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  • Joe Graviss

7-year-old Frankfort boy inspires shelter pet legislation

By Dalton Stokes Contributing writer for The State Journal Jan 17, 2020 Updated Jan 18, 2020

Seven-year-old Ethan Branscum, of Frankfort, had an idea to help his animal friends. Thursday, it led to a legislative committee approval of a bill that would give the honorary title “official pets of the Commonwealth of Kentucky” to any dogs and cats in or adopted from Kentucky animal shelters.

“I thought people would be more inclined to get shelter pets” if they were official state pets, Ethan told the House State Government Committee. But the bill’s sponsor said the measure also highlights the sad state of many Kentucky animal shelters.

Rep. Joe Graviss, D-Versailles, said Ethan contacted him, and he liked the idea. In presenting it to the committee, Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, who helped carry the bill, noted Kentucky’s low ranking among the states and territories in animal welfare. After the meeting, he said, “As of last year, we were below 50 because we were worse than the territories, below Guam.”

He did not cite a source. In 2019, the Animal Legal Defense Fund ranked Kentucky’s animal protection laws 47th among the states, and ranked territories separately; Guam was fourth out of six.

A 2016 study by the Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine in Harrogate, Tennessee, just south of Middlesboro, found that nearly half of Kentucky’s animal shelters are in violation of three or more laws and 82% were in violation of at least one. However, the laws lack penalties that could make county fiscal courts comply with them.

Bratcher went on to say that Kentucky was one of the last three states to make bestiality illegal, which it did last year. “Hopefully that will raise us in this year's ranking,” he said.

He suggested that the General Assembly could use an animal abuse/treatment caucus. “We want to get Kentucky off the bottom.”

One member of such a caucus could be Rep. Cherlynn Stevenson, D-Lexington. Asked about the bill, she said in an email: “As an animal lover myself, I’ve filed three pieces of legislation aimed at increasing animal protections in Kentucky. Therefore, I also gladly signed on as a co-sponsor of HB27 in hopes it passes and can help raise awareness for the thousands of precious pets we have waiting in shelters for their forever home. My three kitties, Peanut, Butter and Jelly, came from a shelter and I encourage others to “adopt, not shop!”

As the bill passed the committee without dissent, Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, said it had “all of us pondering how we can change treatment. It is the beginning of a recognition that every animal in a shelter needs to be recognized as a Kentucky pet.”

The 2016 study, funded and overseen by the University of Kentucky, found that the shelters’ biggest problems were lack of funding, lack of education and an inconsistent labor force of volunteers and paid employees. The researchers also cited a lack of spray/neuter programs, cat overpopulation, low local adoption rates, a lack of veterinary care, lack of safe areas for puppies, unclean conditions and unsafe night drop-offs. It found that 73% of shelters were too small, 42% lacked quarantine areas, 23% failed to accommodate cats, 37% of cat areas were of poor quality, and 82% didn't have areas for large animals or livestock.

Two years ago, animal advocates filed suit in Franklin Circuit Court to get the state to enforce its laws on local animal shelters. Judge Phillip Shepherd dismissed it in October 2018, saying they lacked standing and presented “a non-justiciable political question.” The ruling has been appealed to the state Court of Appeals, but oral argument has not been scheduled.

Dalton Stokes, a University of Kentucky journalism student, is covering the 2020 General Assembly for The State Journal.

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