For years now, Kentucky has worried about its public image — enough so that government officials have reached into the treasury time and again to finance positive "branding" campaigns.
There was one built upon the slogan, "Open for Business." Another was "It's that Friendly." The latest effort is based on the slogan, "Unbridled Spirit."
I have a few words of advice for the civic fathers and mothers: Image is built of more than sloganeering.
Millions of animal-friendly Americans don't care what Kentucky calls itself. They care about a culture of animal mistreatment that has taken root in the Bluegrass State, where both cockfighting and horse soring seem to be flourishing.
Folks, slogans are for sale. But a lasting image can't be bought.
Kentucky's leaders should be righting these wrongs and sparing taxpayers more wasted money.
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. households include a pet. By now, most people know — or should know — that the bond between human and animals reaches very deep into our hearts. I tell you this with certainty: Good Americans have no tolerance for wanton animal cruelty, involving pets or otherwise.
Yet, Kentucky has allowed itself to be tarnished with a reputation of being soft on criminal cockfighting rings.
Recently, a handful of cockfighters threatened to organize against U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's 2014 re-election bid because he voted in January for the farm bill, which included a provision to make it a federal crime to attend or bring a child to an animal-fighting spectacle.
That's right, Kentucky's cockfighters regard themselves not as criminals, which is what they actually are, but as an everyday political interest group.
They're staging cockfights with impunity, thanks to weak state law and poor enforcement. Now they're trying to apply political pressure to defend themselves against tightening federal law.
My head spins at their gall. When messages like that travel across the nation, they stick in ways that PR slogans don't.
Unfortunately, this is not an exception. The horse-soring crowd has been playing power politics for decades in defense of the indefensible. And they're at it again.
These are the horse owners, trainers, sponsors and spectators who conspire to reward horses for their exaggerated "Big Lick" gait — achieved by applying unbearable chemical or physical torment to the feet and ankles of horses, leaving them to walk in pain.
Horse-show ribbons, trophies and civic accolades are bestowed on winners. To triumph in one of these contests is considered an achievement in Kentucky, whereas millions of other Americans understand that no trophy cups should ever be awarded for animal mistreatment.
Laws have forbidden "soring" for 40 years, but the industry has nonetheless survived behind a curtain of public acceptance in Kentucky and a failed pledge to self-police.
So, what do you think the slogan "unbridled spirit" means to a horse whose legs have been soaked in blistering agents, whose hooves have been mutilated, so that with each step the animal jerks its legs as high as if walking on molten lava?
Now this corrupt industry, just like the cockfighters, is using its political standing to try to protect itself, lobbying to block a vote for pending federal legislation, House Resolution 1518 and Senate 1406, the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act.
Among other reforms, the bills would eliminate the failed policy of self-policing in the industry.
Prominent voices supporting the PAST Act include Bill Harlin, a man The Tennessean describes as "synonymous with Tennessee Walking Horses," and the owner of Harlinsdale Farm where some of the most famous grand champions in the breed originated. "Self-regulation," he said in recent comments to the press, "will never work."
The American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Horse Council, and more than 100 other major equine and veterinary groups have joined The Humane Society of the United States in demanding passage of this legislation, which was introduced by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky.
Kentucky's political, business, religious and tourism leaders should, at last, rally and do the same, renouncing animal abusers and animal abuse. Cockfighters and the Big Lick clan only tarnish the state's image, and more so every year.