What happened to a horse in Sweetwater, Tenn., last year serves as the perfect, if nauseating, cliffsnotes to Tennessee's animal cruelty statutes. A man who was angry with his wife decided to get even by dragging the woman's favorite horse behind his truck. He drove until the animal was a Bloody, near-dead mass. When he saw the poor equine was still drawing breath, the cro-magnon stabbed the horse with a pitch fork.
What did he get for his breathtaking and merciless depravity? Not a damn thing.
"When the woman contacted the district attorney in her area, she was told that they would not prosecute this action because it was a misdemeanor and wasn't worth their time," Rep. Janis Sontany, a Nashville Democrat sponsoring a bill to strengthen penalties for animal abuse, told the House Agriculture Committee Tuesday. "My bill would make this action a felony. ... A misdemeanor is like getting a traffic ticket."
It's because misdemeanors like this go unprosecuted or get expunged — allowing perpetrators to skate by as perpetual first-time offenders — that Sontany has sponsored a bill to make such flagrant cruelty a felony. Sontany's bill aims to treat all animal abuse the same, which sounds reasonable. Especially in contrast to the way Tennessee's nonsensical laws currently stand: one standard for companion animals such as dogs and cats, another for livestock such as cattle and horses.
And yet the bill has drawn the ire of the Tennessee Farm Bureau, a 650,000-member organization with considerable legislative clout. To the Farm Bureau, the largest state lobby of its kind in the country, almost nothing constitutes livestock abuse. Its president, Lacy Upchurch, insisted during a recent interview with the Scene that the worst case of equine mistreatment in state history — 84 emaciated horses, starving and skeletal and barely alive, found on a Cannon County farm last November — didn't strike him as foul play.
"I don't think those guys intentionally harmed those horses," Upchurch said. "Why in the world would they not want to give them enough nourishment?"
To protect their antiquated standards, the Farm Bureau's representatives deflect, throw up smoke screens and peddle conspiracy theories. Their favorite target is the Humane Society of the United States, which has intervened in some notorious cases of Tennessee animal abuse (including the episode in Cannon County). An ordinary Tennessean might see the Humane Society's help as a boon to suffering animals — but the Farm Bureau isn't fooled. They know the society's just pushing its secret scheme to make everyone ... vegetarian.
"There are certain people who would like to destroy animal agriculture," Upchurch recently told the Scene's Christine Kreyling, all but watching the skies for black Humane Society helicopters. "Sometimes they use the passion that people have for animal care to reach their objectives."
Even many Farm Bureau members have spoken up to say they don't agree with the archaic policy stance. Their dissent, however, may not be enough. The group's longtime influence — not to mention the fact that to stay alive, the legislation would have to pass a House Agriculture Committee largely composed of farmers and Farm Bureau cronies — creates an almost impossible political scenario for Sontany's bill.
So, sadly, as with virtually any matter unfortunate enough to rely on the decency of the Tennessee General Assembly, Sontany's bill seems likely to meet a fate similar to the animals it would protect. It'll wither in neglect for the next week or so, then get slaughtered in committee.
But while the likes of GOP state Rep. Frank Niceley, an Agriculture Committee member and farmer from Knoxville who lists his "community involvement" as membership in the Farm Bureau and the National Rifle Association, may manage to fend off this noble legislative beast for the time being, they can no doubt expect a return engagement.
Because even those who hold no real sentiment for pets or livestock recognize that animal abusers often engage in even more heinous criminal pursuits — against children. It's to address "the well-documented and direct connection between animal abuse and child abuse" that Sen. Bill Ketron is sponsoring the Senate version of Sontany's bill.
Ironically, Rep. Eddie Bass, a Democrat from Prospect, backed into this salient point during the Agriculture Committee hearing Tuesday, even as he was parroting the Farm Bureau's boneheaded talking points.
Here was the gem: "We need to spend [money] on the children and the people of this state first," Bass said of Sontany's bill — which has no fiscal note.
That's when a Sumner County Animal Control officer, in attendance to testify in favor of the legislation, offered the money retort: "A lot of the people who are abusing their animals are also the ones who are abusing their children."
Stratton Bone, 741-7086
Dale Ford, 741-1717
Willie Butch Borchert, 741-6804
Eddie Bass, 741-1864
Chad Faulkner, 741-3335
Curtis Halford, 741-7478
John Litz, 741-6877
Steve McDaniel, 741-1980
Frank Niceley, 741-4419
Johnny Shaw, 741-4538
Terri Lynn Weaver, 741-2192
John Mark Windle, 741-1260
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