With regrettably little media fanfare, on May 21 Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed into state law a bill that will make animal abuse a felony instead of a misdemeanor. This means that anyone who is caught in the state who is found guilty of “aggravated cruelty to livestock” can be subjected to Class E felony sentencing guidelines of “no less than one year imprisonment and no more than five years” when the new law takes effect on July 1, 2012.
The welcome bill, sponsored by State Senator Douglas Henry (D-Nashville) and Rep. Gary Odom (D-Nashville), is the most heartening news to come in the wake of a scathing undercover video that cast a nationwide pall on the state’s walking horse industry and has triggered new-found belief that the soring and abuse of show horses is still quite prevalent in the state and the industry itself.
Under the Tennessee bill, SB 2759, any persons who commit “aggravated cruelty to a livestock animal who, in a depraved and sadistic manner, intentionally engages in any conduct …. that results in serious bodily injury or the death of that animal” can be jailed, fined and could “surrender custody and forfeit all of their livestock animals in their possession.”
What constitutes “aggravated cruelty to livestock,” according to the bill, are the following offenses:
-- Setting an animal on fire;
-- Burning an animal with any hot object;
-- Cutting or stabbing an animal with any object;
-- Causing blunt force trauma to an animal;
-- Securing an animal to a vehicle and dragging it;
-- Blinding an animal;
-- Applying acid or other caustic substance or chemical to any exposed area of an animal or forcing the animal to ingest the substance;
-- Hanging a live animal;
-- Skinning an animal while it is alive;
-- Administering electric shock to an animal;
-- Drowning an animal; or
-- Shooting a (livestock) animal with a weapon.
Obviously there are exceptions to the bill, such as “dispatching rabid, diseased, sick or injured livestock animals” and while the only worrisome loophole is “applying methods and equipment used to train livestock animals,” the intent is quite clear. Prosecutors believe the bill SB-2759 will greatly enhance enforcement and prosecution of trainers such as Barney Davis and Jackie McConnell who have pleaded guilty in Federal Court of conspiracy to violate the federal Horse Protection Act.
Unfortunately, current federal guidelines include no jail time but Davis was also found guilty of obstruction of justice and threatening a witness. On those charges the gaited-horse trainer was sentenced to a year in prison, three years of supervised release and fined $4,000. Two others who also pleaded guilty at the time, associates Christen Altman and Jeffery Bradford, were each sentenced to one year of federal probation.
At the time Davis was sentenced, he alleged soring was widespread in the walking horse industry and showed examples of chains, bolts, bocks and eight-pound tungsten shoes that scofflaws use for the exaggerated gait in horse shows. He told a Federal Court “everybody” was soring the beautiful animals.
McConnell, widely-known as a “hot” trainer for the last three decades, also pleaded guilty to conspiracy in a trial last week and he and three associates - Jeff Dockery, John Mays, and Joseph R. Abernathy - are scheduled to be sentenced in Chattanooga on Sept. 10 by federal judge Sandy Mattice. Federal guidelines for violations of the Horse Protection Act are woefully weak and Judge Mattice could veer from accepting the plea deal.
As a matter of fact, the Horse Protection Act was introduced in 1970 but until federal prosecutors in East Tennessee took on Davis and McConnell at an inspector’s insistence, there have not been any guilty pleas registered in 40 years of federal oversight. Justice officials on the federal and state level, now aware of the chronic abuse and the continuing soring, vow there will be further indictments.
Celebration officials announced Monday that of 599 horses that appeared over the Memorial Day weekend at the 42nd Annual Spring Fun Show in Shelbyville, only 16 showed problems, but Keith Dane, the director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said one horse at the show had a record of eight previous HPA violations.
Dane, who is on the board of directors of the Tenn. Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association, is being blamed for the undercover video that CBS aired on “Nightline” and will face an expulsion hearing in late June from the Celebration group. The hearing, which will be closed to the public, is June 22 in Lewisburg.
McConnell, still awaiting trial in Fayetteville, Tn., on state charges next month, was banned from all Celebrations events for life last week and now other horse shows and organizations have decreed the Collierville trainer will not be welcome at events this summer.
Owners of Tennessee Walking Horses across the country are urging their states to adapt similar laws to the new Tennessee legislation and feel “jail time” is the best deterrent to the trainers and owners who will cheat in order to win a blue ribbon.