For 12th year, Kentucky ranks last in nation for animal protection

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By Kacie Goode

For more than a decade, Kentucky has fallen to last in the country when it comes to protecting animals, and a lack of adequate legislation has local animal advocates struggling to prevent and prosecute cruelty and neglect cases.

The 2018 national ranking, released Tuesday by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, highlights several reasons for the state’s bottom-tier ranking, including a lack of prohibiting sexual assault of animals, limitations on felony animal cruelty and fighting charges, and the prohibition of veterinarians from reporting suspected abuse.

“Most domestic animals are considered a member of the family to most people, yet county and state laws consider them property ...That needs to change.”

The report, published annually by the animal advocacy group, assesses each state’s animal protection laws and ranks them based on 19 different protection categories. This is 12th consecutive year Kentucky has held the bottom spot in the country. Other low-ranking states include Mississippi, Iowa, Utah and New Mexico.

Illinois, Oregon, Maine, Colorado and Massachusetts round out the top five.

Locally, the limited options in protection frustrate those in animal rescue, who say Kentucky is long overdue for legislative change.

Barktown Rescue in Boston has taken in numerous animals from hoarding, abuse and neglect cases in and around Nelson County. But addressing cases has proven difficult, as many offenders are able to avoid charges by agreeing to release the animals from their custody. The issue is one Dana Skaggs, a Barktown board member, has seen firsthand. She adopted her dog, Dixie, from Barktown after the canine was surrendered to police following a domestic call to a home. Dixie was reportedly abused in front of officers during their response.

“That person did not get charged with animal cruelty as he was forced to surrender her to the shelter to avoid the charges,” Skaggs said.

While it’s good the dog was surrendered, she maintains the owner should still have been charged with a crime and faced the proper penalties.

“Most domestic animals are considered a member of the family to most people, yet county and state laws consider them property,” Skaggs said. “That needs to change.”

Even when charges do arise from cruelty and abuse situations, they don’t always stick.

Since 2001, around four-dozen cases have been opened in Nelson County court regarding animal cruelty. The majority of cases involved second-degree misdemeanor charges because, by state law, first degree pertains only to dog fighting. Of those local cruelty cases, about a dozen resulted in a guilty verdict or plea while the remainder of cases were dismissed for various reasons or had charges amended down.

One of the most recent cases involved the arrest of a Bardstown man accused of trespassing on a man’s property in April and shooting to death four kenneled hunting dogs. The man was charged with four counts of torturing an animal resulting in death, as well as criminal mischief, trespassing, menacing and tampering with evidence. When he entered a guilty plea in the case in September, however, he received a 12-month sentence for amended second-degree mischief and third-degree trespassing, while the four torturing charges were dismissed. He was granted a two-year conditional discharge and ordered to pay restitution of $4,000 to the canines’ owner.

One issue that continues to lock Kentucky in last place is that veterinarians are prohibited from reporting animal abuse, which makes it difficult to identify and track persons with a history of abuse and neglect. The state is the only one in the country to have such a provision in place.

“I firmly believe that not only should vets have to be reporters of animal abuse, but there should also be a registry set up for animal abusers in each county, and they should never be allowed to own an animal,” Skaggs said.

When asked his thoughts on prosecuting animal abuse and cruelty cases locally, County Attorney Matthew Hite did not want to generalize the efforts, but said he believed his office had gone “above and beyond” on the cases it has worked over the years.

One issue that often comes up, he said, is getting proof of the crime and the person responsible so that legal action can be taken.

“It’s difficult in these cases if you don’t have a witness or evidence about who did it,” he said. “The ones that we get in that we can prove, we go after them quite aggressively.”

But it’s Kentucky’s lack of provisions to establish grounds for prosecution in the first place that animal activists have for years been trying to address.

“We continue to reach out to the legislators and the opposition groups to collaborate on effective bill language,” said Kathryn Callahan, Kentucky’s state director for the Humane Society of the United States, adding that the state faces “stiff opposition” from various sportsman and agriculture groups that lobby against animal protection legislation. “Kentucky needs additional animal protection laws and those laws already in effect need to be upgraded. With effective laws and adequate training of law enforcement and animal control officers, Kentucky can overcome barriers in addressing cruelty and neglect complaints. HSUS provides free training, but local and state authorities need to provide essential training geared to animal laws covering cruelty, animal control, and animal shelters.”

When it comes to taking action as a local resident, Skaggs encourages community members to reach out to county magistrates and ask their opinions on local ordinances protecting animals, to challenge local and state legislators to tackle some of the state’s “worst legislative deficiencies” and to volunteer at local shelters and rescues that see the brunt of the impact from poor protection laws.

“Make sure you let your opinions be heard,” Skaggs said. “It is time for all of us who care to be a voice for the voiceless.”

An in-depth look at the 2018 U.S. rankings can be found at aldf.org.