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Tennessee Governor Urged to Veto Whistleblower Suppression Bill

SB1248 would cover up and shield soring abuses in Tennessee Walking Horse industry

The Humane Society of the United States urged Gov. Bill Haslam to veto Tennessee’s notorious anti-whistleblower, or “ag-gag,” bill, SB1248, which would make it a crime for reputable non-profit organizations and journalists to document and expose unethical and illegal activity in horse stables and at industrial agriculture facilities. The bill narrowly passed the House with a bare minimum of votes and will soon be transmitted to Gov. Haslam for action.

In a letter to Gov. Haslam, Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and CEO, said the bill “appears to be an attempt to enact a policy of covering up abuses, and keeping the public from learning of them. 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 HSUS investigation into Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell’s stable in Collierville, Tenn., revealed shocking 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, which exposed a culture of lawlessness and cruelty that has thrived within the Tennessee walking horse show industry. In 2010, the USDA’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 U.S. 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 percent 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 percent 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.

Added Leighann McCollum, Tennessee state director for The HSUS, “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.”

  • The 2010 USDA Office of Inspector General audit of the Tennessee walking horse industry exposed how players in the walking horse industry work to evade detection, rather than comply with federal law and train horses humanely. The audit stated that the USDA needs more funding for full enforcement of the Act, and recommended stiffer penalties for violators and the abolishment of the industry’s failed system of self-enforcement.
  • USDA released statistics last year showing that the majority of horses tested for prohibited foreign substances at horse shows had been treated with numbing or masking agents. In response, The HSUS filed a petition urging USDA to treat such use as felony interference in the inspection process under the Horse Protection Act.
  • The USDA foreign substance test results indicate that a 65 percent (309/478) of the samples tested positive for prohibited foreign substances in 2012. Most troubling, 76 percent horses tested by the USDA at the 2012 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, the largest and most prominent walking horse show in the country, tested positive for illegal agents while the industry’s own testing only resulted in 2 positive results.
  • An analysis of the violation history of the top 20 trainers in the industry’s 2011 Riders Cup “high point program” found that every trainer on that list had been cited for soring violations between 2010 - 2011, with a total 164 violations among them. Only seven percent actually served suspension penalties – and of those, all but a handful were for a mere two-week period. Many of the trainers and judges who participated in the 2012 Celebration also have records of soring violations. In addition to the top 20 trainers, there were 195 violations of the Horse Protection Act cited for trainers ranking from #21 - #74. Forty-two out of 53 of those trainers were cited during this two year period.

Media Contact: Anna West: 301-258-1518; awest@humanesociety.org