A recent report by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment on the condition of animal shelters in the Commonwealth, came to the official conclusion of what those in animal welfare have known for a while: things are bad. Kentucky ranks 50th in animal welfare in the nation. Counties across the Commonwealth are overburdened with maintaining many civic areas, meaning shelters just cannot afford to be a priority. It may surprise you that some counties don’t even have a shelter. That’s not to say those counties don’t have the same issues other counties do, they just can’t afford the overhead in their budget for such an investment. This means they have to outsource the service to another county, who often don’t have the time, money, or resources either. In the report, 91% of shelters identified funding as an issue with their ability to meet the need.

Lack of funding is not likely to change anytime soon. This has led one shelter located in the Bluegrass Area Development District, to get creative in their dedication to saving animal lives in Estill, Lee, Owsley, Jackson, and Wolfe Counties. A few years ago Estill County’s Judge Executive, Wallace Taylor, made the decision to appoint Tommy Mullen the Director for their shelter, while simultaneously naming him their first Animal Control Officer. Tommy and his assistant Karen are the only two paid staff at the shelter, relying on volunteers for many of the non-administrative duties. When Tommy took over the role of Director, he was facing a miserable situation. Euthanasia statistics at the shelter were horrible, with almost half of the animals brought in being euthanized, and the animal defense league citing their deplorable conditions.

Tommy was determined to change the state of the shelter. One of the first things he changed were cleaning practices. The cost of cleaning had been over $350 per month, but he was able to bring those expenses to under a $100 a month, allowing more money to go directly to animal care. He was able to reduce costs by working with local veterinarians and gathering information from the University of Kentucky Diagnostics Lab. These contacts taught Tommy appropriate techniques and mixture amounts for creating a clean and sanitary environment for the animals being held. He worked with local volunteers to get the kennels treated, cleaned, and new doors installed. The shelter changed their food storage methods, saving them a lot of money by simply elevating the food to keep it away from moisture and rodents.

Those fundamental changes made a noticeable difference overall, but it wasn’t enough to get animals out of the shelter. One day a friend of Tommy’s recommended he try Facebook Live so people could see the personality of the dogs available for adoption. “We were full the first time we did it,” he said, “probably close to 30 dogs. In two days, they were gone. It absolutely went nuts. It blew my mind. We do that [Facebook Live] on a regular basis now.”

The statistics the Estill County Animal Shelter is seeing with Tommy at the helm are fantastic. “The first year [2012] I was here, we had about 350 dogs we had to euthanize and that has gone down to one (1) in 2016.” Three-hundred fifty dogs may seem like a huge number, and it is, but when you put in perspective that the year before he accepted the role as Director, a county with a population of just over 14,000 euthanized over 1,000 dogs and nearly 500 cats. Tommy pointed out that in 2015 he had to put down 11 dogs. He wasn’t pleased with that number, he said “it would have been seven, but four of them were from another county, and court ordered by a judge.” With a 99.7% decrease in shelter euthanasia over four years, it’s easy to see why the Estill County Animal Shelter is a success.

The near miracle of this is that this is done on an annual budget of $13,500 a year, not including payroll. Building and vehicle maintenance, animal care, utilities, and supplies are all covered under this extremely modest budget. Anyone who has been involved in animal welfare and rescue knows the extreme expense associated with the care of a stray or owner surrendered animal. When discussed, he modestly refuses to take much of the credit. Tommy, instead, points out the importance of his staff, both paid and unpaid, as well as, volunteers from the community: caring citizens, members of the county road crew, Teacher Sherry Murphy and her Estill County High School Spanish Club, and volunteers with local rescues. Tommy’s best kept secret weapon to saving lives may just be his willingness to partner to get the animals out of the shelter and into foster homes where they can receive the care they need. He works closely with Way Home Rescue Alliance, who assists in transporting animals to rescues all over the United States and Canada. Many areas of Canada and the north east of the US have very strict laws regarding animal care, meaning fewer animals end up in shelters, which creates a demand for rescue and shelter animals. He says, “They do a great job in getting the animals out.”

Tommy’s work has not gone completely unnoticed. He received the 2015 Employee of the Year through the State, but when asked about that, his response was again humble, saying “I really wanted Shelter of the Year. I can’t do this by myself and I’ve got an excellent team. It’s not about me.” Tommy Mullen and his team at the Estill County Animal Shelter, along with Judge Executive Taylor are to be commended on their efforts to turn things around regarding the care for homeless and surrendered dogs and cats of Estill, Lee, Owsley, Jackson, and Wolfe Counties.

During the interview Tommy shared his goals for the future. He would love to see an updated shelter to better care for the animals. “I would love to have a state of the art facility. I would love to see us be self-funded through adoptions and rescues, that way we wouldn’t be a burden on the County.” Currently, less animals can be saved in the winter months because they can’t afford to heat the entire building in the winter, forcing Tommy to close off several of the kennels and cutting space in half.

When contacted for a comment, Judge Wallace Taylor’s office added, “He (Judge Taylor) appreciates the efforts that Tommy has put forth into improving our shelter. We appreciate the volunteers, rescue groups and citizens working cohesively to get these animals into their forever homes.” Estill County may be a small, rural community in the Bluegrass Area Development District, but with dedicated people like Tommy and his staff, they are making some real magic happen.

The shelter is always in need of donations. If you would like to help the Estill County Animal Shelter, they are always accepting cleaning items, like Dawn, Clorox, and paper towels or you can make a monetary donation by contacting the Estill County Animal Shelter directly. Their phone number is: (606) 723-3587 or find them on Facebook under the Estill County Animal Shelter.