published Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

Humane Society turns up heat in campaign for Tennessee ‘ag gag’ veto

By Chas Sisk/The Tennessean
Bill Haslam
Bill Haslam
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Humane Society of the United States has launched a six-figure ad campaign to try to convince Gov. Bill Haslam to veto a bill that requires witnesses to turn over evidence of animal abuse immediately.

The Washington, D.C., animal welfare group has stepped up a campaign to defeat so-called “ag gag” legislation with a 30-second spot that highlights abuse of Tennessee walking horses.

Wayne Pacelle, the group’s president and chief executive, and others said at a news conference Monday in Nashville that Senate Bill 1248, which passed the state Legislature last week, is meant to stifle secret-camera investigations like the one that led a prominent West Tennessee trainer to plead guilty to violating the federal Horse Protection Act.

“This is a pre-emptive strike against animal welfare groups and against the press who uncover and expose illegal animal cruelty,” Pacelle said. “This is an attempt to cover up abuses.”

The organization began its ad campaign in Nashville and Knoxville on Saturday with a spot urging Tennesseans to contact Haslam and ask him to veto the bill. The group initially has committed $100,000 to the effort and plans to air the ads until the governor makes a decision on the bill.

Haslam has vetoed only one bill since taking office in 2011, but the campaign against the “ag gag” bill represents one of the most heated efforts to push the governor to nix a piece of legislation.

The governor’s office so far has received about 2,000 calls and emails regarding the “ag gag” bill, a spokesman said. Haslam told reporters Friday that he has not made up his mind about the legislation.

“It’s not one that quite frankly was really high on my radar screen, so I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to it till this week,” Haslam said. “We’ve obviously got a lot of calls and emails on it. ... I’ll be studying it.”

The measure requires anyone who photographs or videotapes abuse of an animal to give a copy to police within 48 hours. Violations are punishable by a $50 fine.

The bill, part of a nationwide push by conservative groups to criminalize videotaping of animal abuse, passed the state House of Representatives with 50 votes, the minimum needed. Opponents believe the thin margin suggests a gubernatorial veto could be sustained.

“We only lacked one vote to stop this bill,” said state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville. “The coalition against this bill is definitely bipartisan.”

Debate over the measure has split along rural and urban lines, with many of the bill’s supporters pointing fingers at the Humane Society itself. They say its investigators should have turned over video of Jackie McConnell, a championship trainer of Tennessee walking horses, soring horses immediately, rather than compiling footage of repeated abuse.

“As an animal lover, I don’t know how someone could know that an animal is being abused and not tell somebody,” state Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said Monday.

Humane Society officials defended their practices Monday. They said investigators alerted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General just two weeks after their investigation began.

The USDA passed the information to the U.S. attorney’s office in Chattanooga, which urged the Humane Society to continue recording, said Pacelle.

“This was a very serious attempt to expose awful abuse which resulted in prosecutions,” he said. “Many people have condemned that abuse and said we need more action.”

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