Exceptionally American: The uncomfortable relationship with human rights

On Thursday, the Obama administration asserted the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights did not extend to military and intelligence officials working abroad. By repeating a script well-rehearsed by former presidents Bush and Clinton, Obama endorsed the very sentiment that has led to military abuses in the past.

When he was found by officers of the Canadian military, Shidane Abukar Arone —a Somali citizen— said he was searching for a lost child. It was 1993 and Arone’s country was broken by famine and conflict —circumstances that would lead, seven months later, to a botched U.S. military operation and the deaths of 18 Delta Force rangers.

Detained on suspicion of trespassing, Arone was taken into custody on the evening of March 16, 1993. Sometime that evening, allegedly uttering the words “Canada, Canada, Canada,” Arone succumbed to grievous injuries sustained at the hands of the Canadian military. In the hours prior to Arone’s death, members of a highly-trained commando team subjected him to senseless beatings and, while restrained, sexual abuse. One of the team members, Master Cpl. Giasson, found the badly-beaten detainee semi-conscious and bleeding. “In Canada we cannot do this,” he told a fellow officer. “But here…”

“The Somali Affair” was one of Canada’s most embarrassing and deplorable cases of detainee abuse. From My Lai to Abu Ghraib, however, these stories are disturbingly (historically) common. With such a somber backdrop, yesterday’s US declaration on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is even more damning.

The treaty was designed to extend human rights responsibilities (and protections) to a country’s military and intelligence forces stationed overseas. Previously, both the Clinton and Bush administrations rejected the UN’s interpretation of the treaty’s scope, claiming the covenant only applied to US territories under formal jurisdiction. Yesterday in Geneva, the Obama administration agreed.

Intended to ban arbitrary killings, torture, unfair trials and imprisonments without judicial review, the treaty  —ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1992— continues to create tension between legal advisors who say ignoring global implications of the treaty is  “not legally tenable” and military officers who say the treaty will complicate future U.S. military operations.

The military argument, now, is party line: The United States has too many responsibilities abroad to be subject to such restrictions. Full stop. For others, the treaty is simply unnecessary as American moral fiber remains superior to any document canonized by the United Nations. (This is, I’m afraid, the legacy of American Exceptionalism in a post-9/11 world). But proposing that a military’s expansive scope should be met with the shrinking of its responsibility seems inexcusable. And presuming protection will be guaranteed by enlightened leadership is a most dangerous game.

These positions ignore what we —the public— already know about the military at war and under stress: Traumatic environments alter one’s views of what is right, wrong, and the grey area between. The acts captured in Abu Ghraib’s debasing pictures —taken by men and women who willingly degraded the value of human life— were imagined by Americans committed to their country’s cause. The “War on Terror” carved lines into Middle Eastern sand that eventually obscured the boundaries drawn by law. Sure, there was a failure in leadership, and individual decisions are never a reflection of one’s environment alone, but the soldier’s willingness to take part in abuse is born out of the very fraternity needed to stay alive far from home.

In the end, social psychology might be a blunt tool to explain, exactly, why one Canadian soldier burned Mr. Arone’s genitals with lighted cigarettes. But research does explain why people, who would otherwise object to such treatment, or intervene against such acts, decided —in these cases— not to. That’s why yesterday’s decision by US officials serves as the highest order abdication of responsibility  —it echoes the twisted logic of permissibility: “not at home, but here…” And that, of course, is particularly exceptional.

Forgotten framework?

In 2003, Richard J. Norton published a journal article in the Naval War College Review which dealt with security challenges in complex urban environments he defined as “feral cities”. But what happened next?

While working through a number of projects at the moment —from fellowship applications to magazine pitches— I’m awash with material and ideas, and yet one theme keeps bubbling up: The theory of feral cities.

In 2003, Richard J. Norton published a journal article in the Naval War College Review which dealt with security challenges in complex urban environments he loosely defined as “a metropolis with a population of more than a million people in a state the government of which has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city’s boundaries yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system.” This, he claimed, should be known as a “feral city”.

Norton’s concerns stems from his assertion that, despite modern military might, current capabilities are insufficient to deal with the myriad challenges of densely populated urban environments in which law enforcement cannot patrol, residents/citizens are unregistered, and informal power structures come to dominate how the city lives and breathes.

The article, now more than a decade old, has inspired a few security experts (such as the inimitable David Kilcullen) to think broadly about the military capacities/capabilities for addressing feral cities, but I wonder why the theory hasn’t been more effectively explored given its potential applicability in places like Lagos, Mexico City, Rio, or Dhaka.

Any reader come across the use of this term more recently?

Stranded in Istanbul: An update on Soccer’s Lost Boys

In January 2014, Jason Andrew’s work (and my text), on Nigerian soccer players stranded in Istanbul, will be published in LFI Magazine —an imprint run by Leica.

In the summer of 2012, mere months after graduating from Columbia, I was honored to publish my first story —in print— for The New York Times. The piece, Soccer’s Lost Boys, which looks at the award-winning photography series by Jason Andrew, ran full page in the Saturday sports section with a longer article published on the New York Times’ Lens Blog.

LFI Cover

In January 2014, nearly a year and a half later, Andrew’s work will be published in LFI Magazine, an imprint run by Leica. For the updated spread, the editors asked if I would expand the text version of the piece. At nearly 3,000 words, the story —and never-before-seen photographs— tries to provide additional detail to what has now been a four-year battle by a small group of Nigerian soccer players in pursuit of a dream that, each day, slips further and further away. I’ve posted a short excerpt below:

As the plane’s landing gear struck the smooth runway of Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in August 2010, Akeem looked around the cabin at the 60 other young African players, dressed in matching adidas track suits and toting their cleats. Akeem had paid for his flight, visa, and – more importantly – the opportunity to try out for Turkey’s professional clubs. As he glanced out of the plane’s small, fogged window onto a city which has served as the heart to four world empires, Akeem wanted to believe that his future started here.

*The January issue is available for download or purchase here.

Fact-Checking Knoxville’s ABC News affiliate: Tennessee Walking Horses

I can excuse subjects for stating their interests with conviction. But I won’t excuse journalists who fail to understand the topic, or take the time to ask the right questions.

When I started reporting my latest AJAM story on allegations of horse abuse in a little town of Maryville, Tenn., I told people I was “agnostic about horses.” This usually prompted a laugh, but it was true: I certainly didn’t want to see any animals abused —horse or otherwise— but my life had afforded only a few —random— opportunities to see these animals up close.

Now, three months after starting the story, I usually receive a few emails a week from concerned readers on the topic of horse abuse. I wish I could respond to all of them —and in this format— but I will take a stab at one message I received this morning. Lacking any text, the email included a link to this piece, written by a reporter for an ABC News affiliate out of Knoxville, Tennessee.

While I could talk in the abstract about the writing of this piece, and the struggle this reporter seemed to have with particular facts about pending bill, H.R. 1518, or the PAST Act, I figured I’d copy and paste it below and annotate my way through. My additions are noted in bold.


MORRISTOWN (WATE) – Tennessee walking horses are at the center of a major debate on Capitol Hill.

AM – Agreed.

A Kentucky congressman has proposed a bill making some major changes to how the horses are handled.

AM – The proposed bill will restrict the use of particular “action devices” commonly used on Tennessee Walking Horses.

According to the president of the East Tennessee Walking Horse Association, Ken Estes, the bill would mean a hit of millions of dollars to the local agricultural economy.

AM – As a point of privilege, I think this quote can stand. As a point of reportorial professionalism, I’d like to see documents that would indicate the amount and extent of money that might be lost.

He says most of the tools they use to get the horses to walk the way they do would be eliminated. Without their signature walk, the walking horse industry would be eliminated.

AM – I’ve heard this charge time and again. While I’m no trainer, I have heard from many trainers that the TWH industry would not disappear with the new Federal restrictions, just that the individuals who have used abusive tactics to make their horses profitable in the circuit would be forced out of the industry. 

“I’m going to put a 6 inch chain on him. This is called an action device and the bill would eliminate it totally. It would eliminate any type of boot or action device,” Estes said, as he put a small chain around the horses lower leg.

AM – The reporter fails to ask about soring at all. Sure, the action devices are specifically noted in the bill, but the context of the proposed amendment has been shaped by generations of trainers who have used —and continue to use— caustic chemicals to abrade or sensitize the skin. The “action devices”, in this context, are used to exacerbate the pain.

He also showed us how a heavier horse shoe used on the horses now, would be replaced with a much lighter one.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers played a story done by ABC’s Nightline in May 2012. It features a Humane Society expose that shows the animals being tortured to walk the way they do.

AM – Lawmakers showed the 2012 video highlighting the case of Jackie McConnell. 

The proposed bill was a response to that publicity.

AM – The proposed bill was a response to ABUSE IN THE WALKING HORSE INDUSTRY —abuse that was captured on film in the McConnell case, but has been a feature of the TWH community for many years. 

“The Humane Society has used us as a fundraiser to get people to send in money. They have made a whipping boy out of us, so to speak,” Estes explained.

AM – Should have prompted a direct question to HSUS. The reporter either didn’t ask, or didn’t include HSUS’s response.

He worries that misconceptions about what they do could end a million dollar industry.

AM – Fair statement. Misconceptions certainly abound in this story.

“Well most of the horses that people pay millions of dollars for, when they take their equipment off, they are worthless. They become just a horse and they drop in value to $300-400,” he said.

AM – Ancillary concern. Estes doesn’t speak to why horses would not be valuable if, save the action devices, they still took part in TWH competitions.

“It’s just money. When you hurt an animal, it has feelings too,” said Stacy Jordan with the Hamblen County Humane Society. The Humane Society of the United States has come out saying the ones who oppose the legislation are the ones making money from the abuse.

AM – I think this is an overly simplified quote, too. Don’t know if it really cuts to the heart of the matter. 

Estes says that for an 1,100lb horse, chains and heavy shoes don’t qualify as abuse.

AM – For individuals who watched the testimony on Capitol Hill (and if you didn’t here is a summary), the question was not whether chains or heavy shoes qualified as abuse, but that the industry has been poorly policed, abuse (soring and otherwise) has persisted, and that action devices have been used to hide some instances of abuse from horse show investigators.  

He worries that misconceptions about what they do could now end a $1 million industry.

“I can’t imagine the financial repercussions of this to the horse industry in the area,” Estes said.

AM – Neither can I. Because I’ve never seen the numbers. 

The bill would also increase the number of inspections by the USDA.

AM – And a series of other things: http://beta.congress.gov/bill/113th/house-bill/1518


I can excuse subjects for stating their interests with conviction. But I won’t excuse journalists who fail to understand the topic, or take the time to ask the right questions.

A Tunnel…And then Light.

To report with meaning, you need support. How much is journalism worth to you?

When I was completing my last degree at Columbia, I was fortunate to spend precious class time with one of the school’s most decorated (and hard-assed) professors. While discussing what it would take to make it in this business, he offered a simple conclusion: “You just have to feel like you couldn’t do anything else.” Because I can’t…

I’m excited to announce I’ve joined Beacon, a new service for freelancers like myself to gain added traction on the “tear-you-down-I’ll-give-you-a-penny-per-word” internet. Beacon was launched this year to connect readers with their favorite (and new) writers. The beauty of the service is that, even if you just want to read my work (#flattering), you’ll gain access to a wide stable of journalists on the front lines worldwide. I said yes to Beacon, because we all need to find some way to financially support reporters who devote their time and energy to keep this industry alive.

On Beacon, I’ve attempted to narrow my focus, and will be reporting/writing/opining and complaining about security issues in West and Central Africa. The end goal: to justify the time and energy needed for a large, non-fiction project —that secret is still mine.

So how do you help? Through my profile page, you will be able to subscribe ($5/month) to me directly. That contribution will provide the much needed income so I can keep doing what I’m doing. For you, it will open up the world of Beacon —a pastiche of national and international reporting presented aesthetically for you each and every day.

On Beacon, I’ll be posting regularly, whether real-time updates from the field, articles (featuring original and compiled reporting) or comments on current events (as they relate to the broader topic). Over time, the goal is to create a persuasive and compelling account of an international security space that is still largely misunderstood.

The first post on Beacon will tackle the issue of piracy (A topic I’ve written about in the past). As security topics go, piracy can be exceedingly nebulous, the recent Hollywood release of Captain Phillips, a film that dramatizes the real-life kidnapping of an American captain off the Somali coast in 2009, has brought the topic back into (temporary) vogue. The movie, which fails to tackle the myriad actors that effect, or are affected by, piracy or the context in which it persists. One benefit of greater awareness, however, might be a slight bump in interest, and a desire for new and balanced coverage. My first post on Beacon is a short brief of what the movie missed, and what reporters (like myself) might add.

My decision to cover West and Central Africa, and for a service like Beacon, is certainly strategic. I believe that any discussion of this region, specifically in so far as it relates to security, speaks to a growing concern among scholars, policymakers and anyone curious about the future of American foreign policy. If I had to wager, something I often avoid, I would risk a considerable sum on the claim that sub-saharan Africa —both its land and territorial waters— will be the landscape for “future wars” against organized crime and terrorism, and as a region of concern for lingering conflicts. The fact that the United States will play a leading role in this space whether it wants to, is capable of if, or likely to benefit from it, is incontrovertible.

So for those eager to see “what’s next” before that future arrives, I invite you to join me on the new platform. If you know someone who is interested in this space, might be interested in this topic, and wants to support the type of journalism that fuels many of us to keep working for little pay, I would appreciate your help in sharing the page: http://www.beaconreader.com/adam-mccauley.

If those people need further prodding, send them back here —which I’ll be updating regularly— to pique their interest.

Finally. For those who took the time to read, and who might now take a moment to contribute, I can’t thank you enough. Without you, I simply can’t do this.

Postmortem: Abuse in Tennessee Walking Horse community

Within minutes, Gino and I had pulled out onto the highway, leading the large trailer towards the point of exchange —McNutt Farm in Maryville— as a cruiser from the County Sheriff’s department cruiser pulled off the highway’s grass median to serve as escort. I looked down at my phone, the digital clock reading 6:43, and typed: “I can’t believe the hassle over a couple of horses.”

I nearly missed Gino Bachman’s phone call as I pulled off the highway and into an IHOP parking lot. My cellphone, which I thought I’d stashed somewhere on the passenger seat, was lost amongst a scarf, camera bag, and an escaped notebook. As I searched the interior of the car, everything was cast in the dull blue glow of the IHOP sign.

“Don’t go in the restaurant,” Gino said, as I answered my phone on the last ring. “John just got off the 75 and should be there in 25 minutes. I’ll meet you there in 15.”

“There” was the parking lot of a neighboring Home Depot. After I inched my rental car into one of the many open spaces, I looked at the clock —5:56 am.

A little after 6:12 am, Gino pulled in beside me—the engine of his Chevy Silverado vibrating the Blount County SPCA decals that adorned both the driver and passenger side doors. He nodded a quiet welcome as I climbed into the cabin of the truck.

By 6:20, Gino and I arrived at Weigal gas station just outside of Maryville. There, under garish industrial floodlights, sat a 44-foot long white trailer towed by a heavy-duty black pick-up. Inside, ‘John’ and his assistant, ‘Audrey’, greeted Gino with tired smiles (The couple refused to provide their real names).

Two officers from the Blount County Sheriff's office stand with McNutt Farm owner, William McNutt, in front of the transport truck and trailer on November 8, 2013. Due to concerns over security, the transport vehicle removed its license plates and any identifying markings, and received a police escorted to McNutt Farm. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Two officers from the Blount County Sheriff’s office stand with McNutt Farm owner, William McNutt, in front of the transport truck and trailer on November 8, 2013. Due to concerns over security, the transport vehicle removed its license plates and any identifying markings, and received a police escorted to McNutt Farm. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

Their trailer held the five remaining Tennessee Walking Horses, which had been seized from Larry Wheelon’s barn the previous April. During the first return —of seven horses the previous weekend— John was confronted by some of the horses’ owners at the IHOP in town. This morning, he’d stopped to remove the vehicle’s license plates and identifying stickers — an attempt to preserve the anonymity required to safeguard the animals they often transported for the Human Society of the United States (HSUS).

Within minutes, Gino and I had pulled in lead of the large trailer on the highway, joined moments later by a county sheriff’s department cruiser, which would serve as escort. I looked down at my phone, our small convoy creeping closer to the point of exchange, I noticed the digital clock read 6:43. I then typed: “I can’t believe the hassle over a couple of horses.”


I’d written that sentence before, more than three months earlier, after receiving an email from a good friend, fellow Columbia alumnus and astounding writer, Addie Berard. She asked if I was interested in an animal cruelty investigation. I told her: “It depends,” but mentioned I’d be happy to make the connection and discuss details with her contact.

The story focused on a case brought against a celebrated horse trainer and subsequently dismissed in Maryville, Tennessee. Since then, government officials, lawyers, community supporters, and industry critics have been locked in battle: over culture, law, and how we should treat the animals caught in the middle.

Two weeks later, around midnight, I was looking out a dark, fogged plane window as it taxied into the McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was destined for a small town I’d never visited, in a state I’d never travelled to, in a region I knew little about.


Less than 20 miles from Knoxville, the small town of Maryville lies on the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains, surrounded by vast tracts of pasture and farmland. Here, in a town of 27,000, Tennessee walking horses have a rich history: School teachers provide inexpensive riding lessons on their own farms, show horses take the field during half-time celebrations at high school football games and children often visit Walking Horse stables on class field trips. Visitors don’t have to look hard to find license plates plastered with the rearing silhouette of a horse, the Walking Horse icon, or overhear residents who eagerly divide the town into two types of people: “horse people” and the others. It was here that Larry Wheelon’s case came before a county judge.

The now-vacant barn Larry Wheelon used to train 27 horses, in Maryville, Tennessee. Wheelon was evicted from the premises in June, less than a month after USDA officials seized 19 of the 27 horses after receiving allegations of animal cruelty. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
The now-vacant barn Larry Wheelon used to train 27 horses, in Maryville, Tennessee. Wheelon was evicted from the premises in June, less than a month after USDA officials seized 19 of the 27 horses after receiving allegations of animal cruelty. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

Larry Wheelon is a 68-year-old horse trainer who operated a stable (above) in Maryville. One morning last April, a federal agent, posing undercover, entered the premises looking for evidence that would corroborate a series of tips she’d collected over the previous year. The agent, a 23-year veteran of the service named Julie McMillan, found enough information that morning to file an affidavit with the county judge, gaining approval for a subsequent search of the premise, and then —a week after that— a seizure of 19 horses from the location.

The seizure set off alarms throughout the industry. Wheelon, who has had between eight and 15 previous citations for alleged abuse, was well connected throughout the walking horse community. At the time of the seizure, he was serving as a director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer’s Association and —perhaps most worryingly— on the association’s ethics committee.

But the history of the Tennessee walking horse is suffuse with instances of abuse dealt to the celebrated animals. Specifically, Larry Wheelon was alleged to have “sored” some of the horses under his care —an act in violation of a federal statute. Soring involves the application of chemicals or action devices to the legs and feet of the animal. The chemicals, which are often caustic, are used to burn and sensitize the horses’ legs. A trainer can then use this associated pain to modify the way the horse walks. When trained in this fashion, the walking horses’ smooth gait is morphed into a high-stepping stride, known in the industry as “The Big Lick.”

At competitions this hectic-looking prance is associated with higher scores and, throughout the competition’s history, greater likelihood of victory. For more than 30 years starting in 1939, the incentives for trainers were clear: if you could sore an animal effectively, you could win both money and prestige. According to some, it was always in trainer’s interest to abuse the animals he was charged to care for.

In 1970, regulations in the industry began to change. In a bill, authored by Maryland’s Senator Joseph Tydings, “soring” was classified a federal offense under the Horse Protection Act. The bill empowered the USDA to investigate instances of abuse within the Tennessee walking horse, and other gaited horse, communities throughout the country.

But enforcement was always the challenge for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which lacked the resources to properly investigate all allegations of abuse. In response, the USDA outsourced some of the regulation to individuals denoted as Qualified Designated Persons, or QDPs, that could be hired directly by SHOW organizations to police the entrants at their events. Outsourcing responsibility to these regulators quickly led to conflicts of interest.

These SHOW organizations were private companies contracted by organizers of horse competitions. In an internal USDA audit in 2010, SHOW-sponsored regulators were found to have recorded lower rates of violations when compared to USDA investigators working the same events. The USDA’s internal investigators noted that the “conflicts of interest” between these QDPs and show organizers led to institutionalized willful blindness.

As described to me, the following situation could easily occur: Trainer A brings their horse in for final inspection before taking the field at a competition. Fellow trainer B, who is also horse breeder, is charged with conducting the examination. Trainer B knows that Trainer A has purchased Trainer B’s colts each season, and will likely continue to do so, provided there aren’t any untoward developments over the remaining shows. Perhaps Trainer B notices something strange about the look or feel of one of Trainer A’s horses —perhaps the legs are a little tender. What are the chances Trainer B will void an upcoming sale by reporting the details of this discovery?

These steady drips of corruption slowly wore away the legitimacy of the SHOW system, and led the USDA auditors to recommend the program be suspended. It wasn’t.

Over time, the low rumbling of continuing abuses became louder. But allegations could only get investigators so far. With the number of people involved and the amount of money at stake, there were few witnesses or participants willing to talk publicly about the industry. Unless, of course, they got caught first.

Gino Bachman, right, compare examination notes with fellow SPCA investigator Crystal Wallace (foreground) and SPCA volunteer, Patti Patterson (background), at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. That morning, the SPCA oversaw the return of the final five seized horses, originally seized from Larry Wheelon's stable in April 2013. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Gino Bachman, right, compares examination notes with fellow SPCA investigator Crystal Wallace (foreground) and SPCA volunteer, Patti Patterson (background), at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. That morning, the SPCA oversaw the return of the final five seized horses, originally seized from Larry Wheelon’s stable in April 2013. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

That’s why the stories of Barney Davis and Jackie McConnell were so critical. Davis, who ended up serving jail time for violating the terms of his parole, has since spoken publicly about the practice of “soring” among trainers today. Jackie McConnell, who was secretly videotaped by The Humane Society of the United States abusing his horses in 2012, pled guilty to 22 counts of animal cruelty—and avoiding prison time as a result. Their message: the abuse continues.


When I arrived in Maryville, my goal was to understand the case against Wheelon. Among the many I spoke to, attempted to speak to, cornered at road-side restaurants, or interrupted outside the local court house, most individuals seemed divided: The case against Wheelon was either a conspiracy brought by the USDA, HSUS and the SPCA in order to set a precedent, or it was the just desserts for a man who had made his career abusing animals for personal benefit. There seemed to be no middle ground.

What I learned, however, was how a story can so quickly be lost to the so-called “talking heads” and that the reporter, often, can do little to avoid it. For instance, my strategy in Maryville was to speak with everyone who might have a comment on the case —from the county’s district attorney to the server at the local Huddle House, a road-side diner. What became clear, however, was a fundamental miscommunication between those involved in the case, and the reporter (me).

On one side, Wheelon’s supporters presumed that my presence in Maryville was, in fact, a product of my bias. They believed that I had shown up at the behest of the HSUS and USDA to try and proverbially hang Wheelon before a jury could. I was, to them, an outsider who had already taken sides. For Wheelon’s critics —which included the USDA, HSUS, SPCA and a number of other organizations and individuals— my interest in the case was a mixed blessing: publicity might be valuable in the fight to bring Wheelon to justice, but there was a hesitation about being open and honest with a member of the press. Recognizing that both sides were so polarized —and acting in line with their own interests— my role was defined for me, and not by me.

My attempt to offset the imbalance often bore little fruit: calls, messages, notes, and impromptu arrivals among Wheelon supporters were not often welcome. Most of my attempts at contact were rebuffed, or met with “no comment” —and in some cases a clear charge that I was in some way “working for the enemy.” It was that charge that angered me most.

And throughout the reporting process, I was —with few alternatives— forced to rely on many sources who had a clear interest in seeing Wheelon found guilty. I recognized the challenges for both parties battling in the press, but the experience only affirmed my belief in the strength of openness and disclosure: a reporter can provide a clearer evocation of a situation only if both parties are willing to share what they know, how they know it, and why others (outsiders who might read such an article) should come to understand it.

For that reason, if the article for Al Jazeera America seems weighted in favor of the prosecution, of the critics of Wheelon and what he allegedly represents (i.e. abuse towards horses in the industry), it is due to the countless unanswered questions I asked of others.


In the trips I made to Tennessee, I consulted the court record, interviewed a wide range of sources, and tried to corroborate testimony from sources I knew had lied to me in the past. I worked to tease out the small details —whether the gate to Wheelon’s barn was open or latched the day Julie McMillan, posing undercover, entered— from the more polarized testimonies of “He’s a guilty man” or “They’ve got the wrong man.” These comments were offered in knee-jerk fashion by most people I spoke with.

I even tracked down Wheelon personally, asking for his own thoughts or feelings on the conduct and practice of the USDA. The response: I don’t want to be quoted. I don’t want to talk. But I’m being persecuted by over-reaching federal organizations.

Shades of Cash, one of the 19 horses seized from Larry Wheelon's stables last spring, looks out of the only window in his pen at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013.  (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Shades of Cash, one of the 19 horses seized from Larry Wheelon’s stables last spring, looks out of the only window in his pen at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

What I failed to include in the article, and this is largely the result of editorial taste and space, were the challenges in cooperation between members of the prosecution. Wheelon’s case was originally handled by Assistant D.A. Ellen Berez and, since the dismissal in August, is now being handled by another assistant —a young and, according to some, more “aggressive” lawyer.

My reporting also unearthed differences in opinion, and outright tension, between the USDA special investigator Julie McMillan and D.A. Berez. Some of these issues seemed to typify the challenges between federal and local authorities: territory, leadership, latitude and the willingness to take risks are all a function of an individual’s position. These two women appeared to have different theories as to how this case should have been handled.

In fairness, some of the blame for continued confusion or unrest in the case, also lies with the USDA. Their policy, to abstain from commenting on in-progress cases, was a liability for anyone trying to carefully account for the charges against Wheelon. Because the initial hearing had been dismissed, it was —in theory— a closed case, and some of the vague claims and allegations required evidence that the USDA was simply unwilling to provide.

Without disclosing some of the most basic facts, the USDA missed an opportunity to disarm critics who used this absence of information as signs of a conspiracy. Amid silence, it was possible to suggest the USDA was out on a witch-hunt, that they were creating evidence instead of compiling it, and that their case had no merit.

Personally, it was only in the last three days before publication that I, having finally gained access to details omitted from the public record, felt comfortable committing my accounting of the events to the page.


On November 7, at the Hooters restaurant in Maryville, I met with a source who, for their own safety and interest, I will not name. We spoke at length about a wide range of subjects —life, work, and, in so far as we could, the Wheelon case.

This individual asked me about my own job: what it was like to arrive at a place as a relative stranger, trying to piece together puzzles like this. I told him, quite confidently, that reporters in the field (wherever that field may be) have to rely on the edifying role of truth (or the sum of all people’s version of truth, perhaps) to make headway on the most complex issues.

I told them that the persistent lie is one of the most stubborn things to control —that the decision to remain party to a fallacious account is what usually undoes a source or a subject.

As the conversation continued, this individual shared seemingly new information —information that surprised me in its freshness. In the moment, I felt something akin to joy, having turned the latest page in a book of untold length.

But after leaving the restaurant that evening, I sat in my car with the heat cranked, trying hard to stay warm in the bitter fall evening. The more I thought about it, the less sure I was about the latest round of admissions. I wrote a few notes, adding additional question marks, and then headed back to my hotel. I was struggling with what might be the reporter’s true responsibility: to find consistency amid myriad allegations; to find some acceptable “truth” in the maelstrom of suggestion. (*I did not include this information in the final piece.)


For those who read the piece, and more importantly the comments, it is obvious that a single feature story (even at 2,500 words) cannot capture the extent of an issue.

You’ll also notice that, in Wheelon’s case, no verdict —judicial, that is— has been cast. For the few who took issue with some particulars of the piece, I appreciate your interest, attention and candor. For the Tennessee Walking Horse trainers who have eschewed the practice of soring, who have decided to raise their animals with the respect and care outlined by the statues of this country and by the moral compass of any responsible animal owner, I apologize for lumping you in with anyone alleged to be practicing otherwise. But for the vast majority of readers —either casual or committed— I do beg patience.

Today, Congress will hear arguments on the Whitfield Amendment (noted in the piece) in Washington, D.C. For the first time in more than 40 years, individuals on both sides of the aisle will take the stand to describe, in detail, their stance on stricter regulation within the industry. I feel confident stating that petty banter has stood in for reasoned debate for too long, and I can only hope that this hearing provides a venue for sound arguments based on facts —and facts alone.

For a writer who knew little about this world before taking it on last August, I have learned much from my experiences in Tennessee and even more from those who stand against the mistreatment of animals. Regardless of one’s view on the Wheelon case, however, we should be able to agree on one thing: We owe it to those 19 horses to figure out what really happened in Maryville.

Coach Colt looks out the window of his pen at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. TKNAME was originally seized when USDA and SPCA officials executed a search and seizure warrant on Larry Wheelon's stable this April. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Coach Colt looks out the window of his pen at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. Coach Colt was originally seized when USDA and SPCA officials executed a search and seizure warrant on Larry Wheelon’s stable this April. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

Abusing animals for blue ribbons? My first dispatch on the Tennessee Walking Horse Community

For the last three months, I’ve been looking at allegations of abuse in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. In August, a case brought against celebrated horse trainer, Larry Wheelon, was dismissed in county court in Maryville, Tennessee. Since then, government officials, lawyers, community supporters, and industry critics have been locked in battle: over culture, law, and how we should treat the animals caught in the middle.

Above: Shades of Cash, one of the 19 horses seized from Larry Wheelon’s stables last spring, stands in a pen at McNutt Farm after being returned on November 8, 2013. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

My first dispatch for Al Jazeera America, while lacking a wealth of material compiled still locked in my notebooks, was published this morning.