By Brian Haas, The Tennessean
A collection of emaciated-looking horses stands in a Robertson
County pasture while sheriff's detectives investigate whether they are
being mistreated. Nearby, the county's leaders are mulling over whether
to eliminate its animal control services to trim the budget.
think you've got especially some rural commissioners (who) remember the
days when we didn't have animal control and are used to controlling
animals their own ways," said Robertson County Mayor Howard Bradley.
"With a bullet."
Animal welfare advocates aren't surprised.
Humane Society of the United States has labeled Tennessee one of the
worst states in the nation for protecting animals. In addition to
Tennessee's having some of the weakest laws in the United States, its
legislators are chided by the group for failing to pass meaningful new
animal welfare laws. Tennessee has had 17 large-scale animal emergency
cases in the past three years - more than any other state.
three years ago, a state audit concluded that Tennessee needed uniform
animal control rules and regulations, a statewide training program and funding
to provide consistent protections across all 95 counties. But today,
more than 40 counties lack even a suitable animal shelter, and animal
protections still widely vary county by county, leading to protection
gaps, particularly in the state's rural counties. Animal cruelty -
including cockfighting - remains a misdemeanor charge, and aggravated
animal cruelty charges cannot apply to the abuse of horses or livestock.
still exactly where we were when that report was written in 2008," said
Leighann McCullom, Tennessee director for the Humane Society of the
United States. "Nothing has changed."
At the other end of the
debate is an effort to protect farmers' interests from what is seen as
intrusive laws that could hamper their ability to do business, led largely by state Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, head of the state's Agriculture Committee.
got plenty of laws to protect animals. They're trying to stop all
animal agriculture," Niceley said. "They've got one idea and I've got
another. As long as I'm chairman of ag, there's not many of those bills
that will come up."
Still others say the divide might be something
deeper, something more integral to Tennessee's culture and history.
It's a divide between natives and newcomers, old-timers and young
professionals, and rural and urban attitudes.
Tennessee has been host to several high-profile animal rescue cases in the past few years.
the most high-profile case was the Thanksgiving 2009 rescue of 82
horses and three mules from a Cannon County farm. Rescuers with the
Humane Society and other groups found several dead horses on the
Bradyville farm, in addition to live horses suffering from a variety of
ailments including starvation.
Owner Eugene Howland was arrested and charged with animal cruelty. The case has not yet been concluded.
month, 136 exotic birds were rescued from a Portland home where eight
were found dead in a kitchen freezer and month-old feces covered the
floor. It took more than 50 people to rescue the birds.
Walter, 69, pleaded guilty to four counts of animal cruelty and was
sentenced to four years of unsupervised probation. Her attorney, Lawren
Lassiter, said that prosecutors applied the law properly.
only thing I think my client has ever been guilty of is loving too many
animals," he said. "I think our animals are very well protected in this
community. Probably better so than the humans."
Bills aiming to
strengthen animal cruelty laws or add additional protections to horses
and livestock rarely, if ever, make it out of committees in the
Tennessee legislature. In the last session, only one animal-related bill
was signed into law: a bill barring governments from prohibiting
"I'm not very proud of Tennessee's record; I'm
not very proud of how backward we are on animal issues," said Tennessee
Rep. Janis Sontany, D-Nashville, who has filed several bills aiming to
strengthen penalties for animal abuse. "I don't think there's been any
The Humane Society and lawmakers including Sontany
say Tennessee lags far behind other states, such as California, which
has strict laws on horse protection, abandonment and how livestock
should be slaughtered. Of particular interest have been failed efforts
here to create harsher penalties for cockfighting, which is currently a
"We're one of only 11 states that still treats
animal fighting as a misdemeanor, specifically cockfighting," McCullom
said. "You can take your 2-year-old or your 10-year-old to a fight and
only get a $50 fine. It's not even a speeding ticket. Things like that
just erode our culture."
Sontany said that Tennessee's spay and
neuter laws also have no teeth and are rarely, if ever, enforced, which
has led to unreasonably high animal populations across the state. State
law says that adopted animals must be either spayed or neutered or the
owner must sign a waiver saying he plans to spay or neuter the pet. "We
need an aggressive spay-neuter program," she said. "We have none."
On the other side are Nicely and the Tennessee Farm Bureau. Both have been skeptical of new animal laws.
do have two different statutes, one dealing with animal cruelty and one
dealing with aggravated cruelty," said Rhedona Rose, executive vice
president of the Tennessee Farm Bureau. "I think that until it's shown
that there's an area that's not working, we are comfortable with the
laws that we have on the books."
Society is shifting
Perhaps lost in the debate is a cultural divide that some, including
Bradley, say could contribute to the large number of animal cases in
Tennessee and the resistance to new protections. McCullom said
demographic changes over the past 10 years could actually make the state
more receptive to new laws.
"We're having this sort of cross of
cultures," she said. "Because we have such an influx of people, our
urban areas are expanding. And those are clashing with some of the more
But it would be an oversimplification to say
Tennessee is more likely to tolerate animal abuse, said Dave Whitaker,
professor of agribusiness and agriscience at Middle Tennessee State
University. He said economics and psychology probably play bigger roles
than attitudes: The bad economy leads to people being unable to afford
to care for animals, and others are simply hoarders.
"Is Tennessee more cruel than other states?" he said. "I don't think so."