There will be two pivotal events in Tennessee this week that will thrill horsemen and their families all around the world. Later today Bill Haslam is expected to say “neigh” and veto the dreaded “Ag-Gag” bill that the state Legislature very ignorantly but foolishly approved by one vote. The bill clearly is in violation of the U.S. Constitution. And tomorrow morning the very hounds of hell will be let loose in Maryville when a “Dirty Lick” horse trainer named Larry Joe Wheelon is required to appear before a Blount County judge.
The “Ag-Gag” bill, now vilified by every newspaper in the state and upwards of 50,000 signatures on various petitions to the governor, calls for anyone taking pictures or photographs of animal abuse to turn over all evidence to law enforcement within 48 hours.
But as proponents and critics agree, it is a Catch 22 trick, turning the accuser into the criminal because failure to do so would be a misdemeanor.
What the bill actually does is to severely handicap those who report people like Larry Joe Wheelon to the authorities and some believe if the law had already been in effect, the despicable Wheelon would – in fact – be soring or abusing horses in his car this morning instead of nervously awaiting tomorrow's court appearance. “Just about every Federal crime is the result of a tip,” said one prosecutor, “and to alter that in any way hinders law enforcement.”
Fellow trainer Jackie McConnell was caught on an undercover video in 2011 which was promptly submitted to authorities. But law enforcement officials asked the Humane Society of the United States to provide more proof, which takes time. Thus the “Ag-Gag” bill is a joke and its sponsor, pig farmer Andy Holt (R-Dresden), has just been exposed as a bigger joke – a scofflaw legislator who plays above the rules himself.
The Nashville online newsite, The City Paper, outed the lawmaker who some call “Bubba The Bully” last week when it revealed Holt has a “shaky history” of complying with state farm regulations and hasn’t had some proper permits since 2009. Holt has been served with two violation notices by the Department of Environment and Conservation and ignored both. The Division of Water Resources has also sent him a letter regarding the waste runoff from 1,400 hogs, which he has also ignored. Yet the now-questionable Farm Bureau just presented him the keys to a new pickup truck after footing the bill for a week’s stay in Hawaii!
The District Attorney in Blount County didn’t wait to arrest Wheelon after Federal agents and county animal welfare officials raided Wheelon’s leased barn with a search warrant and seized 19 horses that veterinary officials said had been sored. This means the animals had caustic substances slathered on the horses’ forelegs in an attempt to achieve the “Big Lick,” a high-stepping gait that pleases Tennessee Walking Horse cheaters but nauseates other horsemen around the world.
The Blount County DA charged Wheelon with one count of aggravated animal cruelty but when lab results are made public tomorrow, additional counts will no doubt be added based on “overwhelming” scientific proof of caustic agents on almost every horse that was seized. Last week Wheelon was evicted from the barn he had leased and where the horses were found, the irate owner saying, “It’s time for him to go.”
The 19 horses that were seized were taken to a private location where they are reportedly “going great. They are on the road to recovery,” Gino Bachman said. The animals are well-fed, getting regular veterinary care and are allowed on pastures rather than in a 12-by-12 foot stall in Wheeelon’s barn.
The Maryville horses joined eight horses that were seized in the Jackie McConnell raid last year and ordered held until the trial involving the infamous video is heard this July. McConnell, already found guilty of horse abuse in a Chattanooga federal court, has pleaded not guilty to state charges, despite the fact the video was shown on the ABC News “Nightline” and has been shown by YouTube all over the world.
Wheelon was a member of the highly-suspect Tennessee Walking Horse Trainers Association and served on its ethics committee, despite the fact he has had 15 suspensions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He is also a three-star show judge but has been suspended by “the Shelbyville club,” as the Dirty Lickers are called, pending his legal outcome.
Mickey McCormick, the president of the trainer’s association, expressed dismay when he was told of Wheelon’s arrest and, when asked how Wheelon had been appointed to the ethics committee, he told the Shelbyville newspaper, “I'll be honest, I don't have access to everyone's records and I didn't know that."
Now it has been revealed McCormick himself has had 16 USDA suspensions since 2002, been fined $1,000 on two different occasions, and has received three letters of warning for violating the federal Horse Protection Act. It has also been reported that when McCormick went to Washington to protest the USDA increased vigilance of the walking horse industry, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had a copy of McCormick’s repeated violations on his desk and the meeting was termed “frosty.”
Two weeks ago the Humane Society reported that 76 percent of 190 horses tested at the Walking Horse National Celebration last August were “positive” for soring and last week called on the state’s Attorney General, Robert Cooper, to investigate rampant disregard for federal and state laws. Holt, who attended a reception sponsored by the Humane Society last week, reportedly told several Humane Society executives he thought it would be impossible to train a horse to perform the “Big Lick,” which is unnatural for the animal, without the trainers who ignore laws and sore them.
Wheelon, whose first lawyer reportedly quit after citing “personal differences,” has denied all charges, saying a veterinarian who came to the barn to test the horses for Coggins Desease the day before the raid found nothing wrong. The vet in question later told animal welfare officials she hadn’t been to the barn in a year but went out the day before to test for equine anemia. She would not elaborate on what she found or saw due to pending legal issues.
The Wheelon raid confirms McConnell’s arrest wasn’t “one bad apple.” As one animal welfare officer told DMV, an e-site for veterinarians, “They (trainers) all cheat – or should I say, a lot of them cheat – but it’s just a matter of how much and when they get caught. We’ve already gotten more tips of other places around.”
A Federal investigator added, “The raid on Wheelon’s place made it really obvious soring is as bad and as prevalent today as it has ever been but until now law enforcement has almost looked the other way due to virtually no penalties. The USDA suspends some trainer for three months and they just laugh. The horse competes the next week under another trainer’s name and never leaves the first trainer’s barn.”
Today Federal and state prosecutors have a far different view. “If Wheelon is found guilty, Tennessee’s new laws will cause him to serve no less than a year or no more than five years on each count. If a judge and jury see the videos of the horses he was hurting and the scientific analysis, Larry will be in jail so long he’ll never hurt a horse again.
“Jail is the only hope we have to finally stop Walking Horse abuse,” the agent said. “The Walking Horse industry is hurting badly, bad financially and bad decisions, so they think the answer is to keep torturing what they now call ‘the performance horse.’ All they have to do is stop hurting horses but they don’t get it. Keep your eyes open – we are going after other trainers and those who own those horses, too.”
Finally. If Wheelon is found guilty and justice is served, animal welfare officers will be emboldened to clamp down on the culprits who sadistically torture and maim the state’s most majestic animal. And if indeed Govenor Haslam vetoes the Ag-Gag bill as expected, Tennessee may shake the reputation as the horse-abuse center of the entire world.