Horses and other animals are being brutally slaughtered in Hillsborough County, according to a long-time investigator known for uncovering similar operations in south Florida.
Animal Recovery Mission investigator and activist Richard Couto says it's happening right under our noses, in a semi-rural area behind tidy subdivisions in the Citrus Park area.
Couto says the meat is sold on the black market, and he has documented on video the disturbing remains left behind.
Couto, who calls himself "Kudo," made a name for himself in south Florida, investigating the ongoing problem of horses being stolen and butchered for their meat.
"Kudo" says he' still working with the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office to shut down illegal slaughter farms in what's known as the C-9 Basin area.
But now he says the problem of illegal horse slaughter and inhumane slaughter of all kinds of other animals is just as bad, or perhaps even worse, right here in Tampa Bay.
Acting on some tips, he first traveled to our area this time last June. He says he was shocked by what he found.
"Hillsborough County has a serious, serious problem with illegal horse meat being sold in your county. The amount of horses being killed on this one farm in Hillsborough County is epic. They're possibly slaughtering 15 to 20 horses a week," Kudo said.
Kudo says he has the video to prove it, and much of the video is graphic and disturbing:
Kudo is heard describing on video what he calls a common way of getting rid of what the killers don't use:
"This is the hog area. The horse carcasses are thrown in the hog area for the hogs to eat...horse skulls everywhere...."
Kudo says he infiltrated six farms in the Citrus Park area, posing as a customer, and making six horsemeat buys over the past year. On some of the excursions, he was accompanied by an undercover USDA inspector.
Kudo says his first buy happened the day after he first set foot on one of the farms; subsequent purchases took months to gain the trust of the person doing the selling.
"ARM enters these illegal slaughterhouses during the day, at night, as customers. It's extremely dangerous and we have no backup," Kudo said.
He also says it's not just horses being slaughtered. He describes the butchering of a goat just a few weeks ago as one of the most violent he's ever witnessed.
"The pigs, the sheep, the goats, the horses, the cattle. All of these animals are being extremely inhumanely killed. They're being shot. They're being stabbed to death. They're being gutted alive. They're being beaten with bats. They're being boiled alive and they're being drowned. They're not being killed prior to being disassembled," he said.
Florida has a law forbidding the sale of horse meat for human consumption. It was passed by the 2010 legislature, introduced by then-State Senator Victor Crist, who says he was disturbed that horses were being stolen and butchered in south Florida.
"I don't understand how anyone human could fathom doing such a thing," Crist said.
Now Crist is a Hillsborough County Commissioner whose district includes Citrus Park.
"If it's happening here, I would want to know about it and I would move aggressively to deal with it," Crist said.
So we showed Commissioner Crist a small portion of the video shot by Kudo -- video that showed a pig being butchered.
"He just cut that hog's throat...alive," Crist said as he watched what was taking place. "No living thing deserves to be treated like that, whether there is legal consumption or not, that is inhumane practices," he said.
"You would be concerned about this going on in your district?" we asked.
"I would be concerned about this going on anywhere in our country," Crist said.
Commissioner Crist also said he saw what appear to be numerous violations on the video, and that he's prepared to act.
"You've got federal issues, state issues, county issues, health issues, law enforcement issues. If this is within Hillsborough County, there is a battery of issues here."
A spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said they are investigating, with one case pending review by the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also confirmed they have an ongoing investigation by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Even so, Kudo says he is frustrated.
"I will not leave this county until every farm I'm made aware of is shut down for good, and forever," he said.
To find out more about Richard Couto and Animal Recovery Mission:
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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