Animals are in overcrowded county shelters that don’t have enough money to operate because the state has failed to enforce a 2004 law, according to a new lawsuit filed against Gov. Matt Bevin and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.
“Accountability is something everyone should be held to but especially our officials,” said Michele Newtz of Lexington, one of the plaintiffs who wants more funding for shelters.
A 2016 study funded by the University of Kentucky found that only 12 percent of Kentucky’s 120 counties were in full compliance with the 2004 Kentucky Humane Shelter Act that established a set of statutes intended to improve the care and control of animals and enhance public protection.
In that study, shelter personnel identified a lack of sufficient funding, pet overpopulation leading to crowded shelters, and a lack of education for both shelter personnel and the public.
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There have been cases where police responded to complaints of dead dogs and cats at a shelter. An investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WAVE 3 News last year found one instance in which dogs had no clean, dry place to stand, sit or lie, as state law requires. At another shelter, dogs were stacked in cages inside a tiny building.
The 2004 Humane Shelter Act does not include any enforcement provisions.
The governor’s office did not respond when asked to comment on the suit filed in Franklin Circuit Court, and the state Department of Agriculture is reviewing the complaint. But spokesman Sean Southard said the department “has no inspection or enforcement powers or appropriations from the General Assembly for animal shelter standards.”
Southard said the department plans to seek dismissal of the suit.
State law requires, among other things, segregation of male and female animals; separate holding areas for ill or injured animals; basic veterinary care or humane euthanasia of ill or injured animals; quarantine facilities; protection from the weather; adequate heat in winter; proper ventilation; and clean and dry pens with adequate room for animal comfort.
But the suit says a number of shelters are inadequate as a result of aging and poorly maintained facilities built with inappropriate materials that cannot be properly cleaned and disinfected; poor ventilation; lack of appropriate veterinary care; and lack of appropriate quarantine areas.
“I know of shelters in Kentucky right now where dogs are outside in outdoor kennels because there’s not enough room in a little shelter,” said Newtz, founder of the Bluegrass Animal Welfare Advocacy Group. She also created a Facebook page called Fiona’s Legacy, a shelter-reform effort named for a dog that was euthanized at the Lincoln County shelter.
Aside from Newtz, the plaintiffs who brought the complaint include Angelika Kasey and Christina Tobin of Louisville, and Julia Sharp on behalf of TLC Rescue, a nonprofit corporation that rescues animals in Rowan, Bath, Fleming and Carter counties.
Nolia Batey, a Louisville lawyer who represents the plaintiffs, said Kentucky should enforce the law.
“Nobody’s talking about a day spa for animals,” Batey wrote in an email. “We’re talking about clean water, heat in the winter, and pens big enough for animals to at least turn around.”
Furthermore, the plaintiffs want the judge to require the governor “to take all necessary and appropriate action” to assure that animal-shelter laws “are faithfully executed.”
No data is readily available about how much money shelters get now or how much money it would take to bring them into compliance, Batey wrote.
“A number of shelters receive no county funding for staffing, animal care or veterinary care, and depend heavily on private donations just for operating expenses,” Batey wrote. “A lot of counties simply cannot or will not budget sufficient funds to adequately operate their shelters.”
During the 2017 legislature session, resolutions were introduced in the House and Senate that which would have established a Shelter Oversight and Pet Overpopulation Task Force, composed of state and local government representatives and stakeholder groups. It would have been charged with reviewing existing problems at shelters and making recommendations. But the resolutions died in committees.
As of Friday, no similar bills or resolutions have been filed so far in the 2018 session.
Newtz acknowledged that issues such as pension reform, tax reform and overcrowding in jails are huge issues for the state. Bevin has proposed eliminating 70 programs plus a 6.25 percent spending cut for most state agencies in the next two-year budget.
“I mean, when he’s cutting all these programs for people, you can count on animals not getting any,” Newtz said.
But she said lawmakers should look at passing a surcharge on pet food to fund shelters.
Manufacturers of pet food and livestock food already must pay an annual state registration fee to distribute their products in Kentucky. About $1.3 million is raised from the registration of bulk feed and pet food. The money helps to support the Division of Regulatory Services at the University of Kentucky, which tests feed, seed, fertilizer and milk for safety, said Al Harrison, director of feed and milk services.
Newtz said adding a surcharge dedicated to shelters would be one way of providing more funding.
A surcharge is not a new idea. For example, in 2017, West Virginia passed a fee on pet food to fund a statewide spay-neuter program. The fee raised $450,000, and on Jan. 17, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture announced that a little less than $300,000 in grants was distributed to 36 spay-neuter projects. Another round of grants will be announced at a later date, said Crescent Gallagher, communications director for the department.
In any case, Newtz said state government should be held accountable for the 2004 shelter law.
“You make a law, then by God, you should be responsible for that law,” she said.