You don’t find the Dark Knight of Florida’s animal- slaughter underworld. You put out a signal, and he finds you.
Last March, I flew to West Palm Beach, drove a rental car inland, and settled into a room at a chain hotel that Richard Couto had chosen for me. Then he texted me an address. The drive to his secret compound took me past orange groves, belching tractors, and homemade Trump billboards. Down a dirt road flanked by tall Australian pines, I reached a series of remote- control gates guarded by closed-circuit TV cameras and screaming eagle busts. A final fence slid open to reveal a sprawling 100-acre sanctuary. Cows, horses, and pigs grazed, rescued by Couto and his team from slaughter. I pulled up to the command center, open-air on one side, with white leather couches, standing desks, and Spanish tile. It was the Bat Cave, with a Sunshine State twist.
Couto is 50 years old, bald and powerfully built, with a white goatee. He wore tactical gear and carried a concealed handgun. Decade-old YouTube videos suggest that his voice had dropped an octave to the Christian Bale-ish growl with which he barked orders from his swivel chair. A massive black Ford F-350, with tinted windows and a dash camera, sat in the driveway. An outbuilding held a cache of pistols, tactical shotguns, and a 50- caliber rifle. In an evidence freezer a few feet away were slabs of illicit equine flesh, purchased undercover during a recent operation in Couto’s longtime quest to take down America’s illegal horse meat market.
Horse meat is slightly sweeter than beef and rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. In many parts of the world, it’s celebrated as a delicacy. You can eat horse tartare in Montreal, horse salami in Italy, and horse sashimi in Japan. But in the U.S., its consumption has been essentially banned since 2007, when Congress stopped funding plant inspections. For the curious American, sampling equine flesh usually means a plane trip.
But there is one place, closer to home, where the adventurous can find equine steak. In South Florida ( really, where else?), only 20 minutes from South Beach, festers a hotbed of open-air abattoirs. Butchers make good money: Horse meat can start at $7 a pound from a tired nag and increase to five times that from a racehorse, whose flesh some believe can cure impotence. They may source their meat from Craigslist, buying horses for a few hundred dollars or by falsely promising to give rescues a good home. When all else fails, the horse butchers become horse thieves.
“Who’s killing horses in Central Florida?” the Tampa Bay Times asked last February, as a yearslong wave of horse thefts reached the middle of the state. Most horse owners file police reports and wait in the futile hope that justice will be served. Those who long for a more muscular response might turn to Couto, whose zeal for super secret undercover operations is matched only by his love of publicity. It’s a tension pointed out by several prosecutors who have tried to work with him only to be burned by what they cast as a cavalier attitude toward evidentiary rules and trespassing laws. It’s also made him a target for the butchers and thieves whose livelihoods he attacks. “The horse killers feel invincible,” said Couto, whose baseline facial expression is that of a road-raging I-95 driver reaching for his tire iron. “And it’s true.”
When I met Couto that first time, he and four investigators—animal lovers who included an ex-cop and an erstwhile fruit picker—had been conducting an undercover operation at a notorious illegal slaughterhouse for 18 months, recording video evidence and making controlled meat buys. They’d documented everything they could. Now he needed the police to listen.
Over a decade ago, Couto was living in South Beach, earning good money flipping houses, utterly bored. He’d grown up in Newport, R.I., in a family of poloand-khaki Republicans who saw “success as dollar signs, and that’s it.” Couto was different from a young age. He came home with frogs and mice in his pockets, and he graduated from a school for students with learning differences. He worked as a model in New York City, bombed out of several corporate jobs, and trained with an America’s Cup team in San Diego.
In 2004, he moved to Miami, where he surfed, sailed, and finally won his father’s approval. The housing market was booming, and Couto began flipping houses.
He moved into a home on North Bay Road. Hulk Hogan and Shakira were his neighbors. Life was good, but Couto felt empty. A friend hit him up for a donation to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and he visited the charity’s ranch outside Miami. His childhood love of animals was rekindled. Soon he was mucking horse stalls on weekend mornings.
In 2008, Couto was at the ranch when Laurie Waggoner, director of rescue operations for the South Florida SPCA, got a call from the police. They needed her help a few miles away, in the C-9 Basin, a rugged ecological buffer zone between the Everglades and the strip malls and condo developments of Miami-Dade County. (The C stands for “canal.”) “Wanna ride with me and see what we actually do?” she asked. When they arrived, they found an illegal slaughterhouse. One of the hundreds of live animals at the site, a brown horse with a big white stripe running up its face, was tied to a tree. He was emaciated, with a broken leg and a skin infection known as rain rot. Couto decided to adopt him. Not long after, he found an ID number tattooed on the animal’s upper lip, indicating it was a thoroughbred. He called the Jockey Club, a breed registry in Kentucky, and asked them to check the tattoo against its records. “It came back positive,” an employee told him. “But there’s gotta be a mistake.”
The bedraggled horse, it turned out, was Freedom’s Flight, descended from two famous grandpas: Secretariat and Seattle Slew. Three months earlier, Couto learned, Freedom’s Flight had broken his leg coming out of the gate at Gulfstream Park racetrack. He somehow still finished third, but his career was over. He was passed around to different owners, gave pony rides in downtown Miami, and was finally sold for $50 to the proprietor of the farm in the C-9 Basin. Couto had wandered into a fraught, and lucrative, underworld.
Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have been squabbling over whether horse meat is fit for consumption. Paintings dating back 30,000 years in France’s Chauvet Cave show men hunting horses. The Book of Leviticus later banned horse meat for Jews, and in 732, Pope Gregory followed suit for Christians, calling it an “impure and detestable” pagan meat.
During the French Revolution in the late 18th century, however, aristocrats’ horses were slaughtered to feed the starving masses, and a culinary trend began. Americans remained aloof for some time, exalting horses for their role in the nation’s early history, from Paul Revere to the Pony Express. As the financial value of horses declined and Europeans celebrated the meat, though, it entered the American food chain in fits and starts until, at the turn of the 20th century, horse was de rigueur. In 1905 the Harvard Faculty Club introduced horse steak to its menu. The Depression spread the popularity of horse meat, and it gained new fans when beef prices soared after World War II. In 1952 the Office of Price Stabilization introduced price controls on what had become a $100 million horse meat industry.
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