The October slaughter of Debbie Stephen’s Grand Prix show jumping horse Phedras de Blondel shed a national spotlight on Florida’s dirty secret: the lucrative business of black market horse meat.

Crimes once limited to illegal slaughterhouses have now expanded to private stables. Horses are being stolen from backyards and slaughtered by the roadside, others being filleted in their own pastures. There are estimates that around 30,000 horses are killed each year in the state, their meat catching between $4 and $40 per pound.

Richard “Kudo” Couto has taken it upon himself to be defender of these animals, liberating many from a horrific end. He’s the founder of the Animal Recovery Mission, known as ARM, a non-profit “dedicated to eliminating severe animal cruelty operations worldwide.” ARM’s mission “is to be an uncompromising defending force for the welfare of animals in addition to putting an end to and preventing pain, suffering and torture inflicted as a result of inhumane practices.”

Given his dedication to the cause, it may come as a surprise that Couto never saw himself working as an animal defender. Growing up in Rhode Island he had dogs, cats, and horses, frequently taking rides on the beach in the evening, developing a close to bond to the animals. “Growing up as a child I gained a lot of not just love for animals but respect, actually more than people. That was instilled in me by my family and my mother,” say Couto.

Couto began his career working in Boston’s business world before he moved west and took up sailing, at one point training for the America’s Cup. Motocross was also a passion for the thrill seeker, but a broken neck and ensuing brain surgery prompted Couto to leave the sport.

A move to Miami would eventually prove fateful for Florida’s horses. Couto worked as a real-estate developer, making a hefty profit. “I was living the life every single guy would want to live in Miami. But once I had the money and cars and house, the things people strive and work for in life, it began weighing hard on my conscience to do something more with my life, to live more of an ethical lifestyle. I didn’t know what that was but always had it in the back of my mind,” said Couto.

In an effort to give back, Couto began donating money to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Florida. Curious where his money was going, Couto visited the SPCA and was immediately “reeled back in” to the horse world. He began doing more hands-on volunteer work, cleaning stalls and helping around the property.

During one of his visits to SPCA, a report came in about an abused horse on a slaughter farm, so Couto rode along with the investigator. “We got to a very rural part of Miami, near the everglades, where there was a farm with thousands of animals in a really decrepit situation,” says Couto of the farm. “I asked the cop I was with what the place was, it was so awful. She said it was a slaughter farm. I asked if that was even legal and she said no. So I kind of laughed and said ‘okay, we’re closing it down today, right?’ She shrugged her shoulders and said ‘we don’t do that kind of work.’ When I asked who does she laughed, shrugged her shoulders, and walked away.”

Though the farm wasn’t shut down that day, a chestnut thoroughbred that’d been tied to a palm tree awaiting slaughter was rescued. Upon researching his lip tattoo, an identification given to all racehorses, Couto was shocked to learn the sickly looking horse was Freedom’s Flight, a descendant of Secretariat and had once been a racehorse worth a small fortune. “That didn’t matter to me, a horse is a horse, an animal is an animal, but it raised my eyebrows that a horse worth so much could end up at an illegal slaughterhouse. An underground, uninspected operation ten minutes from downtown Miami,” said Couto.

Freedom’s Flight

Couto discovered there was an epidemic of illegal slaughter taking place that had grown into a multi-million dollar industry. The farm where Freedom’s Flight was discovered was one of 800 known illegal slaughterhouses and had been in operation for over 40 years.

Outraged by the situation, Couto became a board member of the SPCA. Investigations were launched that began drawing the interest of Floridians, enraging citizens and damaging the tourism industry. “Once the issue hit the news it quickly became the number one news story in Florida. People really wrapped their arms around it,” said Couto. As the media coverage expanded and investigations deepened, slaughter farm owners started hitting the SPCA volunteers with death threats, even threatening the lives of their animals. But that wasn’t the only hurdle, said Couto, “Politicians started getting involved because it was starting to hit the tourism industry hard. They threatened to stop the SPCA funding.” The physical and financial threats became too much for the SPCA to handle and Couto was forced to stop the investigations.

Not one to accept defeat, Couto founded the Animal Recovery Mission as a means to crack down on the illegal slaughter of horses. “I never created ARM because I wanted to. I created ARM at a later date because I had to. It had consumed my life and there was no turning back. Making a dollar had little meaning to me anymore, I just wanted to do something special for the animals,” Couto said of his decision to launch ARM.

ARM has grown into three divisions: ARM Investigations, ARM Conservation, and ARM Sanctuaries. Though the organization has expanded dramatically there are just 5 full-time employees and 10 part-time employees. “We just work our assess off,” says Couto of his staff’s dedication, “we pride ourselves on getting as bloody and muddy as we can because that’s where the crimes are being committed.”

Couto has at times come under fire for his choice of hires. Unlike many animal welfare groups he doesn’t require his recruits to be vegan or vegetarian. “I get their way of thinking but I don’t hire for that. I hire an investigator to get footage and bring us the worst possible crimes on tape in the animal world so we can bring them to law enforcement,” says Couto.

Many of Couto’s investigators are ex-military that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Even guys out of Iraq and Afghanistan need special polishing for animal cruelty. They’re very well supplied with information, training, and the latest, most up-to date equipment that I can possibly offer them,” says Couto of his investigators. “When you get hired at a legal slaughterhouse if your camera is seen or ID blown you may get a black eye or a lawsuit. If you get caught in our operations you’ll have a gun or machete pulled out and you’ll be killed. Period,” says Couto of the high-risk operations. “A few weeks ago we had guns put to our heads and were searched for wires. If we had cheap cameras we’d be done with.”

Couto (left) during a raid

Couto’s investigators have obtained footage of animals being boiled alive, some with meat hooks driven into their legs as they’re hung upside down and skinned alive. Other footage shows animals dying slowly over 20 minutes, leaking blood where dull blades have been plunged into them. It’d be tough work for anyone to handle, but Couto’s investigators are there to do a job. “Different investigators handle it differently. It’s almost like being in a warzone and having to capture atrocities on film. You’re concentrating on getting the right shot. You’re thinking: is my cover being blown? Should I be using my backup camera? At the time you’re not in reality, you’re thinking about things other than the animal,” says Couto.

Animal cruelty that results in death is the only felony to animals in Florida, so it’s vital that investigators film till the animal’s dying breath of animal to collect sufficient evidence for prosecution.

“The hardest thing for our workers to do is go into the editing room and review the footage. The have to get screen shots and slow motion of these horrific crimes. The animal screams are important to the jury and final breaths are important, so the editing is the hardest part,” states Couto.

Such high-risk work and top-shelf technology require significant resources. Couto initially funded ARM himself, but the non-profit now relies on the support of donations. Whole Foods, the Houston Rockets, and Bob Barker are all major supporters of the non-profit, along with smaller donors who support the organization’s efforts.

Since it’s founding, ARM has closed over 135 illegal slaughterhouses in the United States and conducted animal rights investigations in India, Nepal, Mexico, and Vietnam. Couto has come under fire for conducting operations internationally, his detractors claiming he should focus all his resources in the United States. “80% of our time and resources are spent on cases in the U.S. But animals suffer in Nepal or Vietnam just as they do in the U.S., so if we can help there then we will. Borders mean nothing to us,” says Couto.

ARM made headlines back in October when, along with the Palm Beach County sheriff’s department, they raided three illegal slaughterhouses in the county. “That was our first operation there and I was surprised at the amount of enforcement that we got. There were SWAT teams, a bomb squad, special weapons units, and 150 uniformed officers. It was monstrous,” said Couto of the raids.

Couto on site at the Garcia raid

Over 750 animals were seized and 8 individuals arrested. 300 of the animals now reside at ARM’s new sanctuary, others taken in by Animal Control of Palm Beach, an organization that Couto says, “is an amazing division with a beautiful farm and great set-up.”

Unfortunately, not all sanctuaries are able to handle a high volume of animals on a last minute basis. This prompted Cuoto to create the ARM sanctuary. For the safety of the animals, the sanctuary’s location is undisclosed; but the property is up and running with 2 vets and 4 vet techs working around the clock to care for the animals rescued in Palm Beach, ensuring the rescued animals are rehabilitated and given a proper home.

Despite 5 months of undercover work and, according to Couto, “evidence handed to prosecutors on a silver platter,” the accused have accepted comparatively light plea deals and have been released on bail. Palm Beach County prosecutor Judy Arco defended the deals by stating there was insufficient evidence of horse slaughter. Couto countered by making public a document from Elisa Technologies that tested and verified that meat found on the Rancho Garcia property was in fact horse meat. Couto also claims there is video evidence of horses being slaughtered on these properties but the State’s Attorney remains silent on the issue.

In 2010 Governor Charlie Christ signed into law “The Good Horse Slaughter Act”, a bill largely prompted by the work of ARM and Luis Garcia. The bill “prohibits the mutilation or killing of any horse, and forbids the transport, distribution, sale, and purchase of horsemeat for human consumption. Violators face felony mandatory minimum penalties of $3,500 in fines and one year in prison, and maximum penalties of five years in prison and $5,000 in fines for each offense.”

It’s the strongest animal cruelty law in the history of the United States, but prosecutors must first choose to file the requisite charges.

As for the gruesome killing of Phedras de Blondel, no arrests of have been made. Couto, who has consulted on the case, cannot disclose much as the case is ongoing, but stresses the difficulty of catching perpetrators of these crimes. “You need to find the meat in their house or find them in possession of a bloody instrument. It’s very hard to catch them breaking into barns at night and it’s a big concern of mine,” says Couto.

Article by Ashley Fairfield-Remeza