Critics Say Tennessee Bill Aimed at Reducing Animal Cruelty May Actually Protect Food Industry

Taking pictures at a petting zoo? Videotaping a trip to a farm? Those actions alone could land you a $50 fine and a Class C misdemeanor, if you accidentally happen to see an animal abused—that is, if a new law passes in the Tennessee Legislature.

The bill, HB 1191/SB 1248, sponsored by Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) and Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), would make it a crime to not turn over any unedited videos and photographs that record cruelty to livestock to law enforcement authorities within 24 hours.

"There are three reasons for this bill. Number one is to stop the abuse. Stop it. Number two is to get convictions. And number three is, do not taint the jury pool," Gresham told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday afternoon.

But critics says Gresham and Holt's purported attempt to prevent animal abuse is disingenuous.

"This is not about animal protection. This is about protecting the food industry," says Leighann McCollum, the Tennessee State Director of the Humane Society of the United States. "This is about blowing the whistle on the whistle-blower as soon as possible."

McCollum says if the bill were actually about preventing cruelty to animals, it would cover all animals, not just livestock (that is, livestock as specifically defined by the Tennessee Code Annotated). If the bill was about animal cruelty, she says, it would require anyone who sees abuse to report it, not just those filming or photographing it. And if the bill were really about animal abuse, it would require law enforcement to investigate the complaints. The legislation, as currently written, does no such thing.

What it would do, however, is prevent long-term investigations into animal cruelty and safety in the agricultural business. And that, says McCollum, is exactly the point. She notes that the Humane Society is generally tipped off to wrongdoing by workers on a farm scared to report abuses for fear of losing their jobs. The likelihood of such workers now turning to the police—who, in small rural towns, could easily be close friends with the farm owners—is small, she says.

McCollum also says that it's tough for law enforcement to take action on animal abuse based on just one picture or video.

"It really depends on the situation, but in most cases you have to show repeated violations—that it's not just one worker who had a bad day and struck a horse once," McCollum says. She mentions that last year's investigation of "soring" Tennessee Walking Horses took two months to document and compile a solid case that included violations of federal law. That case? It took place in Collierville, in Gresham's district.

In the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee hearing last week, Holt admitted that the bill was geared at preventing "radical animal activists" from "foreign states" coming into Tennessee and causing trouble for the livestock industry. But Laura Cascada, a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says sometimes such investigations are necessary.

Cascada points to a PETA investigation at an Iowa pig farm, when abuses continued even after they were reported to company supervisors, abuses that including beating and sexually abusing pigs with canes and shoving clothespins in their eyes. That case took three months to investigate and resulted in 22 charges of livestock neglect and abuse filed against six former employees and led to the state's first convictions for the abuse or neglect of factory-farmed pigs.

"This industry should be held accountable under the law and in the public eye," Cascada says. "This bill is a sneaky attempt by the agriculture industry to prevent longterm investigation of abuse."

McCollum also notes the ramifications for food safety. "This is an industry that should be as transparent as possible," she says.

But it's not just animal rights activists that are opposed to the legislation. The Tennessee Press Association says the bill would shut down investigative reporting on livestock in the state.

"It's a very bad bill," says Frank Gibson, the public policy director of the TPA. "It in effect will repeal a section of the Tennessee Reporter's Shield Law that has been on the books since 1973. Under this law a reporter working on a story that takes longer than a day, as most stories do, would be guilty of a crime."

Gibson also points out that since the bill requires a person to turn over unedited video and photographs to law enforcement, it could expose reporters' confidential sources, also protected by the shield law. He says that the TPA talked to Holt and tried to get him to exempt media from the bill, but he refused to do so.

The Senate Judiciary Committee rolled the bill one week and will vote on it next Tuesday; the discussion didn't clearly indicate whether it would pass the committee or not. But the full House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee passed the bill easily on Tuesday, with only three votes against: Rep. David Hawk, Rep. John C. Tidwell, and Rep. Gloria Johnson. It moves on to the House Calendar and Rules Committee next. But as Johnson questioned during the House hearing, many of the ramifications of the bill aren't clear.

What if you record something but don't watch the video until later? she asked.

"If they took they video, they should know what's there," Holt scoffed. He then compared people investigating animal abuse without alerting law enforcement to "vigilantes."

But McCollum says Johnson's concerns are real, since the legislation is so vague.

"As it stands right now, someone who goes to a petting zoo with their child and sees something that they think might possibly be animal abuse and takes a picture of it and then doesn't do anything with it is committing a crime," McCollum says.

It's also unclear how the bill would be enforced. A person charged with a Class C misdemeanor cannot be fined more than $50, but the language in the bill is vague as to whether every picture not turned over to authorities is a separate violation. If a photographer took 100 pictures of one act of abuse—easy to do digitally—and didn't turn them over to authorities, could he then be fined $5,000? And if a newspaper published those pictures without alerting law enforcement, would it then be complicit in a crime?

What it comes down to, McCollum says, is that the agriculture industry doesn't want to be transparent.

"If they don't have anything to hide, they shouldn't have a problem with a camera anywhere," McCollum says.