They say it is understaffed, underfunded, unsanitary and does not have a proper system for disposing of animals that have been euthanized or have died.
Volunteer Will Taylor said he found dead dogs in garbage bags among trash and animal droppings. He also found a dead puppy in a cleaning supplies room on Sunday.
"I've known them [animal corpses] to sit by the back door for longer than six or seven days," said Barbara Lewis, who volunteers at least three days a week at the shelter.
Sid Helton, the county animal control officer, disagreed.
According to Helton, the corpses don't stay at the shelter longer than 24 hours. He said he removes the bodies of dogs and cats everyday, burying them on county land or taking them to a landfill in London.
Helton said he didn't know how the puppy got in the room with the cleaning supplies.
"Any time dogs die, they are put in bags and set toward the back door," he said.
Helton and one other county employee are responsible for the day-to-day operations at the animal shelter, which will mark its one-year anniversary in July.
Helton's main responsibility is to collect stray and unwanted animals from around the county. He says he is picking up an estimated 200 dogs a month.
"I'm one man, covering 450 square miles," he said.
"We're overwhelmed with animals."
Tim Hensley, who works part-time, is responsible for the cleaning, feeding and watering of the more than 80 animals now at the shelter, as well as dealing with adoptions.
Short on help
Mary Medlar, president of the Harlan County Humane Society, said that two employees are not enough to handle the workload at the shelter.
"Mr. Helton is on the road almost the whole time he works," she said. "There should be at least two part-time people."
In May, Medlar sent a letter to Harlan County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop and the fiscal court, outlining the problems she sees. In it, she announced that Humane Society volunteers will no longer be coming in to clean the shelter on Sundays after June.
Including Humane Society workers, there are 12 regular volunteers at the shelter.
"We were doing the county's work," she said. By no longer doing the cleaning work, she said she wanted to motivate the fiscal court to remedy the staffing problems at the shelter.
Helton said that he and Hensley will now work Sundays as well at the shelter, cleaning and feeding the animals.
It isn't likely that more people will be hired in the coming fiscal year, said Grieshop.
"We have so many other areas that need employees," he said.
"There's only so much money in the budget. We don't have deep pockets."
The shelter is open to the public Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. until noon.
The morning hours limit the number of adoptions at the shelter, said Medlar, because the working public has a hard time getting there in the mornings.
A cleaning quagmire
Volunteers also say that sanitation is a major issue at the shelter.
"It's just awful," said Lewis, after checking in at the shelter on Friday.
"Poor little baby kittens peeing and pooping in what was left of their water. The paper hadn't been changed, they hadn't had cat litter in three days."
Medlar said that the cleanliness of the animals is important if adoptions are to take place.
"When people go in there and they look at animals that are covered in poop, they don't want to adopt them," she said. "It's not pretty."
Foulness comes with the territory, said Helton.
"Day to day, you can have those pens spotless and then you go back an hour later and there's a mess."
Grieshop said that the expectation of cleanliness is that all pens be cleaned once a day, but that some mess should be expected because the shelter is dealing with a lot of animals.
"It's normal for animals to defecate," he said.
"The overload of dogs has prevented us from getting to where we want to be on that note."
An improving environment
Bryan Hillard, chairman of the animal shelter advisory board, said that one of the biggest problems at the shelter is that it's not finished.
The new fiscal court budget includes $8,000 for the building, and Grieshop said that the county is applying for a $10,000 grant to finish the work.
He said that the building is functional as is and the improvements to be made are cosmetic.
The money allotted this year will be enough to finish the building, said Helton.
Two years ago, said Grieshop, "all we had for an animal shelter was a slab of concrete and some pens in the hot sun in someone's back yard."
"I would hope that the Humane Society and citizens who wish to be critical of the animal shelter would take a hard look at where this county was with respect to dogs and cats two years ago and then come and visit the shelter today."
Helton said that "we've got a mansion now, compared to what we had in the past."
A compounding problem
Everyone involved agrees that there are too many strays in Harlan County, and that much of the issue is responsibility of pet owners.
Grieshop, Medlar and Helton hope to educate the public about the problems that arise when pets are not spayed or neutered, when pets are abandoned around the county, and when female animals in heat are allowed to run loose.
Helton said that more than 60 percent of the animals who come to the shelter are sick, many of them with parvo or distemper.
Euthanizations take place every two or three weeks at the shelter, said Dr. Doug Mickey, who volunteers his services.
Soon, though, euthanizations may take place more often.
In the next two or three weeks, Helton said the drug enforcement agency will visit the shelter and ensure that chemicals used for euthanization are secured.
If they approve, Hensley, who is certified to euthanize, will be able to put animals to sleep when he needs to, instead of waiting for the vet to come.
That will help, said Helton, because sick animals can be put down immediately instead of risking infecting the rest of the animals, and it will cut down on the total number of animals at the shelter. This will improve conditions for those who remain, he said.
But after a year of operation, Medlar said she still hasn't seen a clear system at the shelter for disposal of animals that have been dead.
"Animals should never lay dead for longer than 24 hours," said Medlar.
"It was my understanding that dogs or animals are disposed of relatively quickly after they put them down," said Grieshop.
"An animal being dead is no issue. If they're in a bag, that's probably the appropriate thing to do. The bag is airtight."
Helton said that there have to be around 10 animals that need to be disposed of before he visits the landfill. When there are fewer, he buries them on county property.
The county and Mickey have discussed setting up a contract for disposal of animals at the veterinarian's incinerator, but an agreement could not be reached, he said.
"We want to make things better for the animals. Until we get the population down, it's going to be uncomfortable for a while," said Helton.
As for disposal efforts, Helton said "we would love to have freezers. That'd be great."
Citizens who would like to volunteer at the shelter should visit during operating hours.
Helton said the shelter could use donations of cat litter and cat food, dry and wet. He said he needs more cat cages.