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CAN'T WAIT Time short for county to remedy shelter mess

McCracken County's decision a couple of years ago to go its own way and establish a new, "low-kill" animal shelter was understandable under the circumstances. There had been friction between the county and management of the existing shelter over after-hours access by animal control officers and other issues. Then came a scandal at the existing shelter, operated by the McCracken County Humane Society, over illegal euthanization practices. It resulted in the conviction of two shelter staffers. Amid public outrage over the incident, the county divorced itself from the facility and established its own.

But the county now seems to be finding that funding and properly operating an animal shelter is a much greater challenge than it originally anticipated. County Commissioner Zana Renfro described the new county facility as a "tent city for animals" in a recent Paducah Sun story. She added, "The way I see it, you either do it right or you don't do it. There is nothing anyone can say to make what is going on out there OK."

Renfro's remarks came in the wake of a review of the new county facility by the Humane Society of the United States last November. (To the county's credit, it invited the national organization to visit its facility and provide an evaluation.) The report, issued in January, was not pretty. It identified a number of violations of Kentucky laws and regulations regarding heating of facilities and quarantining and treatment of sick or injured animals. It also identified numerous issues having to do with sanitation, standing water, and improper design of animal holding areas.

The report specifically referenced a dog named Barney, who according to shelter records had been at the facility since April. The Humane Society inspector said that on the day of her November visit, she found the dog "emaciated" in an unheated outdoor quarantine area suffering from "multiple bite wounds, a visible tumor (and) a heartworm positive diagnosis." The report said the apparent failure to obtain prompt veterinary care for the dog violated animal cruelty laws in addition to state shelter standards.

This week the McCracken County Fiscal Court held a meeting that was attended by Mayor Gayle Kaler, two city commissioners and members of the public to discuss what to do about the situation. Presently the city and county spend about $320,000 a year under a joint agreement to fund animal control and shelter functions. About $211,000 of that amount goes to shelter operations.

Judge-Executive Van Newberry was accurate when he told the gathering that quick decisions need to be made about the shelter. He discussed three options - keeping and upgrading the existing 4,500-square foot facility, partnering with a new or existing shelter, or constructing a new shelter. Specifically, Newberry discussed building a 13,000-square foot shelter at an estimated cost of $1.1 million to house up to 120 dogs and 50 cats at a time.

Given the urgency of the situation at the county's existing facility and the costs involved in any acceptable solution, we think the city and county would be remiss if they did not explore the possibility of involving the McCracken County Humane Society and its shelter in seeking a solution.

The Humane Society made numerous changes in the wake of the 2011 scandal. It has brought in new board members and replaced the former executive director. The organization also has an endowment which, including property, totaled $1.8 million as of early 2012. It has made numerous operational improvements, including monthly adoption events at the Paducah PetSmart location and online placement efforts. And the organization has much more experience running a shelter than the county does.

Commissioner Renfro is right in her assessment of the current conditions at the county shelter. They cannot be defended, regardless of whatever good intentions the county had when it opened it. And Judge-Executive Newberry is correct as well when he says time to act is short. The state is not likely to turn a blind eye to the statutory violations at the shelter for long, and that, too, could get very expensive for the county.

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