Police and animal lovers had the same reaction when they learned a 3-year-old horse named Snow Girl was brutally butchered for its meat in Thonotosassa.
Who would do such a thing?
In the wake of the Jan. 5 killing, Hillsborough County Sheriff's investigators have sifted through dozens of community tips with little progress.
But the most crucial piece of evidence in the investigation may have been the brutality of the act itself.
Snow Girl, who was found dead in a pasture on Williams Road, was carved apart as if in a slaughterhouse. For more than half an hour, authorities say, she was bled to death _ an abundance of blood makes meat spoil faster _ and shaved so the killer could have a clear path to the choicest cuts of meat on her hindquarters.
Authorities believe the horse, a family pet owned by Randell McDaniel, was slaughtered for human consumption, an assumption that quickly became the focus of the search for Snow Girl's killer.
"It wasn't someone who doesn't have an understanding of the anatomy or who hasn't done this in the past," said Hillsborough sheriff's agricultural crimes Sgt. Mark Yost. "They knew what they were doing."
Horse meat is edible, rich in protein and texturally leaner than beef. Officially, it's legal in Florida and across much of the nation, provided it's truthfully labeled.
Finding that meat in a butcher store display, however, is another matter. Nationally, only two horse slaughterhouses are in operation today, and both are in Texas.
And none of the meat from those slaughterhouses _ Beltex Corp in Fort Worth and Dallas Crown Inc. in Kaufman _ is likely to end up on your dinner plate.
"Horse meat is not sold for human consumption anywhere in the United States," said Beltex attorney John Linebarger. "There is no market."
All things considered, American consumers are far more likely to see horse meat on Fear Factor than on a restaurant menu. Consuming horse meat is next to unthinkable in the United States, given the horse's near-mythological status in American folklore and Old West romanticism.
But elsewhere around the world, horse meat is considered a delicacy. Kazy, or horse sausage, is eaten in parts of eastern Europe and Russia. In France, Belgium and parts of Quebec, cheval is a popular alternative to beef. And some premier Japanese sushi houses offer a dish made of raw, thinly sliced horseflesh known as basashi.
Many international gourmands would blanch at the American notion that horses should not be eaten, said James Tucker, a manager with onetime horse slaughterer Caval International Inc. in Dekalb, Ill.
"They would probably see it as almost unconscionable that (Americans) would waste that protein," said Tucker, whose slaughterhouse burned to the ground in 2002 but plans to reopen this spring. "You're throwing away hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat. If food was a problem here, I think we'd have a much different issue."
When it comes to human consumption, Caval, Beltex and Dallas Crown sell only to foreign distributors. But the companies do sell to packing houses that specialize in animal meat and ship to zoos.
Many large cats eat horse, and it's possible that someone searching for horse meat in the Tampa Bay area may be doing so for a tiger, leopard or other exotic feline.
Busch Gardens feeds some of its carnivores USDA-approved horse meat from an animal food distributor in Texas. Lowery Park Zoo's animals don't eat horse meat at all.
Basically, said state department of agriculture spokesman Terence McElroy, unless you're willing to slaughter your own horse, you're not likely to find horse meat anywhere in Florida.
"I can't say we've never seen it, but it's not at all common," he said. "It'd have to be slaughtered and inspected at a USDA plant, and it would have to be stamped "USDA inspected.' "
McDaniel, Snow Girl's owner, said he'd never consider butchering his own horse.
"I've heard of cows and hogs, if people will go out and kill a cow or hog," he said. "But a horse? I've never heard of this before in my life."
The only active companies licensed to slaughter horses are Beltex and Dallas Crown, and neither they nor Caval have ever shipped meat to Florida.
Of the 250 to 300 pounds of meat taken from Snow Girl, as few as 70 might be considered fit for sale, said Hillsborough agricultural crimes detective Bruce Harrell. Harrell said the killer may have frozen chunks of the meat, selling it over a period of several months or years.
Should that meat surface locally, investigators said it probably wouldn't be in a butcher shop window.
As a general rule, Tampa Bay-area butcher shops choose not to sell horse meat. Many wouldn't even know where to direct a consumer looking for basashi.
"I would never carry it in the case," said Steve Godfrey, owner of Apollo Meats in Apollo Beach. "It's savage."
Harrell said that while he knows of no underground exotic meat markets in the Tampa Bay area, word of the horse meat's availability may have spread quickly among potential buyers.
Local authorities say they've never been faced with a case of animal cruelty as extreme as Snow Girl's. On rare instances, they've responded to a butchered cow or pig.
"It's not like a human murder," Harrell said. "This is something that just doesn't occur."
In any case involving stolen meat, though, investigators work with health department officials in case an unusual meat-related illness pops up.
"If meat of questionable origin turns up somewhere," Yost said, "then all we have to do is take samples of the meat and then compare it to the samples we've taken."
As of Wednesday evening, investigators had made no arrests, though they were looking into a pair of anonymous tips pointing to a suspect in Tampa.
McDaniel remained confident justice would be done.
Nearly $5,000 in reward money has been offered to information leading to an arrest, including about $1,200 from a community fundraiser held Jan. 17 in Thonotosassa.
_ Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or cridlinsptimes.com.