Blue tarps covering gated kennels blow in the cold winter air. Dogs stand in puddles of water and feces as temperatures dip below freezing. One woman likens the conditions at the McCracken County Animal Shelter to the aftermath of an earthquake in a Third World country. A county commissioner called it a tent city for animals.
"We took on this shelter under emergency circumstances," Commissioner Zana Renfro said. "The way I see it, you either do it right or you don't do it. There's nothing anyone can say to make what is going on out there OK."
Renfro and other community members are leading a charge to get standards changed at the McCracken County Animal Shelter. While the shelter has remedied a lot of its space issues - dogs who were sleeping outdoors are now in a new "doggy dormitory," a large manufactured shed on the property - Renfro and others are asking for more oversight and defined protocols.
For McCracken County resident Jen Kunsman, her journey started as a volunteer at the shelter. While cleaning this spring, she saw Caesar, a golden retriever with a swollen eye and a limp. Kunsman immediately offered to foster Caesar, eventually adopting him for good. When she took him to her local veterinarian, he ultimately removed the eye and found pellets of buckshot, along with a serious infection in Caesar's leg, which ultimately was amputated.
"I asked why the vets didn't see this at the shelter," Kunsman said. "And I never got a straight answer. There are dogs that go in there relatively healthy, and come out skeletal. I've emailed commissioners and the judge-executive, and I haven't gotten an answer back."
Shelter director Leslie Hannan said the problems that have come up are primarily related to the shelter being overcrowded. This year, with their name out in the public more, the shelter has fluctuated with a population of anywhere from 75 to 100 dogs. The shelter improvised until it got new housing for the animals, which are now out of the elements when the temperatures dip.
"We weren't expecting this many dogs," Hannan said. "Our weather started earlier, and we had many more animals coming in. But we worked through it and adapted."
Hannan says veterinary care is much improved since last summer. The shelter now works with Paducah Veterinary Clinic, and veterinarians come to the shelter three days a week to provide animal care. The shelter budgeted more than $51,000 in 2013 for veterinary care, from surgeries to supplies to medications.
"We've had 1,600 dogs come through our doors," Hannan said. "Some dogs adapt to the shelter well, some don't. And when we were overcrowded, there may have been one or two dogs - dogs who ended up adopted - who had issues. But our ultimate goal is to get them out of the shelter, so they can be somewhere where they get one-on-one care."
The county invited The Humane Society of the United States to give a full report on the shelter in late November. The findings were given to the county Jan. 7 by Kentucky state director Pam Rogers, who conducted the standards investigation. Rogers' nine-page report mentions standing water and outdoor dog runs that were in violation of Kentucky Shelter Standards defined in the Kentucky Revised Statutes.
The report also noted problems with how the shelter quarantined its sick or injured animals, and described large amounts of standing water inside of the shelter, which could breed disease.
In the recommendations portion of the report, Rogers noted that the building itself was not made for sheltering animals and lacks drainage and the ability to be disinfected properly. Rogers called the cleaning processes used at the shelter - where workers tie dogs to the fence while their kennels are rinsed - inefficient and detrimental to the health and psychological well-being of the animals.
Rogers did, however, applaud the shelter for its veterinary care and its spay and neuter program.
McCracken County Judge-Executive Van Newberry said he believes that sometimes the shelter is hurt by its own success. The adoption rates are high, Newberry said, and at the same time the euthanasia rates have been able to be kept low. Newberry and the county have always advocated for the shelter to be low-kill.
"The report from the humane society, they said we would have to face the facts and start euthanizing more animals," Newberry said. "That is just repugnant to us. We don't want to do that. So we are going to do what we have to do to make sure we don't get to that point."
Renfro said she will continue to work with the shelter's advisory board to establish intake protocols, adoption processes and to make sure that both are enforced and employees follow all of the rules set forth.
"The bottom line is, the better we do at the shelter the healthier a dog or cat is," Renfro said. "The healthier they are, the more adoptable they are. The bottom line is finding good homes for all of the animals."
Contact Corianne Egan, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8652 or follow @CoriEgan on Twitter.