A bizarre and gruesome debate stirs in South Florida.
Why are slaughtered horses turning up all over the place? And if it's for their meat, as some believe, who's doing the eating?
The South Florida SPCA believes the same people have killed at least a dozen horses, stripping them of their flesh and selling it on the black market for up to $20 a pound.
Miami-Dade police say only a couple of horses have been butchered in opposite ends of the county. The incidents appear unrelated, they say, and no one can prove the horses were killed for meat.
But in nearby Miramar, just outside Miami-Dade, two pet horses were killed in May, worrying authorities that the killings were spreading.
"That's what it appeared to be, is a killing for meat," Miramar police spokeswoman Tania Reus said. "When you come across a carcass and see a head and very little else, it's pretty clear."
The theories on what's going on with horses in South Florida vary widely. Too many clues and tips have led nowhere.
Plus, it's a confusing crime for Americans to understand. Eating a horse just seems weird.
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South Florida news media were quick to pick up on the story of Geronimo, a quarter horse stolen from its pasture and later found tied to a palm tree and slaughtered in March.
Then the two Miramar horses were found slaughtered at their ranch in May. Then, on June 19, another in Miami-Dade was found tied to a tree and dismembered.
Soon, news reports began referring to the killings as a disturbing trend, carried out by amateur butchers.
A Miami-Dade spokesman called it "creative journalism."
"What we do know is that these are two events that appear to be isolated," police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta said. "It's nothing like the spree of horse mutilation that people make it out to be."
Richard Couto, a spokesman for the South Florida SPCA, thinks police are embarrassed they haven't made any arrests.
"They're lying to you, period," he said. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out that it's the same group of people doing this."
Horses are turning up with the same body parts removed, the same pieces of plastic on the ground, presumably left behind from whatever containers they used for the parts, Couto said. And police aren't even counting the horse carcasses that have been discovered but were not reported as crimes by owners, Couto said. Instead they're classified as illegal dumping.
"My guesstimation is there are 50 horses going down each week," Couto said. "Many people close to the SPCA have been approached by guys with coolers, offering horse meat."
When asked whether more than two slaughtered horses have been found in Miami-Dade, Zabaleta said, "Well, it depends on how far back you go." Maybe there have been a dozen if you go back a year, he said. He forwarded the question to a police captain handling the case, but attempts by the St. Petersburg Times to get an answer were unsuccessful.
Couto said the animals are obviously being killed and sold as meat, and selling or eating horse meat is illegal.
He's only half right. But it's easy to see why he's confused.
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Very rarely does horse meat turn up on an American menu, even though it's considered to be sweeter, less fatty and higher in protein than beef. To some, it tastes beefier than beef. It's popular in France and Japan.
At the Meatman, a St. Petersburg shop that sells gourmet and exotic meats, an occasional European customer will come in and ask for horse. The shop doesn't stock it but is happy to order the USDA-approved meat from a reputable foreign supplier.
"It's just as legal as goat," co-owner Frank Craft said. "It's supposed to be a tasty meat."
Told about horse meat sales at the St. Petersburg shop, the SPCA's Couto said, "He's looking at jail time."
When the Florida Department of Agriculture's food safety division was contacted, a woman answering the phone wasn't sure whether selling horse meat was legal. She forwarded the call to another woman, who checked with her supervisor. She came back and confirmed yes, selling horse meat for human consumption was illegal.
But when asked to cite the Florida statute, she forwarded the call to someone else, who read Chapter 500.541, which states that it's unlawful to sell horse meat unless it's stamped and marked as horse meat.
Which means selling or eating certified horse meat is okay in Florida, and thus okay for shops to sell, like at the Meatman.
But that wouldn't apply to any meat that may or may not be coming from the slaughtered horses in Florida.
The Animal Welfare Institute, which is based in Washington, has assisted with black market horse meat investigations and doubts such a practice would be very profitable.
"If someone's willing to spend $20 per pound for horse meat, it's not going to be from someone handing it out of his trunk," said Chris Heyde, deputy director for the institute.
There are no legal horse slaughterhouses in this country. The last one was closed in Illinois two years ago, but they still operate in Canada and Mexico. Some states, such as California and Illinois, have banned the sale and consumption of horse meat completely.
The Animal Welfare Institute, which does not oppose the consumption of meat but is a watchdog for safe and humane treatment of animals, helped persuade U.S. lawmakers to close the horse slaughterhouses because too many practiced cruel and unsanitary methods, Heyde said.
Still, certified and stamped horse meat is a lot better than street horse meat, he said.
Heyde assisted a 2004 investigation in which a guy in Philadelphia was buying sick or old horses at auction, killing them and selling the meat as cheap beef.
Is it possible this is happening in South Florida?
Yeah, it's possible, Heyde said. But why would anyone do that when there are so many cows around?
Miramar police Detective Yessenia Diaz, who is investigating the May slaughter, has heard that some Latin cultures believe horse meat has healing properties for people with low blood count or anemia.
But until she or the Miami-Dade police are able to catch whoever is responsible, she realizes that's just one of many ideas out there.
When you're trying to wrap your head around such a crime, she said, any and every motive seems plausible.
Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8452.