MIAMI — Someone is killing the horses of Miami-Dade County.
Since January, police say at least 17 horses have been butchered, their carcasses left on roadsides or in stalls or rural pastures.
Police tiptoe around questions about who is doing the killing and why, but animal rights advocates believe the meat is being sold on the black market to people from other countries where horse is a delicacy.
"It's a real ugly problem we're trying to take hold of and eliminate," said Richard Couto, an investigator with the South Florida Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has recently looked into six horse killings. "Extremely, extremely difficult to find the people that are doing the slaughtering."
Ivonne Rodriguez had never heard the horror stories, never seen the pictures, until her horse, Geronimo, disappeared from his pasture one February morning. She missed work to post fliers and canvass her neighborhood, asking others if they had seen the good-natured pinto who liked apples and was friendly around children.
A few days later, she got a call from her father. The horse's remains had been discovered under a palm tree, partially hidden by fronds. It had been decapitated and butchered, apparently by thieves who took its meat.
"Not only is it disturbing, it's hurtful," Rodriguez said. "It's a pet for God's sake. It's not been raised to suffer a death like that."
The killings have continued, the latest over the weekend. On Monday, Couto stood over a horse carcass with about 200 pounds of meat removed. Its owner found it butchered over the weekend, its cappuccino-colored foal alive and still nuzzled against its body.
The horse's remains were burned, but a nauseating stench still lingered around the body, which lay just a few feet from its old home.
Miami-Dade Police Capt. Scott Andress, whose agency is among those investigating the horse slaughters, said the cases are tough to solve because they usually happen in rural areas where there are no eyewitnesses. He said his officers are working to confirm whether the horse meat is being sold to consumers.
"We had received anecdotal evidence in the past that there might be some sort of black market activity," said Andress, commander of department's Agricultural Patrol Section. "We started hearing more about it after Jan. 11, which was the first case we got this year."
Couto says the black market for horse meat is both active and profitable.
"Miami-Dade and South Florida is a melting pot," Couto said. "We have a lot of people, we have a lot of international people, from Asia, Europe, South, Central America and the islands. A lot of these countries, horse meat for human consumption is legal. These people grow up eating this meat."
Investigators have discovered animals with slit throats and slashed tendons. Some have been stabbed to the heart, and some might have been butchered alive. The meat is often harvested in unsanitary conditions – on the sides of roads, in dirty barns, with tools that might not be clean – but Couto says some people are still willing to pay $7 to $20 a pound.
Horse thefts aren't unique to Miami-Dade County, but in other parts of the country, the horses are sometimes not seen again and it's tough to prove what happened to them, said Laura Bevan, director of The Humane Society of the United States' Eastern Regional Office. Not so here, where carcasses have turned up close to where horses were taken.
Until a few years ago, as many as 100,000 horses were killed annually in the United States for meat for foreign markets. In Florida, it is legal for horse owners to kill and eat their own horses on their own land, but horses cannot be slaughtered and sold to others for human consumption.
A 2007 federal court ruling closed the nation's last horse-processing plant, though some groups are currently pushing to renew the slaughter of horses in the U.S. Horses that are sold for meat are now sent to processing plants in Mexico and Canada.
In Miami-Dade, horse owners are still looking for answers. Two years have passed since Allen Owens' blue-eyed horse, Comanche, was found slaughtered in his stall. Owens' wife discovered the grisly scene in August 2007, when she went to feed the animal grain and hay at daybreak.
"As long as it's been since it happened, it just drags out really powerful emotions," he said. "I'm not a violent person, but you wouldn't believe what goes through your mind."
Owens believes thieves used a wheelbarrow to cart meat from the stable, out a wooden gate, past a red horse trailer, across another patch of land, and through a chain link fence before the reached a wooded area and a nearby roadway. Owens and his wife were left with Comanche's head and bones, which are now buried under a Florida Holly, a few feet from a round horse pen Owens fashioned out himself out of electric poles.
"It just was the most gruesome thing I had ever seen in my life," Owens said. "It's a memory that never goes away. I've learned to live with it, but it never goes away."