Over the past seven months, the community of Miami-Dade County, Fla., has been a scene right out of a Wes Craven horror movie -- the equine version. Police say at least 17 horses have been killed in that time, some even hacked alive while the butcher did his work, their carcasses strewn along roads and farms.
It's a gruesome tale to anyone who loves animals, and especially to those who love horses.
The latest victim -- missing hunks of flesh from its chest and legs -- was discovered last Sunday along a northwest Miami-Dade highway, according to the police report. Several months ago two horses were found slaughtered in a similar fashion in the neighboring town of Miramar.
It's become a familiar scene for Miami-Dade authorities, and photos of the aftermath sent to ABC News were too graphic for use. Horse remains have been discovered mutilated, body parts hacked at the limbs and meat cut away from their stomachs, some apparently killed in remote locations and others on the horse owners' property, slaughtered in their own stalls.
Public information officer Nick Pimentel of the Miami-Dade Police Department said investigators are working hard to find the perpetrator and the officers directly involved in the investigation were unavailable for comment.
"All entities are trying to locate who these people are and what they are doing with the horses and what they are doing with the meat," Pimentel told ABC News.
Richard Couto, an investigator with the South Florida Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was on the scene of the latest ghastly discovery.
"It is one of the more disturbing stories. There was a foal, a baby involved. I got to the scene, the horse was killed by a knife that went under her chin, and she died a slow, grueling death. The reason I know this is because the blood trail was just everywhere," Couto told ABC News.
"And the foal never leaves the mother's side, so the baby was certainly by her side while they were carving her up. The owner found the baby trying to nurse off the mother's carcass," he added.
It appears that no neighborhood is safer than the other. According to Keith Dane, director of equine protection at the Humane Society of the United States, the killings have been all over the map.
"It's been really varied in terms of who the owners and victims are," he said. "There have been some farms that raise horses, private families that own horses on their property. Most of the instances have been in remote locations where there isn't a lot of traffic. The more remote the location the less likely the violator is going to be caught."
Illegal Horse Slaughters 'Alive and Well' in Miami
With no suspect yet arrested, the motive for the killings has not been confirmed, but Karen Gustinger, a local horse lover and member of the Homestead Rodeo Association, is convinced the horses are being sold on the black market for meat.
"It's solely profit-driven. There's a black market down here for horse meat. My understanding is it's selling for $20 per pound and it ranges from people eating horse meat in other cultures to the rumor of horse meat being a miraculous medical discovery that cures all ailments."
Couto says the meat is definitely being harvested on the black market and for even higher than $20 per pound.
"The reason we know it's becoming an issue is that there are people living in rural areas who are having people drive up to them at their homes or on the street and asking if they want to buy horse meat... There are reports from a few of the law enforcement agencies out of Broward County saying the meat's going for up to $40 per pound," Couto said.
"Many people in the U.S. think horse slaughtering is only being done in Mexico and Canada.....slaughter and the black market trade is alive and well in Miami," he added.
According to Couto, some local ethnic groups believe that eating the horse meat is a cure-all.
"Miami-Dade is a melting pot and there are a lot of cultures here where it's OK to eat horse meat... Some nationalities think it helps with some ailments. They think that AIDS patients will be cured and will recover quicker if they eat horse meat. This is not true," Couto said.
Not only is the horse meat not a wonder drug like some falsely believe, but the meat being harvested is contaminated.
"These horses are being seen by vets on a monthly basis. Tranquilizers and even just a basic fly spray all are labeled not to be used on animals to be used in the food chain. People are spending a lot of money on contaminated meat that's going to make them sick," said Couto.
Miami-Dade Not Just a Beach Community
Though most think of palm trees and night clubs when they think of Miami, Couto paints a different picture.
"Miami-Dade isn't only about the beach and the sand," said Couto. "The majority of Miami is more in rural areas and our horse population is extremely high. It's the second most populated horse state in the country. It's horse country," he added.
Gustinger said local horse owners have taken up arms to protect their beloved pets.
"The horse community is getting edgy and very upset," Gustinger told ABC News. "We've started community watches, people are patrolling their yards with guns to the point where some of the horse owners are looking forward to it. They're starting to hunt these people... they want it stopped," she added.
"The fear that is in place right now for anyone that owns a horse in South Florida... people are having a hard time sleeping, worried that when they wake up in the morning they'll find a massacre in their barn," Couto said.
The Humane Society Society of the United States is offering a reward of $2,500 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for these horrific acts.
"If the meat is being sold for consumption, that would be in violation of federal law," the Human Society's Dane told ABC News.
"These are alarming events that we're hoping the authorities will be able to stop and that they will be able to track down and find the perpetrators and prosecute them under state animal cruelty laws," he added.
Losing 'Family Members' a Shock
Gustinger organized a rally last Saturday night at the Homestead Rodea Arena. It was her way of trying to involve not only the area's horse owners, but the entire community to prevent any more unlawful horse killings.
"We're trying to say as a community that this is not acceptable... this isn't how we want to live," Gustinger added. "We're not turning a blind eye to this anymore because it just keeps happening."
In addition to the shocking brutality of the deaths, Couto pointed out that losing horses has also been emotionally traumatic for the owners.
"These are our pets and they're considered as mostly family members to these people," he said.
Gustinger said, "We're really looking to the community to solve this."
Dane adds there are a few precautionary measures horse owners can take.
"If there are gates that are accessible to the road, put locks on them... Use flood lights where that's feasible...Spot checks throughout the evening," he said.
"One thing we don't recommend is locking horses in barns because if there was a fire... If there is a community of horseowners they may want to set up taking turns monitoring the area."
Anyone interested in learning more information on how you can help save the horses can go to Crime Stoppers of Miami-Dade. In addition, the SPCA of Southern Florida has its own Web site "Help the Horses."