As police officers hauled off three suspects in a stomach-turning, Homestead-area animal abuse case Friday, rescuers with livestock trailers, travel crates and cages swooped in to take about 75 surviving creatures to safety.
The raid, based on undercover video and eyewitness accounts by independent investigators from Miami Beach-based Animal Recovery Mission (ARM), took place at VIP Animal Sales, Southwest 257th Street and Krome Avenue in South Miami-Dade.
It was the culmination of an eight-month undercover investigation by ARM, which included a video that showed men repeatedly stabbing a squealing pig, tossing an apparently live, trussed goat into the trunk of a car, and cracking a rabbit on the back with a stick or rod, then skinning it alive.
ARM founder Richard Couto said that he and his colleagues saw young children — one of whom appears on the video — watching animals being inhumanely killed. He also reported seeing “the entrails of butchered animals being force-fed to starved animals on site that will also eventually be killed and butchered for human consumption.’’
All this, according to investigators, took place in the back part of VIP Animal Sales, which by law is allowed to sell live animals, some of which are used for religious sacrifice.
A sign out front depicts pigeons, turkeys, chickens, rabbits, guinea hens, turtles, ducks and goats.
Miami-Dade police arrested on animal felony cruelty charges: Andre P. Martinez, 45, of the 12000 block of Southwest 268th Terrace, Homestead; Daniel Lombana, 36, of the 26000 block of Southwest 139th Court, Homestead; and Juan M. Bazan, 51, of the 3100 block of West 78th Street, Hialeah.
Martinez and Lombana have lengthy criminal records.
Bazan and Marta A. Castillo are listed in county records as owners of the 4.89-acre property.
“This was a joint operation with the State Attorney’s Office, ARM, and the ‘Ag patrol,’’’ said Lt. Sheree DiBernardo of the Miami-Dade Police Agricultural Patrol unit.
According to the warrants, the suspects inhumanely slaughtered animals for meat in filthy conditions in the rear of the property, far from the roadside pens where buyers legally purchase live fowl and pigeons.
Even those unmoved by animal cruelty should be alarmed that tainted meat is making its way into the South Florida food supply, said Couto, who founded ARM, a nonprofit, after rescuing a thoroughbred horse from an illegal slaughter operation in 2009.
He called the suspects “violent and dangerous criminals’’ who “got enjoyment’’ from watching animals suffer.
The affidavits describe how Couto paid cash for animals that the suspects slaughtered on site. He said he was also offered fighting roosters starting at $500.
Cockfighting is illegal in Miami-Dade County.
As she loaded an underfed mare with diseased hooves into a trailer, Laurie Waggoner, director of ranch operations for the South Florida Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said “ag patrol’’ officers called her to the same farm several weeks ago to take two starving paso fino horses: a stallion and a gelding.
The mare she fetched Friday is lame, Waggoner said. “Our vet gave her painkillers.’’
All three horses are recovering at the South Florida SPCA’s ranch in Southwest Miami-Dade.
Katha Sheehan, of Rooster Rescue, loaded fowl and pigeons into crates for a trip to a sanctuary. She said the chickens had fowl pox, a viral infection that produces both internal and external lesions.
She called the conditions in which the birds lived “nasty,’’ and said she’d been to VIP before.
“I’d stop in and buy chickens just to rescue them,’’ said Sheehan, who used to run The Chicken Store in Key West. “They looked so dirty, miserable and sickly.’’
The affidavits describe Bazan sawing the head off a live sheep that was writhing and bleating as he dragged it through “assorted construction trash,’’ then forced water “into the face of the sheep while it was still conscious, bleeding from the neck and struggling, attempting to turn its face away from the water.’’
Bazan then hoisted the animal by its back legs “all the while the sheep continued to bleed from the neck, cry out and struggle until the sheep finally stopped moving and was butchered,’’ according to the affidavit.
Lombana, the affidavit says, struck a rabbit on the back, then threw it “approximately four feet to the ground,’’ where it “began to move, twitch and struggle for approximately three minutes...
“The defendant picked the rabbit off the ground and sliced the rabbit in the center of is back with a long knife. The rabbit continued to struggle...,’’ the affidavit reads.
“The cruel dispatching of these animals at an illegal slaughterhouse is exactly what the Florida Legislature wanted to end when it created the animal cruelty statute,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. “Such unnecessary brutality demeans not just the people who do it, but those who would stand by and let it happen.”