Roy Exum: ‘Neigh’ To The Ag-Gag Bill


The Chattanoogan, May 13, 2013

image001There will be two pivotal events in Tennessee this week that will thrill horsemen and their families all around the world. Later today Bill Haslam is expected to say “neigh” and veto the dreaded “Ag-Gag” bill that the state Legislature very ignorantly but foolishly approved by one vote. The bill clearly is in violation of the U.S. Constitution. And tomorrow morning the very hounds of hell will be let loose in Maryville when a “Dirty Lick” horse trainer named Larry Joe Wheelon is required to appear before a Blount County judge.

The “Ag-Gag” bill, now vilified by every newspaper in the state and upwards of 50,000 signatures on various petitions to the governor, calls for anyone taking pictures or photographs of animal abuse to turn over all evidence to law enforcement within 48 hours.

But as proponents and critics agree, it is a Catch 22 trick, turning the accuser into the criminal because failure to do so would be a misdemeanor.

What the bill actually does is to severely handicap those who report people like Larry Joe Wheelon to the authorities and some believe if the law had already been in effect, the despicable Wheelon would – in fact – be soring or abusing horses in his car this morning instead of nervously awaiting tomorrow’s court appearance. “Just about every Federal crime is the result of a tip,” said one prosecutor, “and to alter that in any way hinders law enforcement.”

Fellow trainer Jackie McConnell was caught on an undercover video in 2011 which was promptly submitted to authorities. But law enforcement officials asked the Humane Society of the United States to provide more proof, which takes time. Thus the “Ag-Gag” bill is a joke and its sponsor, pig farmer Andy Holt (R-Dresden), has just been exposed as a bigger joke – a scofflaw legislator who plays above the rules himself.

The Nashville online newsite, The City Paper, outed the lawmaker who some call “Bubba The Bully” last week when it revealed Holt has a “shaky history” of complying with state farm regulations and hasn’t had some proper permits since 2009. Holt has been served with two violation notices by the Department of Environment and Conservation and ignored both. The Division of Water Resources has also sent him a letter regarding the waste runoff from 1,400 hogs, which he has also ignored. Yet the now-questionable Farm Bureau just presented him the keys to a new pickup truck after footing the bill for a week’s stay in Hawaii!

The District Attorney in Blount County didn’t wait to arrest Wheelon after Federal agents and county animal welfare officials raided Wheelon’s leased barn with a search warrant and seized 19 horses that veterinary officials said had been sored. This means the animals had caustic substances slathered on the horses’ forelegs in an attempt to achieve the “Big Lick,” a high-stepping gait that pleases Tennessee Walking Horse cheaters but nauseates other horsemen around the world.

The Blount County DA charged Wheelon with one count of aggravated animal cruelty but when lab results are made public tomorrow, additional counts will no doubt be added based on “overwhelming” scientific proof of caustic agents on almost every horse that was seized. Last week Wheelon was evicted from the barn he had leased and where the horses were found, the irate owner saying, “It’s time for him to go.”

The 19 horses that were seized were taken to a private location where they are reportedly “going great. They are on the road to recovery,” Gino Bachman said. The animals are well-fed, getting regular veterinary care and are allowed on pastures rather than in a 12-by-12 foot stall in Wheeelon’s barn.

The Maryville horses joined eight horses that were seized in the Jackie McConnell raid last year and ordered held until the trial involving the infamous video is heard this July. McConnell, already found guilty of horse abuse in a Chattanooga federal court, has pleaded not guilty to state charges, despite the fact the video was shown on the ABC News “Nightline” and has been shown by YouTube all over the world.

Wheelon was a member of the highly-suspect Tennessee Walking Horse Trainers Association and served on its ethics committee, despite the fact he has had 15 suspensions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He is also a three-star show judge but has been suspended by “the Shelbyville club,” as the Dirty Lickers are called, pending his legal outcome.

Mickey McCormick, the president of the trainer’s association, expressed dismay when he was told of Wheelon’s arrest and, when asked how Wheelon had been appointed to the ethics committee, he told the Shelbyville newspaper, “I’ll be honest, I don’t have access to everyone’s records and I didn’t know that.”

images-1Now it has been revealed McCormick himself has had 16 USDA suspensions since 2002, been fined $1,000 on two different occasions, and has received three letters of warning for violating the federal Horse Protection Act. It has also been reported that when McCormick went to Washington to protest the USDA increased vigilance of the walking horse industry, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had a copy of McCormick’s repeated violations on his desk and the meeting was termed “frosty.”

Two weeks ago the Humane Society reported that 76 percent of 190 horses tested at the Walking Horse National Celebration last August were “positive” for soring and last week called on the state’s Attorney General, Robert Cooper, to investigate rampant disregard for federal and state laws. Holt, who attended a reception sponsored by the Humane Society last week, reportedly told several Humane Society executives he thought it would be impossible to train a horse to perform the “Big Lick,” which is unnatural for the animal, without the trainers who ignore laws and sore them.

Wheelon, whose first lawyer reportedly quit after citing “personal differences,” has denied all charges, saying a veterinarian who came to the barn to test the horses for Coggins Desease the day before the raid found nothing wrong. The vet in question later told animal welfare officials she hadn’t been to the barn in a year but went out the day before to test for equine anemia. She would not elaborate on what she found or saw due to pending legal issues.

The Wheelon raid confirms McConnell’s arrest wasn’t  “one bad apple.” As one animal welfare officer told DMV, an e-site for veterinarians, “They (trainers) all cheat – or should I say, a lot of them cheat – but it’s just a matter of how much and when they get caught. We’ve already gotten more tips of other places around.”

A Federal investigator added, “The raid on Wheelon’s place made it really obvious soring is as bad and as prevalent today as it has ever been but until now law enforcement has almost looked the other way due to virtually no penalties. The USDA suspends some trainer for three months and they just laugh. The horse competes the next week under another trainer’s name and never leaves the first trainer’s barn.”

Today Federal and state prosecutors have a far different view. “If Wheelon is found guilty, Tennessee’s new laws will cause him to serve no less than a year or no more than five years on each count. If a judge and jury see the videos of the horses he was hurting and the scientific analysis, Larry will be in jail so long he’ll never hurt a horse again.

“Jail is the only hope we have to finally stop Walking Horse abuse,” the agent said. “The Walking Horse industry is hurting badly, bad financially and bad decisions, so they think the answer is to keep torturing what they now call ‘the performance horse.’ All they have to do is stop hurting horses but they don’t get it. Keep your eyes open – we are going after other trainers and those who own those horses, too.”

Finally. If Wheelon is found guilty and justice is served, animal welfare officers will be emboldened to clamp down on the culprits who sadistically torture and maim the state’s most majestic animal. And if indeed Govenor Haslam vetoes the Ag-Gag bill as expected, Tennessee may shake the reputation as the horse-abuse center of the entire world.

AUTHOR: Jerry Finch
  • Mary Ann Gardne

    This is good news now our job is to keep our eyes open for some people like Wheelon that tries to get away with this torture. Wheelon need to spend time in jail BUT he needs to be sored every day! DON’T forget put the plastic on him, let’s make it take!! Let’s see if he can do the “BIG LICK”

    May 13, 2013
  • Debbie Tracy

    First I want to thank you for all the great reporting you do for our horses, to inform us all…..

    FINALLY, this disgusting soring will maybe NOW stopped once and for all, at least all that has happened recently it is a huge step forward..

    I honestly don’t get it when people do this to poor defenseless horse, that is NOT training obviously it is indeed torture so they have no choice but to do what they want no matter how much pain they are in, this is so disturbing and sick….

    I hope this man gets a huge punishment since also he has such a history of abuse and did NOTHING to change it…..
    SHAME on ALL that do this, I’d like to say something else but I can’t, you all know what I mean….

    May 13, 2013
  • Robynne Catheron

    I’m praying Governor Haslam vetoes that bill, and sets the example for the rest of the states. I’d like to know why Mr Holt’s pig farm violations haven’t been followed up on, why he is allowed to get away with them. Why hasn’t he been prosecuted like the rest of us would be if we had environmental violations? It aggravates the dickens out of me that some Congressmembers are above the law. I’m also praying Wheelon is found guilty, and punished to the fullest extent of the law. Tennessee lawmakers need to wake up.

    May 13, 2013
  • Susan Setzke

    Well, let’s hope that Gov. Haslam follows through and vetos this insane and highly unconstitutional law. It is obvious that the Farm Bureau is certainly one of the primary “Devil’s Advocates” here in this whole mess. We need to move down the chain-of-command here and investigate the instigators and corrupt people behind all of this and expose them and hold them accountable as well.

    May 13, 2013
  • janwindsong

    Yeah!!! Whoever the meatheads are that voted the AgBill through should be seeing their names on billboards with pictures of the tortured horses and as an added dimension add the sound effects of the groaning of the beauties in the midst of their pain. This writer is to be congratulated – the stark calling a sadist a sadist is quite simply wondrous!

    May 13, 2013
  • Margaret

    Multi charges equal multi penalties behind bars. None of this concurrently serve together garbage. Each charge should bring its own set of consequences.

    Time off for good behavior? I think in CA it’s about 1/3 to 1/2 time behind bars. It may depend on severity. But I think 1 month for every 12 months might be okay. But you have to stay clean, no fighting, no drugs, no alcohol. Longer prison sentences and you stay clean and are a model prisoner maybe 2 months for every 12 served. But I think you still have to serve a minimum of 5 years behind bars. And time off applies after the 5 year mark.

    Repeat offenders–no time off period. Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect 200 dollars. Full sentence. No getting out due to hardship (like terminal illness)or whatever else.

    May 13, 2013
  • Daryl

    Govenor Haslem please do, vote no, for the ag-GAG bill, we need to stop the abuse of these animals, starting with the trainers, this should not be, if your going to show then show the natural ability. Many of us will be rooting for you to do this for the animlas, we are their voices.

    May 13, 2013
  • Judy Wendt

    Good for Tennessee, good for horses, good for all animals, and good for civilization.

    May 13, 2013
  • Nancy B

    Excellent article and wonderful news! A lot of great information here and it’s sure looking better for the horses, and all animals!

    May 13, 2013