Animal-welfare advocates argue that many local animal shelters in Kentucky are continuing a legacy of subpar care for dogs and cats.
A December 2016 study bears out those concerns.
The study found that of 92 shelters covering Kentucky’s 120 counties – some of them regional facilities – conditions at 57 percent violated three or more provisions of Kentucky’s animal-shelter laws.
Many shelters didn’t get sufficient funding for adequate staffing and care for dogs and cats.
There was a lack of training for shelter workers and animal-control officers on issues such as animal nutrition and how to properly clean shelters.
Many animals didn’t get treatment for medical problems such as intestinal parasites, infections and wounds.
Only a third of the shelters had areas set aside to quarantine animals if necessary to guard against the spread of disease.
Many shelters housed dogs on gravel or dirt floors, meaning the surfaces could not be disinfected.
“Current laws do not appear to be fully satisfactory at accomplishing the goal of providing good shelter animal care across Kentucky,” said the study, conducted by the University of Kentucky and Lincoln Memorial University.
The legislature approved those laws after a horrific episode in 2002 that received national attention.
In that case, a volunteer at the shelter in Henry County videotaped an employee shooting dogs to euthanize them, according to a study published in 2016 by two University of Louisville researchers.
The video showed bloody dogs piled in a pit, some “howling in pain,” the study said.
Lawmakers approved new shelter rules in 2004 in the wake of that incident.
The law required each county to have access to a shelter and animal-control officer, and set out standards that include protection from the weather; basic veterinary care or humane euthanasia for ill or injured animals; adequate heat in winter; clean and dry pens with adequate room for animal comfort; construction with materials that can be properly cleaned and disinfected; available clean water; uncontaminated food provided daily; and public access to the facility, according to the 2016 UK study.
The new rules were an improvement over what the state had, but were considered only minimal by national standards, the study said.
Even with that low bar, however, only 12 percent of the shelters in Kentucky were meeting all the rules more than a decade after they were put in place, researchers said.
The study said 26 shelters were “very substandard” and needed considerable help.
In January, a lawsuit filed against Gov. Gov. Matt Bevin and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles alleged that animals are in overcrowded county shelters that don’t have enough money to operate because the state has failed to enforce the 2004 law.
When state police checked a complaint at the Edmonson County Animal Shelter a few months before the UK study came out, officers found four dead animals and dozens of others malnourished and without water, according to a story by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
At least two dogs were discolored yellow from sitting in their urine, the story said.
Police charged the shelter operator with animal cruelty.
One problem in Kentucky’s animal-shelter law is that it does not include any enforcement provisions. In fact, lawmakers eliminated previous enforcement mechanisms, the UK study said.
That means if counties disregard shelter rules, it’s up to citizens to sue the county government, but many people don’t have the money or time to try to force compliance in court, the study said.
Another problem was that the state set aside only $3 million for grants to help counties build or renovate shelters and train animal-control officers.
The state had not set aside any additional funding as of the time the study was published in December 2016, nor had an advisory board created or designated a training program for animal-control officers.
A measure in the 2017 legislative session called for a study of ways to better fund animal shelters and cited the need for a “government entity” to enforce the state’s shelter rules, but it died without consideration.
Activists believe some legislators and local officials are indifferent at best to animal protection.
And among the public, the failure of many people in Kentucky to spay or neuter animals causes an overpopulation problem.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund has ranked the state dead last 11 years in a row in animal-protection laws. The reasons include the state’s inadequate standards and definitions of basic care.
The state has no regulations mandating conditions for animals at private facilities like the one at issue in Elliott County , leaving the law against animal cruelty as the oversight mechanism.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund cites other concerns as well, including that Kentucky has no felony charge for neglect or abandonment of animals; no restriction on people owning animals even after being convicted of cruelty; and the lack of a law specifically banning sexual assault of an animal, according to the organization.
And Kentucky stands alone in barring veterinarians from reporting suspected cruelty or animal fighting to police, said Kathleen M. Wood, an attorney for ALDF.
"I think Kentucky has earned a reputation . . . as being pretty much the worst in the nation for animals," said Melissa Bowman, president of Kentuckians Vote for Animals.