basic state standards.
But a recent University of Kentucky study found that the vast majority of county-run shelters, including Marion County, did not meet those standards, and are failing animals in myriad ways.
As a result of abysmal shelter conditions, countless animals suffer, their distress unknown and unnoted except in the most extreme cases.
The UK study, published in January, found that more than half of the state’s 90 county-run shelters were violating three or more parts of the Kentucky Humane Shelter Act, which was enacted in 2004 and gave counties three years to comply.
Only 12 percent of the 90 shelters were found by the study to provide acceptable animal care under the law.
The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WAVE 3 News recently visited several of the 26 shelters identified in the study as being “very substandard and needing considerable assistance.”
Last month, there were just five dogs in the Spencer County shelter — another cited as among the state’s most troubled. But Melvin Gore, the county’s animal control officer, said he’d recently housed 14 dogs in stacked cages inside the tiny building, which adjoins the maintenance garage.
Gore lamented the lack of room at the shelter to bathe animals, or to isolate sick ones, as the law requires. There’s no space to separate vicious dogs from others. And there’s no place for cats, which are sent elsewhere.
“I feel very sad,” said Gore, who’s been on the job for two years. “You cannot run an animal shelter like this. I’ve been trying to get the public to wake up.”
Animal safety no simple matter
Although Kentucky is in love with horses and has its image tied to them, it often hasn’t served animals well. For the past decade, the Bluegrass State has ranked dead last nationally for its animal protection laws, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a California-based nonprofit.
The challenge of improving Kentucky animal shelters is both complicated and tricky.
The system is infused with state and local politics. It’s riven by the agendas of competing interest groups. And it’s undermined by a lack of funding and a woefully weak animal welfare law, an investigation by KyCIR and WAVE 3 News found.
State standards require protecting animals from the weather; having enough room for them to move around freely; cages that are easy to clean and disinfect; and proper veterinary care for sick or injured animals.
However, the law provides for no oversight, no enforcement and no consequences for violations. County shelters are almost entirely self-policing, but their efforts are often inadequate, and sometimes indifferent.
“The world of animal control is exceedingly frustrating,” said Clint Quarles, an attorney with the state Department of Agriculture.
“If there’s going to be a set of rules, somebody should enforce them. It doesn’t make sense to say, ‘here are rules, but nobody’s going to see that you follow them, or do anything if you don’t follow them.’”
After the 2004 law was passed, counties were encouraged to apply for state funding to help attain compliance. But most of the money quickly ran out. Meanwhile, major deficiencies that the law was intended to confront either continue unabated or have been only partially addressed, studies have found.
When the state’s Animal Control Advisory Board was created in 1998, its stated mission included setting “high standards” for shelters and training for animal control personnel.
But Quarles, the Department of Agriculture’s liaison with the ACAB, said it isn’t legally permitted to set shelter standards. And he said it hasn’t provided any financial support for training in at least five years.
By law, animal control officers must have graduated from high school and have completed training requirements established by the ACAB. But 13 years after the law was passed, there still is no ACAB training program for animal control officers.
The ACAB consists of 12 members appointed by the governor to four-year terms. A third of the board is composed of members of the Kentucky Farm Bureau and the Kentucky Houndsmen Association, groups that have long opposed animal welfare legislation. There are no board representatives from animal welfare advocacy groups.