Capitol Hill Conversation: Animal Cruelty Bill May Not Be What It Seems

Apr 15, 2013

Undercover video gathered by the Humane Society of the United States led to the conviction of Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell.
Credit Humane Society of the United States

One of the last remaining skirmishes in the Tennessee General Assembly this year pits the interests of agriculture against animal rights activists. The proposal before the state Legislature requires people go to the police immediately if they take photos or video of animal abuse.

“Investigations and documentation—if that’s what was required—needs to be done by law enforcement, not by vigilantes,” State Senator Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville, said on the Legislature floor Thursday.

The Humane Society of the United States has made some big splashes in recent years with undercover video. For example, sick cows that could barely stand on their own were caught on camera being prodded into a slaughterhouse in California. The result was a massive meat recall.

In Tennessee, trainers were caught clubbing walking horses across the face and applying chemicals to their ankles, an illegal technique known as “soring” that makes the horses kick higher because of the pain.

That footage was compiled into a documentary-style presentation and made national news, ultimately leading to the conviction of Tennessee walking horse hall of fame trainer Jackie McConnell.

McConnell’s horse farm outside of Memphis is in Senator Gresham’s district, a point made by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris as he questioned the intent of the legislation.

“There’s something wrong with this bill,” Norris said. “It’s not designed to prevent animal cruelty. It’s designed to prevent the filming of animal cruelty.”

Norris suggested that a vote be delayed until Tuesday, asking why the proposal doesn’t require someone who simply witnesses abuse to report it, whether they have images or not.

Animal rights groups also object to the Tennessee proposal. They argue that authorities such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture need to see a pattern of animal abuse before they are allowed to intervene. Therefore, going to the police within 48 hours only tips off the offender and gives them a chance to explain away their actions as an “isolated incident,” said the Humane Society’s Matthew Dominguez.

“And if this is really about stopping abuse, why does it apply only to livestock, not pets?” Dominguez asked.

The Humane Society has dubbed this type of proposal an “ag gag law.”

“The Humane Society is tracking 11 states with this kind of legislation,” said WPLN’s State Capitol Reporter Blake Farmer. “After some high-profile stings, there have been attempts to restrict taking pictures at all of agriculture operations.”

Already in Kansas, Montana and North Dakota it is unlawful to take pictures of a farm without consent from the owner.

“And while Tennessee could be next,” Farmer explained, “it is worth remembering right now lawmakers are nearing the end of the session here, and if debate on this topic looks like it’s going to keep them in Nashville even just a day longer, you may see them push it off until next year.”

As well as objections, the proposal does have industry backing.

Tennessee Cattlemen’s Association Executive Director Charles Hord said his organization wants evidence of abuse turned over quickly so “animals can be rescued or removed from the environment if need be.”

The Tennessee Walking Horse Association has yet to take an official position, according to president Tracy Boyd, but he said, “We support any footage of abuse being turned over to law enforcement.”