Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s office has received thousands of telephone calls, hundreds of letters and is expecting a petition bearing over 6,000 names from those begging he veto a very controversial “AgGag” bill but the deciding blow may have just been delivered in Maryville on Thursday. State authorities have charged notorious horse trainer Larry Wheelon with one count of aggravated animal cruelty and confiscated at least 17 of 28 Tennessee Walking Horses that showed visible signs of alleged abuse and soring.
Wheelon’s barn had been raided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week and, while agents were said to be “shocked,” yesterday’s action was the first step in a criminal prosecution by state officials, where horse abuse is now a felony and carries a one-to-five year jail term on each count.
Wheelon has been cited for violating the federal Horse Protection Act at least 15 times by the USDA between 1993 and 2012, but yesterday’s arrest was the first in Tennessee since horse abuse became a felony last July.
The Tennessee Legislature passed an “AgGag” bill by a mere one vote the day before the USDA raided Wheelon’s barn last week and a source said that if the AgGag bill, as it is called, had been law then evidence collected in the last two weeks against Wheelon would be impermissible and the person, or persons, who tipped the USDA would be guilty of a misdemeanor under the highly-controversial bill.
Tennessee’s flawed Animal Abuse Bill has been so universally decried by animal protection groups that the Humane Society of the United States now has a $100,000 TV campaign to urge the governor’s veto. Not surprising, the Tennessee Walking Horse Association, considered the root of horse abuse in Tennessee for the past 50 years, and the Tennessee Farm Bureau are the only known organizations in favor of the act.
The horses were seized yesterday by the Blount County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals but the Humane Society and a group from House Haven were called in and asked to transport, care and feed the animals at an undisclosed farm outside of Blount County. Last week 26 of 28 horses were inspected by USDA veterinarians and some were said to be “in agony” after a paste containing such irritants as kerosene and cinnamon were found to be wrapped on the animals’ forelegs.
To compound the tragedy, as the horses were being moved yesterday, one horse was found to be in such pain that when something brushed the animal’s bloody foreleg in a barn walkway, the pain-crazed animal rushed the experienced equine handler, badly cutting her face and breaking her leg. The handler, who has been working with horses for years, was transported by ambulance to a local hospital.
The horse was quickly caught and sedated by veterinarians, who also began pain treatment for the animal. “The whole scene is absolutely horrible,” said one onlooker. “Nobody knows what these horses have been forced to endure.”