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Department of Agriculture investigates animal shelter

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By Calen McKinney

 Taylor County Animal Shelter has come under fire again, this time for whether it misused state grant funding to build a shelter that will soon no longer offer pets for adoption.

But James Comer, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture, says the $150,000 grant the shelter received to build its new facility does not require that animals be up for adoption at the facility.

He said the grant does call for the animals to be treated humanely, and his office has and will continue to investigate whether that is being done.

On Tuesday, Feb. 12, magistrates voted to no longer offer adoptions at the animal shelter. The building will remain open as a holding facility. It is expected to stop adoptions in April.

The shelter houses LaRue County strays. LaRue Fiscal Court will have to find another county to accept the animals.

The county is in the midst of soliciting bids from other counties to house Taylor County's stray animals. After a stray animal is picked up, it will be taken to the shelter. Every day, shelter staff members will transport the animals to the county that wins the bid.

The magistrates' decision has been highly criticized by community members, local animal rescue group members and the Taylor County SPCA group.

About 100 people attended a protest and adoption rally at the shelter last Tuesday and a petition posted on www.change.org to continue adoptions at the shelter had nearly 3,000 signatures on Friday.

Another protest was held Saturday morning.

On Friday, Comer said his office is involved in the administration of grants awarded by the state's Animal Control Advisory Board.

The Board awarded the shelter's $150,000 grant, he said, and his office is in charge of seeing that it is used properly.

“By all accounts, they were very deserving of the grant,” Comer said.

He said photos of conditions at the shelter were concerning and prompted his office to review how the grant is being used.

“We obviously wanted to go in there and investigate the allegations,” Comer said. We don't want to see any animal abused, especially livestock.”

Comer said the shelter's $150,000 grant was awarded during former agriculture commissioner Richie Farmer's administration. No such grants have been awarded since Comer became commissioner a little more than a year ago, because he says the state’s budget has been cut.

Comer said he has reviewed the grant requirements and it appears that the shelter has followed them.

He said the photos shown to him are of conditions at the shelter's old building, which wasn't paid for with the $150,000 grant.

The terms of that grant, Comer said, don't appear to require that the facility built with that money be used as a place to house animals available for adoption.

Comer said the terms do say that animals must be treated humanely at the facility paid for with the grant. His office will continue to make sure that is done.

“We're continuing to monitor the situation,” he said. “We've made it clear to Taylor County that this can't happen again.

“On all accounts to the new animal shelter, everything in the new animal shelter appears that it's going according to law.”

Comer said at least one Department of Agriculture employee has visited the shelter, and other state officials will in the future.

Last week, Taylor County Judge/Executive Eddie Rogers and a magistrate traveled to meet with Comer.

“I believe they got the message and they're gonna take every precaution to make sure these animals are treated humanely,” Comer said, “and something like this doesn’t happen again.”

Comer said his office won’t tolerate animal abuse.

“We will continue to visit once the dust has settled,” he said. “We’ll make sure that everything gets to be going the way it should.”

Comer said his office expects pet owners to treat their animals humanely.

“We expect farmers to do that and we expect people that have animal shelters to do the same,” he said.

Representatives from State Rep. John “Bam” Carney, R-Campbellsville, and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear’s offices have also contacted Rogers about the shelter.

“This has been an ongoing thing. Whether it’s a grudge or political, I don’t know,” Rogers said on Friday.

Rogers said he and the county's magistrates have tried to work with those who have complained about the shelter.

“It just seems there is no middle of the road here,” he said. “If [there are] people who won’t tell me who they're representing, I’ve got a problem.

“We’re just taking it one day at a time.”

At a press conference on Friday, Feb. 15, County Attorney John Bertram said the county will address the $150,000 grant, should an issue about it surface.

“If the county becomes obligated to do something with the regard to the grant money, the county will do it,” he said.

On Friday, Rogers agreed.

“We said if we have to pay the money, we would pay it back.”

Rogers said the photos that surfaced showing the alleged conditions at the shelter aren't of the new shelter. He said those who took the pictures bullied their way into the shelter as it was opening one morning.

And he says if people want to protest at the shelter, they are welcome to do so.

“They're more than welcome. They can do whatever they need to do.”

According to a letter from the Kentucky Animal Care and Control Association written on Feb. 20, the group made an unannounced visit to the shelter that day to see if any laws are being violated there.

“From the reports we ran today, we did not see any discrepancies,” the letter states. “We saw no violations [of state law].”

The letter also states that John Harris, who serves as the director of the animal shelter, is vice president of the association and is in good standing. As such, the letter states, he will remain in that position.