For the fifth year in a row, Kentucky can claim a title no one wants to take. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal rights law organization, ranks Kentucky the worst at animal cruelty case convictions. They say the state's lack of laws makes it easy for criminals to get away with animal abuse.
WKYT took the claim to the experts and the advocates who deal with abuse each day. We also spoke to the legislators, the ones with the influence to alter animal abuse laws.
Each year, the Animal Legal Defense Fund reviews legislation pertaining to animal abuse cases in each state, and since 2007, they have ranked Kentucky worst in the nation. The ALDF calls Kentucky notorious for having the weakest laws in the country against animal cruelty.
"I've been here 11 years and I have seen a lot of cruelty come through these doors," says Sandie Clark. She's the top dog at the Estill County Animal Shelter, a center that takes in pets from four surrounding counties. "We've had dogs come in that's been shot. We've had dogs come in that's stepped in steel traps. And we've had them come in just plain starved, skin over bone," says Clark with a shake of her head. "We're supposed to be Horse Country, but I've heard of horses being starved, beaten, turned loose to fend for themselves. A lot of times I go home crying over it, it upsets me so bad. You see it, but you can't get nothing done about it."
Small town pounds like the Estill County one may be the first to help abused animals, but community clubs are the ones that continue to fight for dogs long after they leave the shelters.
"We're just a local grassroots rescue organization, and we spend most of our energies pulling from the pound and saving the pound dogs," explains Saving the Animals of Rowan member Jan Dacci. "It's shameful that this is the fifth year in a row that Kentucky's been elected number one for animal abuse, neglect and abandonment, but until the laws are changed and it's taken more seriously on the top level it's not gonna change on the local level."
According to the ALDF, Kentucky's ranked worst because the state has no felony penalty for neglect or abandonment. It is currently a misdemeanor to neglect or abandon dogs. Kentucky courts don't have to force the abuser to give up the animal. Courts also don't have to send the abuser off for mental health evaluations, and they don't have to restrict an abuser's ownership of more animals after a conviction.
"Everywhere you look there's blatant abuse, and the officials do not want to hear about it. They just don't want it to be addressed," explains Dacci. "So, until we can get the people in power to do anything it's not gonna change."
WKYT wrote to legislators in counties affected by animal abuse allegations in 2011. In total, that included 32 senators and representatives from 14 counties. Out of those 32 men and women, six responded.
"It doesn't matter what laws we pass here in Frankfort if they're not enforced in the communities where these acts are taking place," says Kentucky Senator Ray S. Jones.
Kentucky Senator Julian M. Carroll tells WKYT cameras, "the Kentucky State Senate being in the majority of the Republican Party it's really up to them to move the bills. And certainly I have not seen them moving any bills regarding the concern for animal abuse."
Madison County's Rita Smart writes to us, "I encourage local law enforcement and officials to work with community members to address small animal abuse at the local level."
Representative Sannie Overly says she is "open to discuss any idea that would stop criminal abuse of animals."
Representative Terry Mills writes, "Some communities do a better job than others in seeing that those places are adequately funded and laws are followed."
And Henry County's Representative Rick Rand writes, "It has been difficult to pass legislation concerning animal abuse."
Read below for the full statements each senator and representative gave to WKYT.
"We need stronger laws, we need the local authorities to enforce the current laws until we see anything change," says Dacci. She thinks if the men and women in Frankfort would put some pressure on the local level, she might not have to rescue so many pets from the pound.
The following are the un-edited remarks all six legislators gave in response to WKYT's questions regarding animal abuse. Senators Jones and Carroll spoke with us in taped interviews. All four representatives sent WKYT written statements.
Full response from Senator Ray S. Jones:
"Well first and foremost I haven’t seen the articles or media accounts that you’re referring to. Animal cruelty is something I’m sure that happens in every community, in every state. So without seeing actual statistics I can’t comment, but we already have significant penalties on the books for animal abuse or neglect or torture and I know we just recently had a case in Pike County that resulted in criminal charges. It doesn’t matter what laws we pass here in Frankfort if they’re not enforced in the communities where these acts are taking place.
There have been some cases in Eastern Kentucky. There’s cases throughout Kentucky and it really again doesn’t matter what we pass here in Frankfort it’s up to the prosecutors and the judges in local communities to enforce the law. There are penalties in place now. It’s a felony to torture or kill a cat or dog. It’s against the law to abuse or neglect a four-legged animal and again the key is prosecution. If the law’s not enforced, KRS doesn’t really matter.
I think I’ve had one email on animal abuse this year. In reality we’ve been here less than two weeks and of course redistricting, the Governor’s budget address, the serious fiscal issues facing the state, and to me the most important issue for my region is fighting drug abuse. I mean, we’re losing 82 people every month in Kentucky as a result of drug overdoses and that’s more than we’re losing in car wrecks. Nearly twice what we’re losing in traffic fatalities. So to me, the first priority is to take care of the drug epidemic in Eastern Kentucky and try and face that. That’s not to minimize what is obviously a problem with animal abuse because I really believe the people that would abuse an animal will do the same thing to a human being. But again, the laws are on the books to deal with that. We could increase penalties, but if they’re not enforced it doesn’t matter what we do here. And we can’t enforce the law, we make the law. So if our prosecutors throughout Kentucky are not enforcing the law or in certain areas are not enforcing the law, there’s nothing we can do about that. We basically have no oversight authority over our law enforcement officers or over our prosecutors. We can pass law, but ultimately it’s their responsibility to carry out the enforcement of the law and the prosecution of the people who offend. So I’m not sure we need changes to the law, what I believe it is is increased enforcement."
Full response from Senator Julian M. Carroll:
"Certainly among the correspondence and the emails that I receive every day, I receive a great many instances in which there are concerns for animal abuse. Of course the Kentucky State Senate being in the majority of the Republican Party it's really up to them to move the bills. Certainly I have not seen them moving any bills regarding the concern for animal abuse. And then when they do, they're gonna find a supporter in Julian Carroll because I've always had dogs, obviously cats, as a matter of fact we've continued to see them being a farmer and living on a farm of course we have all kinds of animals.
Certainly one of the things you want to always guard against is making sure that the animal is not intensely abused. They certainly should have the same respect for that life as we have for anything.
To be candid with you, I don't anticipate the Republicans letting anything out of the committee. They control the process by which all bills come out of the committee. In fact they control all the process. They control what bills we can vote on, when we vote on them, and they even control what districts we can be elected from.
Certainly more can be done, and there's been some more bills introduced regarding animal abuse, but I'm not aware of any that the Republican majority has let out of committee yet, and so it's entirely up to them. They're in control of the flow of legislation."
Full response from Representative Rita Smart:
"I oppose animal cruelty in any form. As a member of the House Agricultural Committee I rely heavily on our chairman Tom McKee for leadership in this area.
Last year, the Kentucky General Assembly addressed horse and larger animal abuse through the creation of the Livestock Care Standards Commission. Under the leadership of our state veterinarian, Dr. Robert Stout, the commission is currently meeting to establish or maintain standards governing the care and well-being of on-farm livestock and poultry. One of the issues they are discussing is animal cruelty and we hope to hear back from the commission soon with their findings and recommendations.
As to the issue of small animal abuse, local governments have jurisdiction throughout Kentucky. As a legislator I encourage local law enforcement and officials to work with community members to address small animal abuse at the local level. The state does not have jurisdiction in this arena. "
Full response from Representative Sannie Overly:
"I think it’s vital that we do whatever it takes to stop individual acts of animal cruelty, which is why I supported Romeo’s Law several years ago. That legislation greatly enhanced penalties for those found guilty of torturing dogs or cats. Another bill pending this session would require forfeiture of animals involved in cruelty and torture cases and not allow those owners to own the same species for two years. The passage of this bill would further strengthen our animal protection statutes. I serve on the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee, which generally has jurisdiction on legislation affecting animals, so I am open to discuss any idea that would stop criminal abuse of animals.”
Full response from Representative Terry Mills:
"Animal cruelty is senseless and a terrible reality. Unfortunately it does appear to be on the rise and I think that is due in part to the economy. When money is tight, families are forced to make difficult choices and sometimes those decisions are harmful to small animals and pets.
Local governments have oversight over animal shelters and clinics. Some communities do a better job than others in seeing that those places are adequately funded and laws are followed.
I am looking forward to hearing the Livestock Care Standards Commission’s report for better ways to address animal issues and problems in Kentucky."
Full response from Representative Rick Rand:
"I do believe that animal abuse is a growing problem. It has been difficult to pass legislation concerning animal abuse. That is why I have focused my efforts on funding for training of animal control officers and funding for animal shelters. Henry County is to be commended for aggressively pursuing the individuals charged in the recent case there. In a joint agreement, Henry and Trimble Counties are now in the process of building and staffing a new animal shelter using funds appropriated by the General Assembly just for this purpose."