One of the perks of writing for an audience of sharp readers is that your comments often raise questions that never had occurred to me. I always learn something new when I put a column together and more often than not, I learn something interesting from your feedback.
A case in point: a couple of weeks ago, a column about the dangers of so-called "ag-gag" laws mentioned an undercover investigation conducted by the Humane Society of the United States documenting abuse of Tennessee Walking Horses by a prominent trainer.
The point of the column was not to highlight the HSUS investigation, although the organization deserves credit for bringing the abuse to light. Instead, it was intended as a warning that undercover investigations would be next to impossible in a state with laws that criminalized clandestine reporting on animal abuse and other questionable farming practices.
I hadn’t intended to write about HSUS, but the organization became the focus of some of your comments. A few readers suggested that the year-long delay between the time the investigation was conducted (March through May 2011) and the release of the videotape to the public (May 2012) was evidence of bad faith on the part of HSUS.
It’s a good question. Was HSUS manipulating the timing for a financial or public relations advantage rather than for the good of the abused horses? A few days ago, I posed the question to Keith Dane, Director of Equine Protection for HSUS.
Promotion or Prosecution?
HSUS selected nationally known trainer Jackie McConnell as the target of the undercover investigation for two reasons: he had a record of winning at major shows and he had a record of federal Horse Protection Act violations.
The HSUS investigator began working for McConnell in March 2011 and remained at the stable for two months. Armed with easily hidden, state-of-the-art electronic equipment, she recorded "hundreds of hours" of video and audio tapes documenting rampant abuse of the horses in the guise of training.
"Our investigator was a ‘genuine’ employee during that time," Dane said. "She groomed horses, cleaned tack, mucked out stalls, everything the other employees did. The only work she didn’t do was anything that was illegal. It took time to gain a certain level of trust, which was necessary because she wanted to be able to engage the other employees. The investigation ended when she was asked to sore some of the horses."
The undercover work wrapped up in May; two months later, after the tapes were edited to a manageable size, HSUS officials met with federal prosecutors in Tennessee. The feds, who had no prior knowledge of the investigation, were "immediately interested."
Material collected during the investigation remained under wraps from July 2011 until May 2012, while the federal prosecutors put together their case. A 52-count indictment came down in March 2012 and by mid-May McConnell indicated that he would plead guilty to conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act.
Even when a general agreement between the parties regarding McConnell’s guilty plea (the deal still must be approved by the judge in the case), prosecutors continued to pressure HSUS not to release the video and audio recordings to the public.
"We’ve had a long campaign against abuse in the Walking Horse industry," Dane said about the decision to go public. "We wanted to show that self-policing wasn’t working. This person wasn’t a backyard trainer. We wanted to show that soring was going on and that people were profiting from training and showing sored horses."
The Next Step
I asked Dane what needs to happen in the long-term:
"The industry needs to get out of self-regulation," he said. "The USDA needs adequate funding for enforcement, and there must be more severe penalties so there is a real deterrent in place."
It’s hard to argue with that.
HSUS doesn’t get everything right. Critics complain about too much secrecy and too little transparency in the organization’s finances, for example.
But staging an undercover investigation in the barn of a leading trainer working in the heart of Walking Horse country was a gutsy move for everyone involved. Without the evidence generated by the investigator and the cooperation between HSUS and federal prosecutors, no one would know what was happening behind McConnell’s stable gates. No one who cares, anyway.
Hats off to HSUS and the feds. They got it right.