LEBANON, KY (WAVE) - 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 Not A 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. (Read the report)
The challenge of improving Kentucky animal shelters is both complicated and tricky.
The system is infused with state and local politics. It's driven 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
+ 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.
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.
Animals' Best Hope: The Public
In the absence of government oversight, the best hope for abused animals may be intervention by law enforcement or private citizens. Sometimes, though, help comes too late.
Last June, Kentucky State Police responded to a complaint and found four dead cats and dogs at the Edmonson County Animal Shelter (above). Several dozen other animals were severely malnourished and without water. At least two dogs were stained yellow from sitting in their own urine, according to news reports.
A misdemeanor animal cruelty charge against Kim Carroll, the shelter operator at the time, is pending.
All this occurred despite media revelations dating back several years and detailing horrific shelter conditions, and despite a lawsuit filed by concerned citizens against the county, Carroll and others in 2013.
The state attorney general's office also ruled in 2015 that a county may contract only with a government or nonprofit entity to provide an animal shelter.
But Carroll was running a for-profit shelter. She signed contracts with four counties totaling $224,000 for 3.5 years beginning in July 2011, documents obtained by KyCIR show.
The shelter is now closed, and dogs seized or surrendered in the county are taken to Bowling Green.
Katie Smith (above), a plaintiff in the still-pending lawsuit, said she witnessed despicable conditions when she visited the shelter in 2014, prior to its closure.
Those conditions included crates too small for dogs to stand erect -- a violation of state law -- stacked three high and four wide. Feces and urine were raining down on the animals below.
"I really was appalled," Smith told reporters. "There's no excuse for it."
Smith and her husband Kenneth are transplanted Californians who own four cats and a dog. Asked why they became involved in the lawsuit, Katie Smith replied: "Because it was the right thing to do, to be a voice for the voiceless."
Robertson County was sued in 2008 after residents claimed the dog warden euthanized animals by shooting them in the head. The "shelter" consisted of an unheated wooden shack with a dirt floor.
During the past decade, lawsuits also have been filed by citizens, supported by animal welfare groups, in counties including Clay, Ohio and Estill.
The Lincoln County shelter, currently the focus of a petition drive to reduce animal euthanization there, also generated efforts in 2015 to save a dog named Fiona and her pups.
After the dogs died, Michele Newtz of Lexington created a Facebook page called Fiona's Legacy, and began working for shelter reform.
"Everyone needs to be held accountable," Newtz said. "We are so behind in our animal-welfare protection laws that it's an embarrassment to the state.
"This is not an animal rights issue. This is animal welfare, this is taking care of animals, not trying to make an animal be the president of the United States."
Shelters Hard To Locate, Details Not Made Public
Animal shelters keep dogs and cats that stray from home or who are abandoned or surrendered by their owners.
An owner trying to retrieve a lost pet must first find the shelter where it's being housed. And that's not always easy. The UK study, and another done last year by researchers in the University of Louisville's department of sociology, concluded that some shelters were difficult to locate, had no readily available contact information or posted hours.
The UofL researchers also found that shelters often failed to keep basic records on each animal impounded, as the law mandates. And when they sought to obtain that data under the state's open records law, most counties did not respond initially, as required. Many ultimately provided only incomplete data.
In one instance, according to the UofL study, a shelter director "responded angrily to our request," and "stated that if she had to respond to requests for information, her organization would simply drop the county contract. Animals would then be euthanized at a much higher rate."
Many shelters are overpopulated, partly due to a lack of affordable programs statewide to spay and neuter animals. As a result, an animal's trip into the shelter often ends in premature death.
Inadequate funding is a major contributor to substandard shelter conditions, and some of the worst shelters identified in the UK study are located in Kentucky's poorest counties.
But Kathryn Callahan, Kentucky state director of the Humane Society of the United States, said a shortage of money is no excuse for housing animals in unsanitary, cruel conditions.
"Would you be saying that money should not be spent on the potholes on the road, which you're required to fill?" Callahan said. "Well, this is a requirement under state law. You're supposed to be providing for the animals in your community who are stray or abandoned.
"A lot of it comes down to how important officials think that animals are in that community. Animal issues are human issues."
The Politics Behind Shelters
Shelter reform is further complicated by competing political agendas.
Animal welfare groups often are at odds with lobbying organizations such as Kentucky Farm Bureau and the Kentucky Houndsmen Association.
They "fight almost every piece of animal welfare legislation," Callahan said.
Indeed, a KFB 2016 policy document states: "We are opposed to the concept of animal rights and oppose the expenditure of public funds to promote the concept of animal rights."
A spokesman said KFB did not have time to discuss issues pertaining to shelters and animal welfare. Representatives of the Houndsmen did not respond to requests for comment.
Competing resolutions now pending in the state legislature point up the differences between animal welfare supporters and their opponents.
One resolution, sponsored by Sen. Tom Buford of Nicholasville, simply calls for "improved regulation" of shelters and does not note any deficiencies in current law.
The other, sponsored by Rep. Joni Jenkins of Louisville and others, specifically notes the lack of shelter oversight and seeks authorization for "a government entity" to inspect shelters and enforce existing standards.
Both resolutions would create a task force to study the issues and make recommendations. But neither has been scheduled for a hearing, and chances for passage appear dim.
As far back as 2009, Kentucky was "already the worst state for animal protection laws in the nation," according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. And when the state passed a law that year generally prohibiting veterinarians from reporting cases of suspected animal abuse, it "took another step backwards," the ALDF asserted.
By contrast, Kentucky law requires the reporting of suspected abuse of children, and anyone who fails to do so can be prosecuted criminally.
Subsequent efforts to repeal that ban have failed. The Kentucky Farm Bureau "worked with members of the General Assembly" to fight repeal, according to its April 29, 2016, legislative report.
'We're Doing The Best We Can'
At the Tri-County Animal Shelter in Clinton County, KyCIR and WAVE 3 News found two jail inmates scraping and shoveling feces from outdoor dog runs.
The big trash can they were using was filling up fast, because the runs hadn't been cleaned for about a week.
Janet Brummett (above), the shelter's rescue coordinator, explained the delay by saying the inmates had been busy doing other things. And she vigorously defended overall conditions at the Clinton County shelter, which the UK study listed as being among the state's worst.
Pressed to further explain the dirty dog runs, Brummett added: "Darlin', it's a small county animal shelter. We're a poor county. We're doing the best we can to try to keep things clean and sanitized. And it's a work in progress."
R.G. Dunlop can be reached at email@example.com or (502) 814.6533. John Boel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 585.2201.