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Tennessee animal abuse reporting bill hits Senate snag

ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press • Apr 15, 2013 at 5:33 AM

NASHVILLE -- An effort to require animal abuse whistleblowers to quickly submit damning evidence to law enforcement has hit a snag in the state Senate over questions about the true intentions of the bill.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville and fellow Republican Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden would require anyone recording images of animal abuse to submit unedited footage or photos to law enforcement within 48 hours.

When the bill reached the floor last week, Gresham denied claims from animal protection activists like the Humane Society of the United States and others that the bill would have a chilling effect on whistleblowers and prevent undercover operations from establishing an ongoing pattern of abuse.

"What I'm saying in this bill, is, 'Whistleblower, take what you have and take it to law enforcement, because that is where it belongs,'" Gresham said, added that assembling such evidence "needs to be done by law enforcement, not by vigilantes."

The Humane Society in 2011 secretly filmed video inside a training stable in Gresham's West Tennessee district showing caustic substances being applied to Tennessee walking horses' legs and hooves, and the animals being beaten to make them stand. Trainer Jackie McConnell pleaded guilty in federal court in September.

Gresham and Holt last year sponsored a bill seeking to make it a crime to apply for a job with the intent of recording video or audio that would damage that could "cause economic damage to the employer." That bill failed in a House subcommittee.

Gresham, who this year voted against a separate bill to make repeat cock fighting offenses a felony, said on the Senate floor that her bill was only meant to halt animal abuse.

"Indeed the genesis may be distantly related to an event in my district," she said. "But the principle that we're looking at here is stop the abuse. Don't do that. If you record it, tell the police. "

While the bill was met with little resistance as it worked its way through Senate committee, Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, expressed serious reservations about the measure on the floor.

"That bill was less about preventing animal abuse, and more about preventing the filming of animal abuse," Norris said after Gresham agreed to delay the vote until Wednesday.

Fellow Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, the sponsor of the unsuccessful effort to increase penalties for cockfighting, agreed that the animal abuse bill should look beyond groups seeking to document problems.

"If we are going to require that of people who film it, why do we not require everybody else who recognizes it to report ... be it a farmhand, or be it a veterinarian?" he said. "I mean, abuse is abuse."

Most of the sensational videos of animal abuse in recent years have been captured by undercover operatives who surreptitiously apply for and land jobs within facilities.

One undercover video that showed California cows struggling to stand as they were prodded to slaughter by forklifts led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history. In Vermont, a video of veal calves skinned alive and tossed like sacks of potatoes ended with the plant's closure and criminal convictions.

Animal welfare groups say investigations take weeks because the operatives nose around only when they aren't performing the duties for which they were hired.

Opponents of the Tennessee bill and other similar efforts around the country say they are based on agriculture groups' to stop investigations are a part of model legislation endorsed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank backed by business interests.

ALEC has labeled those who interfere with animal operations "terrorists," thought a spokesman recently said he wishes now that the organization had called its legislation the "Freedom to Farm Act" rather than the "Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act."

The Humane Society announced earlier this month that it has hired Eric Swafford, a former Republican state lawmaker and an award-winning member of the Tennessee Walking Horse Owners Association, to help persuade his former colleagues not to pursue the measure.

But those efforts may fall short with members such as Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who during a recent committee meeting decried the "radical animal rights group that was coming around lobbying me on this bill, throwing up all kinds of straw dogs."

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