I believe the United States Constitution is our most precious document. I also believe in order for us to live in the way that so many who have died for our country dreamed we would someday, we must cherish the Constitution, uphold it, and glory in it. That established, the Constitution just broke my heart.
Tammy Harrington, a circuit court judge in Blount County, has just ruled Larry Joe Wheelon’s rights under the Fourth Amendment were violated by a search warrant in an April 2013 raid on his barn. On that day 19 horses were seized, some so badly abused by caustic chemicals the animals could hardly walk. The evidence was overwhelming but Judge Harrington’s ruling on Friday means the 70-year-old Wheelon will soon walk as a free man rather than serve any punishment for very obvious soring practices he uses to make Tennessee Walking Horse dance a sickening step called the “Big Lick.”
Forget that the repeated delays in the judicial process of the Wheelon trial have cast a curious cloud over the Blount County Courthouse.
Never mind that last summer, while awaiting trial, Wheelon was ticketed once again by USDA inspectors for violating the federal Horse Protection Act as he has done so many times in his checkered past. What matters is that the Constitution is the supreme law of the United States and must be followed to the letter.
While “sound horse” disciples across America are wincing over Judge Harrington’s decision, and animal advocates see the Wheelon case as a mockery of true justice, the fact that horse soring is so rampant in Tennessee leads to the belief it is just a matter of time before dedicated law enforcement officers nab the next closed-door barn monster.
Judge Harrington, who knows far more about our laws than I do, ruled Friday that some “undercover” visits by a federal agent before the warrant was issued violated Wheelon’s rights and said there were also some credibility issues with an affidavit that supported the search warrant. “It is never an easy decision,” the judge told the court, “and I understand the issues may be politically charged. However, that never takes the place of the Constitution.”
I believe Judge Harrington misspoke when she talked of “issues that may be politically charged.” Politics has little to do with animal abuse. A trainer either abuses a horse or does not. It could be she was referring to Blount County, where the courthouse fronts Lamar Alexander Parkway. Alexander, a U.S. Senator who is leading opposition to the “Prevent All Soring Tactics” bills now coursing through the Senate and House with a watered-down bill, is a known supporter of the “Big Lickers,” a shady group out of Shelbyville intent on preserving the dirty side of the horse industry.
The better truth is the “Big Lick” is killing the Tennessee Walking Horse, its gentle reputation and its noble heritage. Public perception of the gross pads, the tight chains on horses’ hooves and barbaric practices to “pain” a horse so it will lift its agonized front legs higher in an unnatural gait, is scathing. While “sound” horse shows are thriving, some venues are banning Big Lick horses.
Memberships in the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association have fallen from 17,872 in 2004 to less than half of that, 7,189 in 2013, according to Walter Chism, an interim director.
Chism also revealed registrations have fallen from 15,304 in 2004 to 4,080 in 2013 and that transfers are down, going from 17,548 in 2004 to 5,667 in 2013. Insiders say it is much worse in the spring of 2015. It wasn’t until July of 2013 that Jackie McConnell pleaded guilty to federal charges of horse abuse and since then the scorn of the nation has centered on the “Big Lickers,” scofflaws who wantonly sore animals because the federal laws have no teeth and because they enjoy the sadistic cheating.
Currently the U.S. Department of Agriculture will suspend a “ticketed” trainer for a short time and send a form letter asking him or her to stop. The owner easily skirts the violation. He simply shows the horse the next weekend under the name of a dirty trainer’s assistant or perhaps his wife. They even change the horse’s name, which immediately erases past indiscretions.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is in the process of elevating animal abuse to a Level One crime, placing it as a top priority with crimes like murder, extortion, and financial fraud. The FBI believes anyone who will hurt an animal may morph into the next Jeffery Dahmer and, by next February, indicates it will actively pursue those who have gained world-wide notoriety for soring horses.
Horse abuse in a felony in Tennessee and many saw the Wheelon case as the first time an abuser might go to jail. They had Larry Joe on 19 counts of aggravated animal cruelty. They had pictures, swabs, veterinary statements and more but a technicality, a flaw in the system, set Wheelon free and enabled him to return to his noted position on the Walking Horse Trainer’s Association’s Ethic Committee.
Who would ever believe it? The USDA agent did masterful work. She had him. She waited patiently for over two years as Blount County officials seemed to bend over backwards for the defendant. As disheartening as it well may be, there will soon come another opportunity and, with it, Tennessee Walking Horse lovers will be closer to seeing the “Big Lick” go the way of the Dodo bird.