Animal rights group takes aim at Tenn animal cruelty laws

4:52 AM, Aug 26, 2011   |    comments
Animal Rescue Corps has rescued hundreds of dogs from a puppy mill in Warren County and is caring for the animals in a temporary shelter at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds./The Tennessean
  • Share
  • Print
  • - A A A +

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.

"I 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.

The 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.

Just 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.

"We're 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.

"We've 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.

Animals starve

Tennessee has been host to several high-profile animal rescue cases in the past few years.

Perhaps 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.

This 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.

Lasandra 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.

"The 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 beehive colonies.

"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 improvement."

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 misdemeanor.

"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.

"We 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 rural areas."

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."

Most Watched Videos