When to report animal cruelty toward livestock was never prominent on the governor’s radar until the issue began making headlines last month.
But now, people from all walks of life are interested — not just farmers and animal rights groups but media rights organizations, whistleblower advocates and celebrities.
All eyes are now on Gov. Bill Haslam. He plans to announce within days whether he’ll approve a bill requiring people who shoot photos or videos documenting livestock animal abuse to hand those images to local enforcement within 48 hours, or to let the law stay as it is, where people can document abuse for months and use the information to build a bigger legal case.
But the politics behind the measure are tricky. As passed, the plan raises constitutional questions, is seemingly a reaction to a high-profile investigation of animal abuse in West Tennessee, and was sponsored by a legislator with a checkered past when it comes to following state farming regulations.
The bill is called the “Livestock Protection Act,” although opponents have nicknamed
it the “Ag Gag” bill. The measure is the latest to land itself in Haslam’s rarely used veto territory.
“At the end of the day it should be about, is the bill constitutional, does it encourage the healthy treatment of animals, and is it good public policy that’s well-written for the state. And that’s what we’re going to make our decision based on,” Haslam told reporters in Clarksville this week, adding he is waiting for the attorney general to weigh in on the issue.
The governor, who has vetoed only one bill in his tenure, received a written legal opinion from the attorney general , who called the bill is “constitutionally suspect.”
Advocates of the bill, who hail from the farm community, argue that a lot of what critics call abuse is just normal maintenance, such as dehorning cows for the caretakers’ and animals’ own safety.
“To a lay person, that can look pretty brutal. ‘Oh my goodness, what are they doing,’ ” said Rhedona Rose, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Farm Bureau who said the practice is the caretaking equivalent of “clipping your toenails.”
But when it comes to recording genuine animal abuse, “if they know that abuse is occurring, why would they think they have to establish a pattern?” she continued. “If that’s what you’re doing, why would you not get that to law enforcement ASAP to get that abuse stopped?”
Last year, the Humane Society revealed undercover videos of Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell allegedly using torture practices to get his horses to take exaggerated high steps — considered visually attractive — to compete in competitions. The practices caught on video in 2011 included McConnell beating a horse in the face, squirting chemicals on their hooves — a practice called “soring” — and zapping one in the nose and hindquarters with a cattle prod. He was indicted on 22 counts of animal cruelty.
While there is no state body that tracks all animal abuse cases or convictions, the University of Tennessee extension office has been called in to examine 853 cases of alleged animal abuse in 2011. That’s down from 1,023 the year before, according to Tom Cross, dean of the University of Tennessee Extension, who said statistics are unavailable for 2012.
In the past two years, the extension substantiated nearly one in 10 of those complaints as legitimate animal abuse, according to Cross. Law enforcement can also call on certain veterinarians and graduates of agricultural science programs to examine circumstances of alleged abuse, but those statistics are not available.
The loudest voices in a movement urging the governor to veto the livestock bill have come from the Humane Society of the United States, which poured more than $100,000 into the effort, including one week’s worth of TV ads. The American Civil Liberties Union has also piled on some 33,000 petition signatures, and the governor’s office has received thousands of calls and emails.
Opponents are also joined by a clergy group plus several celebrities — including talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and singers Miley Cyrus, Emmylou Harris and Carrie Underwood — in pressuring Haslam to trash the bill.
Rep. Andy Holt, a Dresden Republican and pig farmer who sponsored the legislation, has been outspoken in his responses to “ag-gag” criticism. At one point, he said Underwood should “stick to singing, I’ll stick to lawmaking,” and called the Humane Society a “reprehensibly disgusting organization of maligned animal abuse profiteering corporatists, who are intent on using animals the same way human traffickers use 17-year-old women.”
While Holt is pushing hard for these new rules on farm animals, he has a shaky history of following other regulations on own hog farm in West Tennessee.
Since 2009, the state has repeatedly found Rep. Andy Holt’s 1,400-hog farming operation out of compliance with regulations set by two state agencies, according to a review of records by The City Paper, such as operating without a valid permit and failing to submit certain manure quality tests to state officials.
The latest notice came April 30 from the Department of Agriculture, giving him a 30-day window to complete his application for a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permit, known as a CAFO. His last permit expired in August of 2009.
“Operating your CAFO without a permit is a violation of state, and possibly federal rules,” read the letter by Sam Marshall from the Department of Agriculture’s Water Resources division.
While the Department of Environment and Conservation has sent Holt two violation notices and three letters urging him to get a permit and warning him against dumping hazardous waste, the department has not leveled civil penalties against the lawmaker, according to TDEC.
“There are a number of operators in the same position as Mr. Holt,” said Shannon Ashford, a TDEC spokeswoman. “It is not that the operators have ignored the process. They made submittals that did not meet the requirements of the regulations. If the deficiencies are not corrected, the department will consider enforcement action.”
Holt’s farm includes contract swine owned by Tosh Farms, which are then sold to a packer, according to the Holt Family Farms website. His operation also includes a cow calf operation and a goat herd, sells brown eggs and includes a pumpkin patch for school and group visits.
Since his permit expired, TDEC has sent Holt several notifications that his permit was incomplete and reminded him he was banned from dumping hazardous waste “under any circumstance” without the proper permit.
“We’re in the process of applying here for a permit, and we’ll finish that sometime here very soon,” said Holt, who added acquiring other farms and testing and analyzing materials has slowed his application down. “There’s several things that take some time. It’s our intention to be law abiding. That’s the purpose.”
In February 2011, a water compliance inspection report also found: annual manure nutrient analysis was not being conducted according to agency rules; annual reports were not being submitted to the Division of Water Pollution Control; livestock were grazing in the production area and contaminating storm water; mortality management practices used didn’t comply with the nutrient management plan; ground conditions were not properly documented during weekly storm water inspections nor had subsequent repairs or corrective actions been accomplished; a written report about a discharge that took place in February was incomplete and nine days late; and a site-specific nutrient management plan needed to be rewritten. The department then gave him a list of tasks to complete by June 1, 2011, to earn a permit.
About a year later, he still lacked a permit. TDEC received an anonymous complaint in March 2012 from a local resident that someone had sprayed animal waste on trees on her property, according to agency officials who found the accusation during a search related to Holt’s address. The Department of Agriculture and TDEC investigated the complaint almost three weeks later and found no direct evidence to back up the allegation.
The Division of Water Resources penned another letter to Holt in November 2012, telling him his application for a new permit was still incomplete and furnishing him a checklist of tasks. “Note that if you do not submit a complete permit application and obtain coverage under a CAFO permit you may be subject to enforcement action,” read the letter by Marshall.
Regardless of him running behind on regulations on his farm, Holt said the attention needs to be on getting livestock abuse reported quickly.
“Sometimes their investigations, which have taken weeks or months to complete, have left several animals in a horrible situation,” said Holt, who the Weakley County sheriff’s office has said has been subject to no animal abuse complaints. “Nowhere along the way does it say that you have to come in with 30 counts to indict an individual.
“I’ll always lose the emotional issue if folks don’t use logic associated with that emotion.”