The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is urging Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to veto Tennessee’s anti-whistleblower, or so-called “ag-gag” bill.
The bill, SB1248, would potentially make it a crime for non-profit organizations and journalists to covertly document and then expose unethical and illegal activity in horse stables and at industrial agriculture facilities.
The bill requires anyone recording abuse of livestock to turn over all photographs and video, unedited, to a law enforcement agency within 48 hours. Those who fail to do so could be fined up to $US500.
The bill’s backers argue it would speed the reporting of possible abuses, but opponents say it will stop animal rights activists from gathering enough evidence to prove any abuse occurring is routine and ongoing.
Farmers or businesses could claim the recorded instances were one-time occurances and continue trading, oponents argue.
The bill narrowly passed the state House with a bare minimum of votes and will soon be sent to Haslam for action.
In a letter to Haslam, HSUS president and chief executive Wayne Pacelle said the bill “appears to be an attempt to enact a policy of covering up abuses, and keeping the public from learning of them”.
He continued: “If it is signed into law, it may indeed backfire, and result in more public mistrust and skepticism about the workings of the Tennessee walking horse industry at a time when it is already suffering a drastic decline in popularity due to the stigma of soring.”
In 2011, an investigation by the HSUS into Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell’s stable in Collierville, Tennessee, revealed cruelty to horses.
The whistleblower recorded horses being whipped, kicked, shocked in the face and intentionally burned with caustic chemicals.
As a direct result of that investigation, a federal grand jury handed down a 52-count criminal indictment and a state grand jury indicted McConnell and two others for 38 counts of criminal animal cruelty.
These crimes would have never come to light but for the work of the HSUS undercover investigation.
In 2010, the US Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General released a damning report, concluding that “the practice of soring has been ingrained as an acceptable practice in the industry for decades” and that the “APHIS’ [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] program for inspecting horses for soring is not adequate to ensure that these animals are not being abused”.
Members of the US Congress have introduced legislation to fortify the Horse Protection Act and crack down on soring abuses.
In a poll conducted last fall by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, 75 per cent of Tennessee voters statewide (by a more than 5-to-1 margin) said they support stronger federal legislation to prevent the cruel practice of horse soring.
What’s more, 62 per cent support legislation at the state level making the act of soring a felony offense, and said they would avoid buying from companies that provide financial sponsorship to horse shows that promote stacked, chained Tennessee Walking horses.
Every demographic group and political affiliation strongly favored strengthening the laws against soring.
Leighann McCollum, Tennessee state director for The HSUS, said: “Our lawmakers should focus on rooting out cruelty, not cover up the next scandal and shield the scofflaws who are shaming Tennessee’s horse industry. We urge Governor Haslam to veto this bill, and stop the animal cruelty cover-up.”