Anyone who has ever had a dog eagerly lick their face or a horse gently nuzzle their neck is rightfully incensed over a scathing video that the Humane Society made available last week. It clearly shows that blatant atrocities within the Tennessee Walking Horse industry are quite prevalent and the stunning revelation has those who adore the majestic animals in a worldwide uproar.
But just as thousands of heartsick owners now scream that the four-decade practice of soring and torturing these beautiful animals must be stopped, it is vitally important that any steps to corral the likes of Barney “The Bum” Davis and Jackie “The Jerk” McConnell must be accomplished by what is today the most glaring scar in the horse industry itself – the honest truth.
Everyone involved – owners, trainers, breeders, judges, exhibitors and others -- must vow to play by the rules and as “we, the people” bring the cheaters one by one to justice, the most heinous should be accorded every right as our fellow citizens.
Hard to stomach – you bet – but it is the only way that will work. Walking horses follow the right path – so should we.Barney “The Bum” and Jackie “The Jerk” are the first two horse trainers who have ever pleaded guilty in a federal court of willfully violating the Horse Protection Act. Although the laws have been in existence since 1968 and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited literally thousands for violations, it was not until tenacious federal investigators in Chattanooga agreed to prosecute these two louts last year that the horse industry finally flinched. And the two guilty verdicts may soon change the entire walking horse culture.
After the Humane Society video appeared on the CBS news show “Nightline,” there have been those, including myself, who want the scofflaw McConnell sentenced to prison for life. But because we are a nation where our Constitution and the laws of our land are not only upheld but revered, our ire and contempt must be bridled by the fact that both Barney and Jackie actually pleaded guilty to no more than a single misdemeanor. Until state and federal laws are changed – and they will be -- our people and our legal system are bound by truth and duty to do what is right. Please, as mad as we all are that Jackie McConnell “coped a plea” on Tuesday in the federal courthouse and may indeed “walk” when sentencing occurs on Sept. 10, it is crucial that any lasting change will only come about by abiding the laws of our land and doing so the right way.
Yes, Barney Davis, a thug of a trainer from Shelbyville, was sentenced to a year in prison in Chattanooga’s federal courthouse but – get this – the jail time wasn’t for a violation of the Horse Protection Act. No, not at all. That is only a misdemeanor, punishable only for up to six months. What got Barney a year in jail was the fact he threatened a witness and illegally transported horses across state lines – which are felonies.In stark reality, federal prosecutors later offered McConnell a deal because even if they took him to trial, and got convictions on every one of 48 counts, it would still be only a misdemeanor under federal law.
While you cry and groan and gnash your teeth after seeing McConnell’s performance in the undercover tape and rage a scurrilous record that shows over 30 years of nauseating abuse, let me tell you how “the system” just hit Jackie harder than when he belted the horse Moody Star with that electric cattle prod in the video.
First, federal prosecutors in Eastern and Middle Tennessee are now eager to prosecute horse soring. They have heard the outrage and, just as the state legislature and Congress are pursuing rigid new laws, I have talked to two prosecutors who say they are now ready to challenge any other louts in a court of law. They have told investigators to search out other miscreants and, stirred by the horrific video, affirm they will actively pursue guilty verdicts.
Face it, when you are dealing with pedophiles, drug rings, human trafficking, murder cases and all else that is horrible in the federal court, there comes a point where animal abuse hardly compares with larger, far more gruesome crimes. But now the public outcry is so loud it can no longer be ignored and animal-rights activists should relish the heightened enforcement.
But what good does it do if a misdemeanor is all a prolonged investigation will yield? Just this: Jackie McConnell still faces 15 counts next month in a West Tennessee courtroom. These are state charges and – after he has already pleaded guilty in Federal Court -- I don’t much like “his grip of the rope” against state prosecutors who are armed with his own guilty plea! The Humane Society has called the state safety commissioner seeking help, and it is anticipated the HSUS will have a far-greater presence in Tennessee in the near future.
Plus, the federal plea also removes McConnell from ever showing horses again. The feds seized his truck and trailer and there is the chance Federal Judge Sandy Mattice will give him a lengthy probation, which will assure he will be closely watched. McConnell can also be heavily fined and punished in other ways when he is sentenced in Chattanooga on Sept. 10.
People need to see the big picture! While this week’s plea deal is revolting to angry horse owners and humanitarians alike, justice department advocates believe the admission of guilt is a tremendous beginning in upholding and enforcing the Horse Protection Act and – by finally setting a precedent – federal and state officials in other states where animals are actively sored will finally be encouraged to prosecute those who now openly violate the Horse Protection Act.
With 127 suspensions now on the USDA website -- and the top 20 trainers in the Rider’s Cup gathering 164 violations in just the last two years – get your imagination around the fact that federal investigators will be drawn to horse shows, trainer’s barns, and anywhere else horses are mistreated. These guys don’t call beforehand – they bring warrants.
True horsemen and horsewomen need to know It became a “new day” when Barney the Bum and Jackie the Jerk were arrested. When Jackie admitted guilt Tuesday, he unwittingly gave the Justice Department all it needed to know about enforcing the Horse Protection Act. With sharp-teethed legislation already being written on both the state and federal level, anybody who continues harming or abusing horses might as well wear a target on their shirt. These people are serious, very serious, and if anybody sees Barney the Bum or Jackie the Jerk at a Feed & Seed, tell them that a half-million head of Tennessee Walking Horses are absolutely thrilled to death.