By Duncan Strauss
When I hear about the most egregious cases of animal cruelty, I admit that I sometimes fantasize that the perpetrators will have a supremely ugly encounter with a highly trained military-minded do-gooder, maybe even an ass-kicking superhero of some kind.
Heck, forget the fantasy—Richard “Kudo” Couto might be both.
Couto is the founder and lead investigator of the Animal Recovery Mission (ARM), the Miami-based organization that made national news in October by leading what’s been called “the largest tactical strike on extreme animal cruelty operations in U.S. history.”
That strike took place in an area of south Florida called Loxahatchee, and involved coordinated raids on three farms suspected of running illegal slaughterhouse operations, yielding the arrests of six farm owners and employees, and the seizure of 750 animals.
Beforehand, ARM had conducted an undercover investigation in which its operatives witnessed and shot video footage at the three farms.
The details that emerged post-raid were not for the squeamish.
Officials described the conditions at one, Rancho Garcia, where the owner Jorge Garcia and his employees “were selling large amounts of horse meat, violently stabbing pigs in the heart and boiling them alive, slitting throats of goats and rams before hoisting them by their hind legs then skinning them alive, and brutally stomping on ducks, slitting their throats and drowning them in their own blood.”
See what I mean? Yikes! And then some.
We’ll circle back to additional aspects of that October raid, and the ensuing prosecution of those cases—which, so far, includes some surprisingly flimsy plea deals for three of those arrested, a relative slap on the wrist.
Right now, though, we’re consumed with Couto.
Specifically, how did this former Miami land developer—whose background includes sailing in America’s Cup races—wind up leading an international organization whose work often involves rooting out illegal horse slaughter and bloody torture of animals, not to mention contending with the nastiest denizens of the criminal element?
I asked him to recount what surely must have represented a major, transformative moment in his life.
Richard Couto made a discovery in 2008 that would change his life. During an investigation, he found a sullen horse, its bones protruding from its body, barely breathing, sick from strangles, skin rotting off his back. According to Couto, thousands of horses are slaughtered every year behind closed gates in South Florid–including former race horses. Warning: graphic images.
“Yeah, I suppose there is that moment with all people that work in the animal world,” he replied in a November 11 interview on Talking Animals.
“For me, I volunteered and later became a board member at the SPCA in Miami, and I went out and assisted an investigator on a cruelty case.
“And it led me to an illegal slaughterhouse, which I didn’t even really know existed in the United States–at the scale that it does, at least.
“I stepped in front of a really decrepit horse in awful shape that later turned out to be Freedom’s Flight, grandson of Secretariat, and a famous racehorse in his own right in the U.S. He broke his leg and ended up at that illegal slaughterhouse, and I later adopted him.
“It was that moment that really opened my eyes, standing with law enforcement, saying they wouldn’t close the farm down because they don’t do that kind of thing.
“I then knew that it was a real issue in Miami and, later, in the state of Florida. Law enforcement, many times, just do not investigate extreme animal cruelty, and it’s part of our problem in the United States.
Clearly, it was an eye-opening period for Couto, not merely in being introduced to the horrors of severe animal cruelty, but getting a first glimpse into the mixed bag of political implications when an entity seriously undertakes investigating and prosecuting the transgressors of such crimes.
It also became a career-changing time for him. “At the time, I was a developer in Miami Beach, South Beach,” he recalled.
“What I would do is work and build my buildings during the day, and at night, I started to investigate these properties in this zone, it was titled the C-9 Basin, in Miami. I infiltrated about 90 properties over a six-month time period.
“They were all torturing animals illegally: animal fighting, animal sacrifice for religious purposes, black magic, and illegal horse slaughter and regular slaughterhouses butchering inhumanely animals of all sorts.
“I basically compiled a report, and presented it to officials, who all turned their backs on me. Later on, the SPCA basically said, ‘Listen, this is too dangerous for us. We’re getting death threats, death threats are coming in for our board members and our animals. We’re also getting political threats, [threats of] having some of our funding pulled. You have to either throw away your files, or leave the organization.’
“And at that point, I was so ethically wrapped around the issue, and invested, that I left and created ARM.”
ARM investigates the removal of horses from the Twin Peaks, CA, area by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), claiming the animals were being removed due to lack of water in the area
That was in 2010. Early on, ARM operations often amounted to solo efforts, and in those initial days there was a development that likely helped solidify the organization’s paramilitary bent—and reflecting that, even as a newbie, Couto demonstrated a tremendous flair for generating media coverage.
“Well, what happened was, I started out investigating horse slaughter, and there were a lot of stories in the media. Some of the heads of Blackwater saw the type of work I was doing, alone, in the field.
“They called me into the Blackwater headquarters in North Carolina and actually trained me for free. Because they love horses, because they love animals. So I really got Special Forces training—I am now Special Forces-trained–free of charge, by that organization, which has been disassembled.
“But they really put the training into me to investigate properties, and infiltrate properties, properly.
“Now, what we do [at ARM] is bring in and hire ex-military and, at times, ex-Special Forces. And even these guys have a hard time infiltrating and investigating these illegal farms, and what I’ll do is basically polish them off, training-wise, for them to do their thing, and properly collect evidence.
“I didn’t start as an expert, certainly. I started as a regular civilian, and a guy who really didn’t know anything about anything in the field. And through trial and error and then, later on, through Blackwater, you know, we’re good at what we do.”
In just five years, they certainly have amassed an impressive track record, including—mainly through ARM investigations in concert with law enforcement agencies—closing down upwards of 135 so-called slaughter farms in Florida.
While ARM itself is based in Florida and the bulk of its accomplishments have reached across various corridors of that state, its work has extended into other states, and other countries, including Mexico, Nepal and Vietnam.
Given ARM’s accomplishments, and that no one’s going to accuse Couto of being a shrinking violet about trumpeting those accomplishments to media entities of all stripes—and that he is a charismatic, striking spokesman: shaved head, muscular, an imposing figure clad in paramilitary gear—it’s little wonder that a bevy of benefactors have lined up at ARM headquarters, wallets open.
An ARM investigation of an illegal slaughter farm in Miami, Florida. Warning: graphic images. ’This is a multi-million dollar industry here,’ says Richard Couto. ‘It is organized crime.’
These include Leslie Alexander, owner of the Houston Rockets, and Bob Barker, former longtime host of The Price Is Right and a major philanthropist who’s poured his game show fortune into underwriting animal law programs at several of the nation’s top law schools and funding various animal welfare organizations. He reportedly gave ARM a million bucks.
The huge dollars rolling in from Alexander, Barker and others form a financial counterpoint to the nefarious operations Couto and company strive to halt.
Because if you’re thinking “hey, this sounds like a few farms here and there, engaging in some dreadful practices but what’s all the fuss about—and what’s all the big dough about?” you have another think coming.
This isn’t about Mom and Pop farms going a bit off the rails, or even somewhat larger farming operations deciding to add the illegal slaughter of horses to their legitimate enterprise of slaughtering the pigs or cattle they raise.
No, this is big business. Big, big business.
“This is a multi-million dollar industry here,” Couto said, observing that beyond the 135 such operations ARM and law enforcement have shut down, there may be as many as 500 more just in Florida alone.
As he describes these ventures, the big bucks at stake and the ruthless tactics employed, I point out that he seems to be citing some characteristics of organized crime.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It is organized crime.
“In Miami-Dade County, in Florida, our cases are taken only by organized crime units from the police department and organized crime units from the state attorney’s office.
“That’s how seriously they’re taking these cases, because, in part, they’re all animal lovers, and the brutality is some of the worst treatment of animals in the world on these farms.
“But also, a lot of the people we go undercover with, we later find out are child molesters, they’re wanted on murder, home invasions, they’re leaders of some of the largest auto-theft rings in the history of the state of Florida.”
“Listen, these are bad guys. They’re running a lot of guns, they’re running a lot of drugs. Which is part of the danger aspect of working for ARM as an organization. These people, if they do get out on bonds, they’re looking for us. They have people who are searching us out. They want us gone.”
And there’s no one they want more than Couto. Scuttlebutt suggests there’s a $50,000 bounty on his head.
Given the sort of nasty characters Couto has described and the big bucks at stake, this hardly seems shocking—he’s messing with their operations and taking money out of their pockets.
Little wonder they’d be gunning for him, and I’m not speaking figuratively here.
He also doesn’t seem that hard to find. I mean, cutting a striking figure can work both ways.
An ABC affiliate in Miami, Florida, reports on ARM’s investigation into the Christmas slaughter of horses
I had read that in the early days of ARM, Couto’s undercover work would often involve wearing wigs and otherwise disguising his appearance.
Now, especially in the wake of all the media attention, he’s become highly recognizable. So I wonder what strategies he employs to alter his look, to prevent the bad guys from having a light bulb moment: Hey, isn’t that Couto?
“I do have an assortment of wigs and disguises,” he acknowledges, laughing. “I have to. If I knew [initially] that this issue was so large, I probably wouldn’t have gone public with my appearance, as I did years and years ago.
“But now it is blown. It’s also a Catch-22, because by doing a lot of media and putting my face out there, I’m also doing a lot of education. So I don’t even know that I would change to hiding my appearance.
“But some wigs, some hats, the type of clothing you wear, the type of accent you give off—it goes a long way. We’ve investigated and arrested people two or three times, and I just changed my disguises and they never knew it was me. So you can do it.”
Which suggests that this multitude of malefactors may not only represent some of the worst humans around, but also some of the dimmest.
In fact, it’s difficult not to ruminate about the toll this work must take on the psyche of Couto and his comrades in ARM, spending their days and nights witnessing all manner of extreme animal cruelty, not to mention the worst of humanity. What measures do they undertake to prevent emotional burn-out?
“Of course, we’re all physically fit,” he said. “We have to be to do our jobs. So we go to the gym and we surf, and I use to race motocross, so I do that a bit.
“But to be honest, to answer that question honestly, you don’t. It stays with you always. You’re always burnt out. It’s a fight that you deal with on a daily—hourly—basis.
“But if you have that drive, and we know that we’re doing something that no one else in the world is doing, there’s no one else to take our place. I think that’s what really drives a lot of our work and investigators.
“It definitely drives me: knowing that if we stop, there’s no one there to take our place. So we are obligated. We’re sacrificing our bodies and our minds for that job….”
The Loxahatchee Raid: ARM raids three illegal slaughter farms in Palm Beach County, Florida, October 13, 2015, saving some 750 animals.
If there’s no question about their commitment to the job, in some instances, it’s hard to say if the reverse is true.
For instance, the Loxahatchee busts were huge, significant and historic, and for all those reasons—and bearing the stamp of the ARM modus operandi—generated monumental, international media coverage.
What those arrests haven’t generated, thus far, are sentences commensurate with the horrific crimes that were alleged: Three of the eight men arrested took plea deals, and only one of them is on a track to serve any jail time.
The state attorney’s comments about the sentencing included “There’s no evidence of horse slaughter on any of the farms at all.”
Between the soft plea deals meted out and this statement, nearly everyone closely following the case seemed to have a collective response of: What?
No one appeared to be more surprised than Couto himself. Or more disappointed.
In early December, a judge ruled that another of the men charged would be allowed to keep animals on his property while awaiting trial.
More surprise, more disappointment.
As you might imagine by now, Couto and ARM are not taking this sitting down, speaking out through various media outlets, creating a petition to help put pressure on the state attorney’s office to more aggressively pursue stiff sentences, and other gambits.
Still, given Couto’s palpable frustration at the punishment in this case so far not remotely fitting the crimes—we spoke on Talking Animals three days after the plea deals were announced—I asked, when conducting investigations or other ARM activities, how rogue can he go?
In other words, how compelled does he feel to cooperate with the authorities and observe the relevant laws, knowing that sometimes not toeing the legal line is going to produce better results for the animals ARM exists to serve?
“It’s a good question,” he replied. “I think it depends on the country we’re in, or depends on the state or the county that we’re in. If we know we have the support, and we usually know that from the first meeting we have with that police force or state’s attorney or whatever, it makes a difference.
Video profile of Richard ‘Kudo’ Couto and ARM. Posted at YouTube by Miami Herald.
“But in a case like this, where there’s people who’ve gotten more time for not paying their speeding tickets, when you see that, you sit back and ask: ‘Should I have taken a different approach here?’
“‘What should I have done to make these guys pay myself, as an undercover investigator’? You’re always going to ask yourself that question, because you know that while you’re in front of these people and having to laugh and have a good time as they’re skinning an animal alive, completely—which is what they did in Palm Beach.
“You’re so sickened and you just want to pick up a shovel and knock their head off.
“But if—and it’s a big if—law enforcement and the state attorney do the right thing, then you can instill a lot more faith in the judicial system making their life a complete living hell, then beating the hell out of them.”
About the Author: Combining his passions for animals, radio, journalism, music and comedy, Duncan Strauss launched Talking Animals at KUCI in California in 2003. Since late 2005 the show has aired on Tampa’s WMNF. Producer-host Strauss lives in Jupiter Farms, FL, with his family, including four cats, two horses and one dog. He spends each day talking to those animals, and maintains they talk right back to him, a claim as yet unverified by credible sources.