Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s office has received thousands of telephone calls, hundreds of letters and is expecting a petition bearing over 6,000 names from those begging he veto a very controversial “AgGag” bill but the deciding blow may have just been delivered in Maryville on Thursday. State authorities have charged notorious horse trainer Larry Wheelon with one count of aggravated animal cruelty and confiscated at least 17 of 28 Tennessee Walking Horses that showed visible signs of alleged abuse and soring.
Wheelon’s barn had been raided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week and, while agents were said to be “shocked,” yesterday’s action was the first step in a criminal prosecution by state officials, where horse abuse is now a felony and carries a one-to-five year jail term on each count.
Wheelon has been cited for violating the federal Horse Protection Act at least 15 times by the USDA between 1993 and 2012, but yesterday’s arrest was the first in Tennessee since horse abuse became a felony last July.
The Tennessee Legislature passed an “AgGag” bill by a mere one vote the day before the USDA raided Wheelon’s barn last week and a source said that if the AgGag bill, as it is called, had been law then evidence collected in the last two weeks against Wheelon would be impermissible and the person, or persons, who tipped the USDA would be guilty of a misdemeanor under the highly-controversial bill.
Tennessee’s flawed Animal Abuse Bill has been so universally decried by animal protection groups that the Humane Society of the United States now has a $100,000 TV campaign to urge the governor’s veto. Not surprising, the Tennessee Walking Horse Association, considered the root of horse abuse in Tennessee for the past 50 years, and the Tennessee Farm Bureau are the only known organizations in favor of the act.
The horses were seized yesterday by the Blount County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals but the Humane Society and a group from House Haven were called in and asked to transport, care and feed the animals at an undisclosed farm outside of Blount County. Last week 26 of 28 horses were inspected by USDA veterinarians and some were said to be “in agony” after a paste containing such irritants as kerosene and cinnamon were found to be wrapped on the animals’ forelegs.
To compound the tragedy, as the horses were being moved yesterday, one horse was found to be in such pain that when something brushed the animal’s bloody foreleg in a barn walkway, the pain-crazed animal rushed the experienced equine handler, badly cutting her face and breaking her leg. The handler, who has been working with horses for years, was transported by ambulance to a local hospital.
The horse was quickly caught and sedated by veterinarians, who also began pain treatment for the animal. “The whole scene is absolutely horrible,” said one onlooker. “Nobody knows what these horses have been forced to endure.”
Leighann McCollum, Tennessee state director for The HSUS, said on Thursday, “These horses are clearly in extreme pain – some of them from having chemicals applied to their skin and bolts driven into the soles of their hooves. We are grateful to be able to help rescue them so they will no longer have to suffer like this, simply for the sake of a blue ribbon. We commend the Blount County SPCA and Blount County Sheriff’s Office for their hard work and dedication on this case.”
Intricate lab swabs were taken last week by USDA veterinarians and while it was believed results wouldn’t be available for two weeks, there was no confirmation of what caused law enforcement authorities to confiscate the animals on Thursday. “Obviously the Blount County District Attorney (Mike Flynn) didn’t need any more proof than was quite plain to see,” said a witness in Wheelon’s barn.
Only one horse in Wheelon’s care had paperwork for Coggan’s Disease and the other 27 were being held in quarantine until yesterday when the order to take possession was deemed necessary. Under federal law, the horses can be moved but not across state lines until tested for the deadly equine infectious anemia.
Wheelon, a director of the increasingly much-maligned Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer’s Association, headed the group’s Ethics Committee and was said by two sources to be a well-known “scofflaw” in Maryville, which is confirmed by his history of USDA suspensions. “Seeing these horses suffering so badly that they can hardly stand is heartbreaking, but being able to assist in this investigation and today’s rescue gives us some solace,” said Gino Bachman, president of the Blount Co. SPCA.
Additional federal and state charges are expected in coming weeks but officials warned the investigation in “ongoing.” The lab swaps and videos will play a convincing role, as well as testimony from USDA equine experts. Wheelon’s arrest is the biggest blow to the “Big Lick” segment of the Walking Horse industry since Jackie McConnell pleaded guilty to abuse charges in Chattanooga last year.
McConnell, who received three years’ probation and was fined $75,000 under lax Federal laws, is still awaiting trial under state charges after a scathing video showed him beating and torturing horses appeared on the ABC News show, “Nightline,” and soon went viral to horse lovers around the world.
That is what makes the Legislature’s approval of the “AgGag” bill so incredible in a state now considered to lead the world in horse abuse. Tennessee has the third-largest equine population of all the states in the country but the “Big Lick” crowd is Shelbyville has badly maligned the state’s image and its historic breed. (An informal poll in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette showed 70 percent of its reader’s favored a veto of the AgGag bill.)
It is not known when Governor Haslam will veto the AgGag bill or sign it into law.