Editor’s note: This original story was published in 2014.
Richard Couto is a risk taker.
He broke his neck riding motocross. He sailed America’s Cup races in the icy Pacific Ocean. He even developed property on South Beach during the boom.
But none of those gambles is the reason there’s a rumored $50,000 bounty on his head. Or why he had to move five times in less than two years and had his home address unlisted.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, his eyes flash from deep in conversation to the road beyond the cattle fences at the edge of this 10-acre property, where bleating goats, honking geese and lowing bulls tap out a domesticated symphony on an odd animal xylophone.
He won’t let us tell you where we are. He calls this place a “black site,” a borrowed military term for an undisclosed location, which describes the level of seriousness with which Couto runs his privately funded Animal Recovery Mission.
The organization goes undercover to shoot incriminating video at farms where it says the most brutal cases of animal cruelty are happening. It even sets up hidden-video buys of farms illegally selling horse meat. It then turns the evidence over to law enforcement to help them build their cases.
“We go after the worst of the worst,” he says.
Couto invited The Palm Beach Post to this Florida ranch on the condition that we keep secret this place where abused animals confiscated during police raids are brought to be rehabilitated.
If this sounds extreme (read: paranoid), it’s only because of what Couto says he has seen since he got into the business of rescuing animals in 2007 as a volunteer for South Florida’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Former abusive owners pose as volunteers in hopes of finding the confiscated animals. They slit their throats out of spite.
Never again, Couto decided five years ago.
It was not enough to take care of abused animals when they came to him, Couto said. He wanted to catch the abusers in the act.
So Couto went rogue.
He founded Animal Recovery Mission in 2010 to get the video evidence that he said many local police departments lack the funds to get themselves.
Couto — who goes by the name Kudo — runs his Miami-based organization like the paramilitary, driving a blacked-out Ford F-250 diesel truck, and grinding each of his undercover investigators through intensive military-style training he said he learned at the former Blackwater training program.
They dress in military garb. Among the 15 people he employs are a former Navy SEAL, an Army Ranger and three Marines. They carry loaded weapons.
ARM has set up undercover video stings in Nepal, Vietnam and Juarez, Mexico. He and his investigators are responsible for bringing down some of the largest illegal slaughterhouses in Miami-Dade County.
And now, ARM has set its sights on Palm Beach County.
“We go to where the worst crimes against animals are occurring,” Couto said.
More than six months of their undercover video led to a massive, coordinated raid of three Loxahatchee farms Oct. 13, where Palm Beach County Sheriff’s officials confiscated more than 750 animals. Eight people were arrested and face various animal cruelty charges. Three already have taken plea deals.
Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw is happy for ARM’s help.
“Their expertise is being able to gain access to those places and get information,” Bradshaw said. “We’re glad they brought the information to us. These extreme cases of animal cruelty, they need to be put out of business and never go back into business.”
The ranch was secretly purchased with donations from hefty benefactors such as Leslie Alexander, owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, who is one of PETA’s most loyal supporters and a part-time Boca Raton resident.
“They’re hard-core about what they do. It is organizations like these that need our support,” Alexander said of ARM.
And when those rescued animals were rushed to the ranch, they were fed with fruits, vegetables and grains pulled from the shelves of Whole Foods, which also donated more than $10,000 to ARM in September alone. The animals will live out the rest of their lives on this farm.
“When ARM reached out, our South Florida stores jumped into action almost immediately,” Whole Foods spokeswoman Carlye Wisliceny wrote in an email. “It really was a beautiful partnership between the nonprofit organization and our stores.”
All of it starts with Couto, 44. He grew up in the beachside Rhode Island town of Newport, the birthplace of the America’s Cup — and where President John F. Kennedy was married. He rode horseback along the shore.
“I grew up with a respect for animals,” Couto said.
He made his money in telecommunications and Japanese textiles while simultaneously competing in the rich and rarefied air of sailing. He turned his attention to South Florida real estate during the boom and took up motocross, where he was injured. He wanted to do more with his life, and he was touched by the work the South Florida SPCA was doing.
But there was something else.
“I’m not going to lie; I do like the adrenaline rush,” he said.
He felt a similar rush when he first started going undercover to record what he heard, anecdotally, was happening at farms while working with the South Florida SPCA.
But for these illegal farms to close, police had to swoop in. And police need evidence. So Couto dedicated himself to getting it.
Couto initially financed the investigations himself, buying tens of thousands of dollars of undercover microphones and video cameras. He set up high-tech listening devices powered by boat batteries, miles from the actual farms in rural areas. He and his investigators had to hike for miles in brush, sometimes snake- and gator-infested glades, to set up the devices.
He upgraded over time, as word spread of his success. He has at least one drone that can fly silently at more than 1,000 feet above a farm, shooting video at night.
He vetted investigators personally, never hiring volunteers who might be planted by illegal slaughterhouses.
“I think they are truly doing compassionate work and think it’s an honorable thing,” said Miami artist David “Lebo” LeBatard, who has raised money for ARM through artwork sales and has even accompanied Couto on stings. “I told myself I’d support his efforts as much as I could.”
And Couto’s goal, he said, was never to bust small, family farms that might not be following every strict guideline. Instead, he was going after those providing dogs and roosters for fighting, slaughtering goats and cattle without knocking them unconscious first, and killing horses for their meat — prized on the black market, Couto said, as a source of male virility. He says he even discovered one case where a pregnant mare was slaughtered for her unborn foal’s meat because it is said to be especially potent.
“These are extreme crimes,” Couto said. “We’ll dig deeper, for longer, in illegal operations than anyone else in the world.”
Couto and his investigators say they’ve been chased with bats and sledgehammers, and shot at. Couto’s life has been threatened on video.
“We’re looking at the last, real organized crime in Florida, after the drug cartels of the ’80s,” Couto said.
One of his longest-tenured investigators, who goes only by name Taylor, has spent time in witness protection while an animal cruelty case is being prosecuted. Often, the investigators are called as witnesses during trials.
“This is something that makes a difference,” said Taylor. “This is intense stuff. It can be nerve-wracking.”
The cloak-and-dagger aspects — alleged shootings and attacks with sledgehammers — go on without the police’s knowledge, Bradshaw said. Couto says he approaches police only after they’ve finished their investigation to turn over video, and then they step out of the way to avoid allegations of entrapment.
“They’re smart enough to know how far they can go,” Bradshaw said. “As long as they understand what their role is — not trying to steer law enforcement or the investigation — then everything will be fine.”
The group is not without its detractors. Some small farmers say Couto is intent on putting them out of business. Not true, he says, as long as they are correctly, legally and humanely caring for or slaughtering animals.
And even PETA has criticized Couto — for still eating meat. He has given up poultry and pork — he once had a pet pig try to eat bacon out of his hand the day he decided to give it up — largely because of the conditions they are raised in, even legally. He said he eats beef only from farms he has gone undercover to investigate.
“I’m not out to shut down the meat industry,” he said. “I’m interested in making this a more humane world for everyone.”
And not all law enforcement agencies want ARM’s help. He said at least one police department warned him he risks being arrested for the very crime he’s trying to stop, if he’s found taking undercover video of himself or one of his agents buying horse meat, which is illegal to slaughter, sell or buy, or trespassing on farm property.
His commitment, though, is never in question.
His first night at the ranch, before he had hired armed security in case henchmen from raided farms came looking for recompense, he took over security himself for four days.
He slept in a tent in the middle of a field, his hand on a 12-gauge shotgun.
“All the time, people told me, ‘You’re never going to be able to do it,’” Couto remembers.
As he speaks, he hand-feeds a pigeon ARM nursed back to health when it was found during the Loxahatchee raid. When he walks around the farm, it flutters nearby.
It is free, but it chooses to stay here, on this secret farm, under Couto’s unblinking watch.