Animal rights group claims ‘illegal slaughterhouses’ operating in SWFL

An animal rights activist group released videos Thursday of what they claim is the worst case of alleged animal abuse in the United States.

Animal Recovery Mission, or ARM, held a press conference regarding their undercover investigations into several farms in Lee County.

WINK News chose not to show the graphic videos, or identify where they were shot because no one has been charged with a crime.

“They are butchering animals alive, they are skinning them alive, they are drowning them in boiling water,” said Richard Cuoto, the founder and lead investigator of the Miami-based group.

Cuoto had harsh words for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and the 20th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s office for failing to prosecute the individuals in the undercover videos.

He said ARM has been providing their evidence of abuse to law enforcement for several years. The group has worked with other agencies around the state to close illegal slaughterhouses and bring animals to their sanctuary.

GOING INSIDE ARM

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office said there were problems with the way that ARM obtained their undercover video by recording oral communications without consent.

“When we are presented with evidence that was obtained illegally … it’s impossible for us to work with the State Attorney’s Office and be able to make an arrest and be able to have a successful prosecution,” said Sergeant Randy Hodges, the lead detective for the sheriff’s office agricultural crimes unit.

In an email to WINK News, the State Attorney’s Office said ARM’s techniques “… appear to violate felony statutes making the evidence inadmissible in court and tainting the investigation.”

Cuoto said the farms are open to the public so there is no expectation of privacy. They do not feel they violated any laws.

Hodges, who has over 20 years experience in law enforcement, said he has special training in identifying animal abuse from several university training courses.

Case notes from a review the State Attorney’s office did on a 2016 undercover investigation conducted by ARM show that an expert at the University of Florida was brought in as a consultant to watch video of a pig being slaughtered, and to make a determination if any crimes had occurred.

Byron Davis, the University of Florida’s meat processing lab manager, told WINK News by phone that he did not feel the videos he was sent to review showed animal abuse.

“The animal has to be rendered unconscious or insensible (prior to slaughter),” he said.

Cuoto said that their veterinary expert reviewed videos and found there was evidence of animals suffering painful deaths.

The farms investigated by ARM were also not licensed to slaughter animals, according to Couto.

The United States Department of Agriculture regulates slaughterhouses and requires licensing and inspection for establishments that slaughter animals and distribute meat.

The USDA requires any individual who slaughters meat for personal use of the owner of that animal to have a custom exempt license.

Cuoto said that only one of the farms had a custom exempt license, but it had lapsed. WINK News was not able to immediately verify with the USDA whether or not that information is true.

However, none of the establishments show up in the USDA’s online Meat, Poultry and Egg Processing inspection directory.

Unlicensed slaughter is not something that state and local authorities can prosecute, it would fall under the purview of the USDA.

An agency spokesperson is checking to see if the USDA will be looking into potential license violations or actions against the farms in Lee County.

Reporter:Lauren Sweeney
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