Shelter Spotlight: Kentucky Humane Society
Kentucky’s oldest animal welfare organization, and the state’s largest pet adoption agency.
Finding a path
Tully was scared. He’d just been rescued with dozens of other hoarded and starving dogs by members of the Kentucky Humane Society (KHS). Though his rescuers offered the small lab mix treats and toys, Tully just growled and snapped at them in his most threatening manner.
The KHS rescue team had seen this behavior many times before. Tully wasn’t used to humans, and placing this scared animal with a family was out of the question. According to the American Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Animals, about 6.5 million pets enter US animal shelters every year. Of those, 1.5 million are euthanized yearly. Like many aggressive dogs, Tully appeared to be a lost cause.
Years before Tully’s rescue, in another corner of the country, an animal-lover named Kat Rooks found herself standing at a crossroads in life. Should she go to graduate school, where she’d been accepted into the physical therapy program? Or should she pivot to follow an entirely different passion?
Over the past year, Kat had been learning more and more about dog training as part of her job at a pet supply store. And that hard work paid off. She’d just received an offer to start an animal behavior program at a local shelter. But she had to make a choice.
Kat chose the animals. Eventually that path would lead her to KHS and a growling little lost cause named Tully. Neither of them knew it, but that meeting would also play a big part in the future success of KHS...and its growing impact on the entire region.
Kentucky Humane Society
Louisville-based KHS is a large organization situated in a largely rural state. Like most shelters across the nation, it faces complex challenges. Staff and volunteers work hard to provide 24-hour care to an unending and ever-increasing flow of animals -- from neglected strays to companion animals surrendered by owners who can no longer care for them. Add to that the influx of animals transported to KHS from smaller shelters in rural communities without the funding or resources to provide for them.
But caring for the health of the animal population is only half of the battle KHS faces. Its ultimate mission is to find every animal a forever home...even hard-to-place animals like Tully. And that’s where Kat’s particular area of expertise came into play.
The Mod Squad
After Kat decided to pursue animal welfare over academia, she found herself working closely with feral felines and distrusting dogs...and loving it. Problem pets became her passion. So when she found out KHS was looking for a Behavior Modification specialist, it felt like the perfect fit.
At KHS, Kat took charge of the Behavior Modification program, or as it was known by staff, The Mod Squad. “It’s what we call our group of Behavior Modification animals,” Kat said. The team uses a multi-layer, “force-free” approach to help reform problem animals. “No techniques of pain, fear or intimidation. We get the dog to a place where they can be in a safe home.”
That’s where Kat and Tully first met. The day Tully came in, Kat noticed that human-to-dog training wasn’t going to work with him. “We could see he was very social with other dogs. Knowing his history (of being hoarded), we let him interact with other dogs.” To help with his training, the Mod Squad brought out the big guns: a Mod Squad veteran dog named Buddy.
“Buddy was the perfect gentleman and had the best play skills. He related to other dogs really well,” Kat said. Once Buddy and Tully checked each other out, Buddy threw down a play bow. Much to the KHS staff’s relief, Tully then caught a case of “the zoomies” -- a frantic and playful behavior that includes running and chasing. It was the first time the team had seen Tully happy.
It took months of slow, hard work. But one day, when Kat tossed some treats into Tully’s play area, she was amazed to see the once-unapproachable rescue play bow to her and catch the zoomies once again. “He was trying to get me to play with him,” she said. This was the sign Kat was looking for. Tully had learned to trust. He had finally come out of his shell.
Though Tully is only one of many KHS animals, Kat’s focus on behavioral changes has helped KHS make huge strides when it comes to re-homing animals once written off as lost causes. Recently, KHS reported its biggest adoption year on record. “In 2019, 3,424 cats, 3,398 dogs and 80 horses found loving homes. In total, we saved 97% of the animals who came through our doors.”
Founded in 1884, KHS isn’t just Kentucky’s oldest animal welfare organization, it’s also the state’s largest pet adoption agency. Over the years, it has built up an amazing infrastructure, supported by a framework of funding, dedicated volunteers and staff, as well as a strong network of donors.
Not all of Kentucky’s shelters can claim the same. Often, success depends on location and funding. City shelters can tap a larger population for adoptions and cash donations, while shelters in rural communities struggle to stay afloat. Staff at such shelters work tirelessly to find solutions, but even options like transporting animals to bigger shelters can overwhelm a small shelter’s budget.
For years, KHS had helped smaller shelters in struggling communities shoulder such burdens on a case-by-case basis. But in 2019, the executive board launched Love 120 -- a bold and long-range plan to help shelters in all of Kentucky’s 120 counties improve animal welfare over the next decade.
Kat decided once again to follow her heart. Though she had loved running the Mod Squad, she could see that shelters in surrounding areas were struggling. And the influx of rescue animals like Tully would not stop. So Kat left the Mod Squad in capable hands and joined the executive team of Love 120.
Though the program is still in its early stages, Kat says it is already helping three counties in the pilot program access funding and resources to meet the state’s animal welfare goals. And that’s a crucial part of the program. “There are not a lot of opportunities to stop the flow of animals into their buildings,” Kat said of the rural shelters. “We want something sustainable for them for the long term.”
Along with a robust transport program, a strong spay/neuter initiative is a basic tenet of Love 120. The program partners with local vets to provide the surgeries, assigns a devoted person at the shelter to doing community outreach for the spay/neutering, and subsidizes the cost of the procedures. As part of the spay/neutering project, Love 120 also educates the shelter staff and community about procedures and state regulations surrounding trap and return programs.
And it works. In one of the pilot shelters, Love 120 saw a stunning decrease of new animals coming in. The intake dropped by about 1,000 animals in 12 months. This is a shelter that typically sees a whopping 5,500 animals every year.
“Love 120’s goal is to really develop relationships,” Kat said. “We want the shelters to know we are all in this together.” Love 120 works with each shelter to set up a tailored set of goals. One size doesn’t fit all. Some of the programs aren’t necessary to implement at the others. One community may need to educate its residents about stray cats. Another community may need help getting municipal funding.
While Kat will always appreciate the role she played in helping animals like Tully find their forever homes, she feels she is making an even bigger impact by working on a bigger-picture level. “I think it’s so important, for those who are fortunate, to think more deeply about finding ways to give back to these communities, and to understand what barriers exist for them."
Kat and the KHS staff hope to share the Love 120 system with all 120 counties in Kentucky, and they are eager to share the model with shelters across the country. “We give back financially to Kentucky shelters but it’s more about support for them. It takes the effort of every single part of the community. These shelters can’t be left on their own.”
To learn more about Love 120 and the Kentucky Humane Society, visit https://www.kyhumane.org/