Tennessee Farm Bureau officials defended their opposition to legislation strengthening penalties against livestock cruelty Tuesday, saying farmers fear harassment from animal welfare activists.
A crowd of officials and members of the Farm Bureau, a powerful lobby, swarmed the halls of Legislative Plaza as the bill came before the House Agriculture Committee. The committee heard testimony from both sides but didn’t vote Tuesday.
“What y'all are trying to do to us is make us the judge and the jury,” Rep. Willie Borchert, D-Camden, complained to the sponsor, Rep. Janis Sontany, before the committee adjourned.
Cruelty to farm animals is a Class A misdemeanor in Tennessee punishable by a maximum of 11 months and 29 days in jail and a $2,500 fine for each count. Sontany’s bill, which she introduced in response to the worst case of equine abuse in Tennessee history, would make it a felony, the same as cruelty to companion animals like dogs and cats. The minimum punishment is a year in jail and a $3,000 fine for each crime.
Under the current law, “DAs refuse to prosecute because it’s only a misdemeanor, not much more than a traffic ticket,” Sontany, D-Nashville, told the committee.
She said she decided to introduce her legislation after 84 starving horses were rescued from a farm in Cannon County last November.
“I was asked then why the penalty was so weak for starving horses. I promised that I would file legislation to make withholding food and water to the point of death or near-death for any animal a felony. Cruelty is cruelty regardless if you’re three pounds or 16 hands high. How can we continue to say it’s far worse to starve a dog than to starve a horse?”
Farm Bureau officials insisted the current law is strong enough to deter livestock cruelty.
“The Farm Bureau and the agriculture community in no shape, form or fashion condone any type of cruelty to animals,” the bureau’s Rhedona Rose testified. “Our folks believe in taking good care of animals. That’s what their livelihood depends on.”
Farm Bureau president Lacy Upchurch said animal welfare activists don’t understand modern farm practices and could misinterpret them as mistreatment of livestock.
"We’re painted as the bad guys. We’re afraid that farmers might be harassed a little bit over this issue,” Upchurch told reporters.
The House Agriculture Committee, which is dominated by farmers, is widely expected to kill the bill this session. In a letter to constituents, Sontany accused Farm Bureau officials of rejecting her attempts to craft a compromise acceptable to both sides.
“When I first drafted this legislation, I met with Farm Bureau Insurance Company’s lobbyists to try to find some common ground. I was told that starving these horses didn’t rise to the level of aggravated animal cruelty and the current law was working just fine and they refused to negotiate,” Sontany wrote.
“Last week, Farm Bureau’s president, Lacy Upchurch, and their chief administrative officer, Julius Johnson, visited my office to discuss my bill. I was so in hopes that we could negotiate in good faith to have a bill that we both could agree on that would stop this continued cruelty. They, however, only wanted to express to me their concern that this legislation would land some poor farmer in jail for dehorning his cattle. My bill clearly exempts accepted veterinary practices and makes no mention of discontinuing current tax breaks for farmers on livestock.”
But Upchurch said, “The current law is enough to take care of the situation. We need our courts to enforce the laws that are on the books. If they do that, that’ll take care of the situation.”