The worst case of equine abuse in Tennessee history shocked the state. So why is legislation that would stop the abuse meeting so much resistance? 

All the Starving Horses

All the Starving Horses

The tan-and-white foal had to be carried to salvation. The colt could barely stand, was too weak to walk and likely hadn’t eaten since birth. His malnourished mother had no milk to feed him. The starving colt was among 84 horses rescued from a farm in Cannon County last November by a team of local and national volunteers, representatives of Volunteer Equine Advocates of Gallatin and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), in the most infamous case of equine abuse in Tennessee history.

The mare, the foal and approximately 50 other emaciated horses, some unable to stand, were discovered in a foodless barn. A donkey foal was too far gone to save. In the surrounding muddy fields, rescuers found other animals down. Tennessee Department of Agriculture staff located approximately 15 carcasses in various stages of decomposition. Some of the animals were capable of moving on their own steam — but in a video documenting the rescue, HSUS equine protection specialist Stacy Segal aptly described them as "walking skeletons."

The surviving Cannon County horses suffered from ills other than starvation. Many had infected eyes, joints and hooves. Open wounds were common, as were abscesses, parasite infestations and a skin condition known as rain rot. The most extreme cases required round-the-clock care at local veterinary hospitals. Metro government made shelter available for the others at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds.

Deliverance did not come cheap. Leighann McCollum, the Tennessee director of HSUS, estimates that the total rescue effort cost approximately $250,000. That sum doesn't include donated services, feed and equipment. Tractor Supply Co. was the biggest giver, delivering $50,000 worth of food and supplies as well as equipment that can be used for future rescues. McCollum says the outpouring of support, especially from the agriculture community, was the largest in HSUS history aside from responses to natural disasters, such as Katrina.

Two Tennessee legislators, alarmed not just by the kind of abuse found in the Cannon County case but its correlations with abuse against children, have sponsored a bill that would punish such cruelty with hard time. Ironically, however, it's facing enormous resistance from the agency that would seem to be most concerned with protecting the well-being of farms.

Why would an organization concerned with the interests of farmers oppose legislation that would try to put a stop to the conditions found in Cannon County? The answer is more complex than you might think.

The Anatomy of Abuse

The manmade disaster of Cannon County occurred on the farm of Eugene Howland and his son Clint. (Their day in court is scheduled for May 18.) According to a WSMV-Channel 4 News report filed at the time of the rescue, "The Howlands are horse traders who said they were fattening up the horses before slaughter." When served with a warrant by Cannon County deputies, the Howlands agreed to forfeit the animals. The alternative was to post security to cover the cost of their rehab.

In an interview with News Channel 5 two weeks after the rescue — once they'd had a chance to consult with their lawyer — the Howlands denied any wrongdoing and said they intended to sue to get their animals back. When shown a photograph of a skeletal horse found on his property, Gene Howland commented, "The horse needs some weight on 'm." Clint Howland added, "I'm an animal lover. I care for horses, and they burst into our farm and took everything we owned."

After that less than successful interview, the Howlands now speak through their attorney, John H. Norton III of Shelbyville. Norton tells the Scene his clients' position is that "60 to 70 of the animals by no means met the standards for abuse, and that the 10 or 15 bad ones" were anonymously "dropped off at their farm or tied to their trailer" when the Howlands attended horse auctions.

"They were trying to nourish them back to health," Norton says. "Some of those horses the Howlands had had less than two weeks." The attorney could not explain why, according to volunteer caregivers, after only three days of feeding at the fairgrounds, those horses formerly too weak to stand were getting up and down on their own.

In addition to blaming previous owners, Norton also tries to blame the rescuers. The attorney suggests that perhaps it was the 60-mile trip to the fairgrounds that caused some to be unable to stand. "Hauling is stressful on a horse," he says. Norton also strongly denies that his clients sold horses for slaughter. "They're third-generation horse traders who know the industry," he says. "They buy and sell horses for trail riding and pleasure."

Norton says one focus of his defense will be lack of evidence. "The district attorney is supposed to preserve evidence for examination by the defense," he explains. "Some of that evidence is the animals themselves. By the time I asked to see the evidence on Dec. 10, the Humane people had dispersed those horses all across the state of Tennessee." Of course, had the Humane people not also fed, watered and cared for the horses by then, the evidence would have consisted of more carcasses.

Norton's legal strategy seems questionable, at least to the non-lawyer. But then the attorney has employed dubious methods before. In 1987, Norton was censured by the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee. In 2002, he received a one-year suspension. That suspension was converted to two years probation after Norton agreed to remain free of alcohol and controlled substances and admitted that he had neglected and failed to prepare two cases, failed to reasonably communicate with another client, and had a personal conflict of interest in a fourth case.

Even so, if the defense works, the sad news is that there won't be any shortage of other defendants willing to try it.

Equine Darwinism

While the Cannon County case represents the largest equine rescue ever attempted in the state, the horrific conditions found on the Howland farm are unfortunately not singular. Google "horse abuse in Tennessee" and count.

In July 2009, for example, the Warren County district attorney brought animal cruelty charges against Sid Stanton after investigators found four dead horses and dozens more starving on his property. In February of this year, Sumner County took five severely neglected and malnourished horses from Edward Whiticker of Portland. Police told the Tennessean that Whiticker had "twice declined instructions on how to properly care for the horses."

This past January, Sumner County authorities seized 20 starving horses, ponies and donkeys — and found two carcasses — from a farm owned by Donald Woodard. It wasn't the first time Woodard had generated complaints, according to the county's animal control officer, Sgt. Michael McLerran.

"We took over animal control in November of 2008, and the first call I got about Woodard came the next month," McLerran says. "He's stayed one step ahead of us." One Woodard tactic was "to keep the good horses where they could be seen from the road and put the bad ones where we couldn't find them."

Or McLerran would find the neglected horses, but the vet or the county agricultural extension agent — legally required to assess the horses' condition — would arrive too late. "So by the time they get there," McLerran explains, "Woodard has moved the horses to another of his properties," sometimes in a different legal jurisdiction. "I heard that Trousdale County recently seized one horse from him," he says. "We think that he might have moved these other 20 from there."

After months of this equine shell game, McLerran finally nabbed Woodard because the 20 horses "were close to the road, the extension agent came right away, certified that the horses needed immediate attention, we got a warrant and he forfeited the animals."

"These days my most common cruelty calls are about horses," says McCollum of the HSUS. "Often it's about people who have a couple of horses. Many people don't realize how expensive it is to keep a horse." McCollum estimates "$200 per month, just for a minimum of food. And then there's shots, hoof trimming — it adds up quickly."

Other horse owners confirm average annual maintenance fees of $3,000-$3,500 for a healthy horse with good pasture. McCollum says, however, that the Howlands and Woodard are "different."

Sgt. McLerran explains the economics of large-scale equine abuse. "A guy buys a whole lot of horses cheap," he says, sometimes for as little as $25 at auctions and from the classifieds. The horses in good condition, he sells for a profit. The ones in poor condition, he turns out to pasture — which often, especially in winter, has no grazing value.

"So he feeds them some, but not enough, and there's no hoof or medical care," McLerran says. "If they die, they die; if they survive, they survive." Because of the minimal initial investment, he says, "it doesn't bother him to lose some."

Those horses that endure the winter — the larger and younger ones who can fight for any available food — pick up weight when the grass comes back in spring and summer, McCollum adds. Those that the traders can't sell for pleasure riding, she says, "They often ship to Mexico or Canada for slaughter" because horse slaughter is illegal in the United States.

"Horse slaughter is a profitable business," she says. The meat, largely consumed in Europe and Asia, "sells for $25 a pound."

The Law

As it stands, does the law strongly discourage this practice? Not really. The Howlands and Woodard are charged with animal cruelty, a Class A misdemeanor in Tennessee when pertaining to livestock. The Tennessee legal code definition of "livestock" is "all equine [horses, mules and donkeys] as well as animals which are being primarily raised for use as food or fiber for human utilization or consumption." The maximum punishment for cruelty to livestock is up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and a $2,500 fine for each count.

Cruelty to companion animals such as dogs and cats, on the other hand, is a Class E felony. Here the minimum penalty is a year in jail and a $3,000 fine per count. The distinction in penalties doesn't sit well with State Rep. Janis Sontany, who represents District 53 in southeast Nashville.

"Cruelty is cruelty whether it weighs 3 pounds or stands 16 hands high," Sontany says.

While the maximum for the misdemeanor and the minimum for the felony are theoretically close in severity, "judges rarely impose the maximum for misdemeanors," Sontany says. Abusers convicted of misdemeanors can walk with a $50 fine. "And prisoners usually serve only 30 percent of their sentence," she adds.

Sontany also notes that law enforcement departments, strapped for personnel and funding, "take felonies more seriously," as do those convicted of them. "A felony on your record can have a real life impact on, say, whether you can get hired for a job," she says.

To eliminate the legal gap between abuse of companion animals and livestock, Sontany and State Senator Bill Ketron have filed a bill (HB 3386/SB 3546) in the Tennessee legislature to make aggravated abuse of livestock a Class E felony as well. Their bill defines "aggravated cruelty" as "conduct that is done in a depraved or sadistic manner and that tortures or maims an animal and shall be construed to include the intentional deprivation of food and water ... where the deprivation results in the death of the animal or a substantial risk of death." This is a high hurdle for a prosecutor to prove.

Ketron says he's cosponsoring the bill because of "the well-documented and direct connection between animal abuse and child abuse. To break that cycle drives me more than anything." Sgt. McLerran says he supports the bill to felonize the abuse of livestock because it would "most definitely help" with enforcement and prevention: "Charging someone with a misdemeanor is like writing a traffic ticket; you give him a citation."

But there's a large and influential group that doesn't support the bill — and its opposition may keep horse abusers tearing up tickets for years to come.

Farm Bureau Follies

Horses have traditionally been defined as "livestock" in the Tennessee legal code because they were once part of the vital operations of farms, pulling plows and wagons. They took the farmer to market; they took his family to church. Today, unless they are used for racing or showing and thus can have value as breeding stock, equines are more likely to be used for leisure activities, such as trail riding or a simple canter on the back 40.

Yet despite their shift in status from utilitarian beasts of burden to luxury companion animals, equines have remained legally "livestock" — largely due to the efforts of one of the most powerful political entities in the state: the Tennessee Farm Bureau.

The Farm Bureau's power doesn't reside in throwing cash around. "They really don't contribute to campaigns, they don't have a PAC," Ketron says. "They just represent a lot of voters." The bureau's 646,000 members make it the largest farm bureau in the country.

The president of the Farm Bureau is Lacy Upchurch, a tall, courtly, white-haired man who raises beef cattle and sheep for lamb meat. Upchurch insists to the Scene that his organization "doesn't condone the mistreatment of animals." But he thinks such situations as found in Cannon County are "isolated instances." And most such cases "are not premeditated," he adds. "Even in Cannon County, I don't think those guys intentionally harmed those horses. Why in the world would they not want to give them enough nourishment?"

Upchurch says there are more malnourished horses in the last few years because of the recessive economy. "People don't have the revenue to take care of their horses," he says. "And there's no market for them."

When asked about the scale of abuse found on the Howlands' farm, Upchurch says he doesn't know the specifics. Yet he searches for excuses. Try: "Those guys may have bought the horses in that condition and didn't have time to get them in better shape." Or: "It could be they didn't know enough about nutrition and management." Third try: "I didn't see the horses, but the HSUS pictures [of the rescue] showed four or five hay rings full of feed."

Unfortunately for Upchurch's whitewash attempts, the hay was in the fields — but not in the barn — because "the Cannon County Sheriff's Department and concerned citizens had brought feed for the horses before the arrival of today's officials," according to a report filed the day of the rescue by the local Cannon Wire.

Nevertheless, Upchurch says the Farm Bureau opposes the Sontany/Ketron bill because a conviction for a second offense of livestock abuse "is already a felony." He also fears "the unintended consequences" the bill could produce.

"What is 'aggravated cruelty' with regard to livestock?" he asks. "Could it be applied to generally accepted practices of animal husbandry" such as de-horning and branding of cattle, or tail-docking of lambs? "The lay person might perceive this as cruelty because they just don't know anything about animal agriculture," he says.

Admittedly, as Upchurch notes, the non-farmer may not understand the conformational differences between roly-poly beef cattle and the dairy cow's bony profile, or mistake the swaybacked and ribby look of an aged horse for one that's not getting enough hay and grain. But no district attorney would prosecute complaints from such cases. And no one with a working eyeball could mistake the condition of the Cannon County horses for anything other than what it was: starvation.

Not to mention that the Sontany/Ketron bill specifically states that aggravated cruelty doesn't apply to customary farm practices — such as de-horning and branding — accepted by colleges of agriculture or veterinary medicine, as the Scene pointed out to Upchurch. And the intentional withholding of food and water to a death-threatening degree doesn't qualify as standard farm practice, as the Scene also pointed out to Upchurch.

His response: "There are certain people who would like to destroy animal agriculture. Sometimes they use the passion that people have for animal care to reach their objectives." When asked if the "certain people" included the Humane Society of the United States, Upchurch said: "Yes." When asked if by "to destroy animal agriculture" he meant to stop people from eating meat, he said: "Yes."

Unable to find anything on the HSUS website that advocates turning all Americans into vegans, the Scene queried McCollum. She sighed as if she's heard it all before.

"The HSUS is comprised of vegetarians and meat-eaters alike," McCollum says. "We know that most Americans eat animals, but most Americans also don't want to see them treated inhumanely. So we support efforts to reduce these animals' suffering." The HSUS does oppose attempts to legalize horse slaughter in the United States, a practice the Farm Bureau supports. "The horse is not a food animal in this country," McCollum says.

It's not just exaggerated fears about harassment of animal agriculture, though, that have made the Farm Bureau routinely insist on keeping livestock separate from other animals in cruelty statutes. There are strong financial incentives for the distinction built into Tennessee's tax code.

The person who farms for a living receives a number of sales and use tax breaks regarding their livestock, beginning with feed. Unlike pet food — or baby food, for that matter — livestock feed is exempt from sales tax. According to the Tennessee Department of Revenue, in 2007 sales of livestock feed in Tennessee amounted to almost $548 million. Because most of those sales were tax exempt, this tax break saved livestock owners $38 million.

Sontany points out, however, that the bill she's filed with Ketron will have no impact on the tax status of livestock because it says nothing about the subject. "I don't want to start taxing farmers," she says. "I just want to stop people from starving their horses."

Speaking for the Victims

Sontany's concern for abused horses is part of her larger determination to protect the victims of the world. "Anyone who would mistreat an animal would mistreat a child," she explains. "They can't speak for themselves."

So Sontany speaks for them. During her service in Metro Council from 1995 to 2003, she sponsored several animal-friendly bills, most notably for the funding and construction of a new Metro animal control facility because "the old one and its program were among the worst in the nation," she says. Sontany tried but failed to outlaw the chaining of dogs, and to require owners of fertile animals to pay a higher license fee than those of spayed or neutered ones in order to curb overpopulation. Since Sontany's election to the State House in 2002, she's sponsored and/or supported numerous bills to tighten the laws against child abusers. On the animal front, she passed a commercial breeders' bill to protect consumers from inferior animals sold by puppy mills. She also succeeded with legislation to provide protection for the pets of families fleeing domestic violence.

"Often women won't leave an abusive situation because they're afraid of what the abuser will do to the pets," Sontany explains. "Now the animals can go to Nashville Humane and Metro Animal Control for two weeks."

Sontany says she has a "soft spot for animals" despite not having had any as a child. "When I was growing up, there were five children in our family," she says. "We didn't have pets because my mother said she had enough to do taking care of us. So of course the first thing we all did when we left home was to get a pet." Her current favorite is her dog Woody, who she says is "the only dog I know who can bark and pee at the same time. He does this when I let him out in the middle of the night. I'm sure my neighbors love it."

Sontany learned the responsibilities demanded by equine ownership when she and her then-husband lived on 90 acres in Arrington. "We had two quarter horses," she remembers, "and every six weeks the farrier came to give those horses a pedicure, whether I got to go to the hairdresser or not. It was just what you did."

In her legislative attempts to protect animals from abuse, Sontany discovered that what you did not do was tangle with the Tennessee Farm Bureau. When she was first elected to the House, she recalls, "representatives of the Farm Bureau asked to meet with me, I guess because they knew my council record." They strongly suggested "that I leave livestock out of any bill connected with animals." Sontany did so in order to have any chance passing legislation penalizing animal cruelty — until now.

"This time I've stepped across the line" drawn in the sand by the Farm Bureau, Sontany says. "And they are not pleased."

Running Scared

The displeasure of the Farm Bureau means the Sontany/Ketron bill has little chance of passing, according to legislative handicappers. Before the bill gets to the House and Senate floors it must pass through the House Agriculture Committee and the Senate Commerce, Labor and Agriculture Committee. "All the members of the House Ag committee are afraid of the Farm Bureau. Hell, the whole legislature is afraid of the Farm Bureau," explains one legislator who refuses to speak on the record because, well, he's afraid of the Farm Bureau.

Upchurch says the Farm Bureau's political pull is rooted in its organization. "We have a volunteer Farm Bureau board in every county," he explains. "We look at the issues in every county, and bring members in to discuss them from all over the state. Then the 300 delegates attending our annual meeting vote on our policies. So it's all truly grass roots."

Just how far these roots spread among Tennessee voters, however, is highly questionable. The 646,000 memberships include those multitudes who pay their $25 dues to participate in the Farm Bureau's well-respected insurance programs. Farm Bureau lobbyist Rhedona Rose failed to respond to repeated Scene queries regarding the number of farmers versus non-farmers in the organization's membership tally.

But according to participants in an early March meeting that Farm Bureau leaders requested with Sontany, Farm Bureau administrative officer Julius Johnson admitted there that only those who derive at least 50 percent of their income from farming — or spend 50 percent of their time farming — are informed of Farm Bureau policy issues and allowed to vote on them. Ron Smith, who attended the meeting, says Johnson also acknowledged that the voting membership of the Farm Bureau is approximately 7,900. The rest are considered "associate members," Smith says. Johnson did not reply to the Scene's request for confirmation of these stats.

One doesn't need Johnson's confirmation, however, to deduce that only a sliver of Farm Bureau members are controlling its stance on state issues. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture census, approximately 31,000 people in Tennessee farmed for a living in 2007. Let's say all of these farmers belong to the Farm Bureau and support the organization's stance against making aggravated abuse of livestock a felony — which are dubious assumptions, but still.

That leaves over 600,000 "associate members" who have no say in the organization's policies. It is entirely possible that a large percentage of them might want to make the torture and starvation of horses a felony. They might even be unpleasantly surprised to discover that Farm Bureau leaders make excuses for the starvers. And — note to legislators — many of these "associate members" might also cast their ballots for candidates who weren't terrorized by the Farm Bureau.

It's not exactly news that state legislators run scared from the special interests. What is news is that legislators aren't bagging big campaign dollars from the Farm Bureau for running. Farm Bureau leaders have a great game going in Tennessee: You don't pay your money, and you still takes your choice.

Not-So-Small Crimes

To abusers like the Howlands and Woodard, the equine animal is a commodity, a piece of property not much different from a car or truck. Once the repair and maintenance costs of a vehicle have outstripped its book or functional value, it makes economic sense not to put any more money in the machine. And all the law tells us is that we can't keep the rusting hulk in our yards.

But a living animal that feels hunger, pain and suffering is something else again. The distinction is evident to Annette Rader, a Hickman County resident who volunteered to help care for the Cannon County horses at the fairgrounds, her first foray into equine rescue.

Rader says she's been around horses for 45 years. While she's not a farmer, her mother's family was, and she's familiar with farm practices. She describes herself as "a practical person; I'm not a flag-waving activist. I know that you may have to put down an animal if it gets too old or sick.

"But there's a huge difference between normal life and death on a farm — butchering hogs or chickens — and what happened to the horses I worked with at the fairgrounds." Here Rader paused, her voice choking. "I just don't understand how people could allow their animals to suffer that way."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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