Undercover Advocates

One couple’s pursuit of humane treatment of horses

By Edward McClelland • August 4, 2015

Morning traffic in Shipshewana, Ind., consists mostly of wooden buggies pulled by Standardbreds that trot briskly along the wide shoulders of the state highway, their reins handled by bearded men who ride beside women in black dresses and cinched bonnets. On an oval track a few yards from the Shipshewana Flea Market and Yoder’s Meat and Cheese, horses harnessed to sulkies train for heavier jobs on farms and roads.

This is Indiana’s Amish Country. Like Sugar Creek, Ohio, and New Castle, Pa.— two other Amish communities in the Midwest—it is the site of a major horse sale. The Good Friday Horse Auction, one of the biggest events of the year, attracts Amish farmers and riding enthusiasts who pay thousands of dollars for pedigreed Standardbreds, Quarter Horses, and other breeds. The main event takes place in a crowded amphitheater: Bidders pack the wooden benches and watch a parade of beautiful animals described by the auctioneer as “Rides good, boys,” and “She’ll be a broodmare.”

In the early morning, however, before the crowds show up, another auction takes place on a dusty patch of earth between the holding barns. The “loose horse sale,” as it is called, is for animals whose owners have decided they’re no longer worth feeding. Its main customers are kill buyers who will truck their purchases to slaughterhouses in Canada, where they’ll be killed with a .22 caliber bullet to the head, or to Mexico, where their spines will be severed by a puntilla knife before they’re bled to death.

Undernourished and ungroomed, the loose horses are a sorry-looking herd: One filly has an open wound on her leg, exposing the cannon bone. Inside the pens wranglers jump in front of horses and frighten them toward the gates that lead to the makeshift auction ring. As each one bolts into the ring, the gate is slammed in the faces of others that try to follow. Shipshewana Auction owner Keith Lambright conducts the bidding, prodding unruly horses with an aluminum pole. Valued by the pound, rather than their riding potential, most loose horses sell for less than $200. A pair of brown ponies goes for $10 each.

In the catwalks above the pens, where bidders inspect the livestock, signs warn ‘NO CAMERAS.’ During the loose horse auction, Lambright reinforces the prohibition several times, barking “No cameras!” at his audience. The signs were posted because five years ago at a livestock auction here an investigative organization called Animals’ Angels surreptitiously recorded a video of a young Amish wrangler karate kicking a goat.

After capturing the kung fu wrangler in the act, Animals’ Angels posted the video on YouTube and forwarded it to the Indiana Board of Animal Health. Lambright fired the wrangler, issued a public apology, and required his employees to watch a state-produced video on handling livestock. But he’s still sore at Animals’ Angels.

“Oh, heavens yes,” Lambright says. “They’re stickin’ their nose into my business. They come into my place, taking pictures with hidden cameras. They’re chickensh*t. You want to take pictures, do it with a camera around your neck. It’s my property. You don’t like what I’m doing, leave.”

Keith and Sonja Meadows, a husband-and-wife team from Westminster, Md., founded Animals’ Angels. Traveling exhaustively and obsessively through rural America, Canada, and Mexico, they infiltrate livestock auctions and slaughterhouses, surreptitiously recording diseased and abused animals and posting the videos on the Internet, along with detailed investigative reports.

The Meadows’ work has made them important figures in the emotional debate over horse slaughter in the United States. Their exposé of a horse auction in New Mexico created a statewide uproar that pushed the attorney general and the legislature into taking a stand against a proposal for a new slaughterhouse. To horse lovers, the Meadows are heroic gumshoes, blowing the lid off the slaughter industry’s claims that its process can ever be humane. To auction house owners and ranchers, they’re meddling idealists who, if they succeed in their goal of banning slaughter, will increase the suffering of old, infirmed horses by pushing cash-strapped owners to abandon their animals.

Horses have not been killed in the U.S. for human consumption since 2007, when Congress withdrew funding for slaughterhouse inspectors. But the slaughter pipeline that begins in places such as Shipshewana now ends in rendering plants at Richelieu, Quebec, and Jerez, Mexico. Last year more than 150,000 American horses were shipped across the border to be killed for meat. Progress has been made, however — this year, the European Union banned imports of horse meat from Mexico, a prohibition long sought by Animals’ Angels, which had presented evidence of abuse in Mexican slaughterhouses to EU officials.

Lambright’s signs haven’t discouraged the couple, who are on the auction grounds for the Good Friday sale. Keith, a retired naval intelligence officer, roams the catwalk, surreptitiously filming the action below. Dressed in a camouflage Bass Pro Shops baseball cap, a Carhartt jacket, jeans, and Timberland shoes, he blends in perfectly with the rural Hoosiers. Sonja, a lawyer who immigrated to the United States from Germany, walks through the pens, pointing out improvements since the last time the couple visited Shipshewana.

“This is better,” she says, nodding at aluminum tubs in the barn where the auctioned-off kill horses are penned until they can be loaded onto trucks. “They have water for the horses now. I don’t think the pens are so bad, either. The horses aren’t crowded. When we first started going here, they put all the horses in one pen, so there was a lot of kicking and fighting and biting.”

Nearby, a sweaty, frightened horse rushes a fence, as though judging whether he can jump to freedom.

Out of the auctioneer’s sight, Sonja begins “flipping lips.” Whenever she spots a horse that looks like a Thoroughbred, she inspects its gums for an identifying tattoo. Animals’ Angels’ goal is reform, not necessarily rescue, but lip flipping has resulted in big publicity for the group because nothing focuses public attention on horse auctions more than news that a Thoroughbred has been sold for slaughter.

While no official statistic exists, the Equine Welfare Alliance has estimated around 10,000 Thoroughbreds have their lives ended in foreign slaughterhouses annually. By reaching through the slats of livestock trailers in the parking lot, Sonja found two Thoroughbreds at the New Holland Auction in Pennsylvania. One was returned to its owner; the other was slaughtered in Canada.

“Those racehorses usually don’t go through the auction ring,” Sonja says, alluding to the practice of peddling the former runners in parking lot transactions, often by owners and trainers trying to evade racetracks’ no-slaughter policies. “So a buyer doesn’t have a chance to buy this horse, and the horse doesn’t have a chance to be saved. They do that to avoid these horses being found. There’s a chance that somebody at the auction could flip a lip.”

The first time Sonja found a Thoroughbred at New Holland, she photographed his tattoo. After the auction she logged on to The Jockey Club’s website, identified the doomed creature as Beau Jaques, a 5-year-old gelding, and contacted his former owners. By then it was too late to save the horse, who had been dispatched by a bullet at the Richelieu Meats slaughterhouse in Quebec. Beau Jaques’ owner had given him to a woman named Kelsey Lefever, a scam artist who promised to rehabilitate retired horses but sold them for slaughter instead. After Animals’ Angels helped uncover her deception, Lefever was fired from her job as a riding instructor and received five years probation for theft, during which she will not be allowed to own horses.

Hawser, a turf horse who raced successfully at Colonial Downs, was also traded in the parking at New Holland but had a happier ending. Working with a friend in California, Sonja identified Hawser and contacted his owner, Maryland trainer Kim Boniface, before the truck left for Canada. After Hawser’s racing career ended, Boniface had sold him for $1 to a riding instructor who promised to give the horse to a little girl. She was horrified to learn he was on a slaughter truck.

Sonja first reached Boniface’s mother, who told her, “Can’t be, because Kim gave him to a good home.”

“We have the tattoo,” Sonja replied.

When Kim heard the news, she thought, “This is not possible.” But she and her parents hitched a horse trailer to a truck and raced to New Holland, where they found Hawser.

“I backed the trailer back to that place, and I brought him back to the farm and started feeding him real good,” Boniface said.

After retrieving Hawser, Boniface placed the horse with trainer Steuart Pittman, who prepared him for a new life of trail riding and fox hunting. He was ridden by Pittman’s sister, Polly, before his new connections wound up putting him down due to severe lameness caused by the wear-and-tear his body sustained on the racetrack.

“These people did a good thing,” Boniface said of Animals’ Angels. “No horse deserves to go that way. Hawser had a happy end because of these people. Without them, we would never have known, and that girl would have lied to us for the rest of her life.”

The fates of Beau Jaques and Hawser were widely reported in local media and horse racing publications.

“I think exposure is the key,” Sonja says when discussing Thoroughbred rescue. “A lot of Americans love racehorses. That puts a lot of pressure on these guys. I would like to show them how the whole process works, from the moment the owner drops the horse off for sale until it becomes a piece of meat. The whole process is hidden. If people knew, they would be in an uproar. I think we would get enough people to pressure Congress. Right now, only horse enthusiasts are contacting Congress to pass the SAFE Act.”

The Safeguard American Food Exports Act of 2013 (SAFE Act), introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would have banned slaughter in the United States as well as the export of American horses for slaughter, shutting down the pipeline at its source and putting the kill buyers who bid at the Shipshewana auction out of business. The bill never made it out of committee, and Landrieu was defeated for re-election last year, costing horse lovers a champion in Congress. In 2013 more than 300 wild horses were rounded up on federal and tribal grazing lands in Nevada and sold to kill buyers, who trucked them to Mexico.

Thanks to donations from animal lovers, the founders of Animals’ Angels are able to pursue full-time activism. Since 2007 they’ve averaged 161 investigations a year in 29 states, Canada, and Mexico, almost exclusively at animal auctions and slaughterhouses. After the Shipshewana Auction they will drive back home to Maryland, then fly to the Centennial Livestock Auction in Colorado. Why did they sacrifice careers and conventional lives to spend almost all their time on the road?

Sonja, 40, grew up in rural Bavaria. As a girl, she learned to groom horses and volunteered with a horse rescue charity. As an adult, she worked as an attorney for the automotive industry but really wanted an animal-related career. In 2006 she moved to the United States with the intention of starting an organization to expose livestock abuses.

“There wasn’t enough reliable information about what was happening behind closed doors at slaughterhouses and feedlots,” she says. “I thought if I could fill that niche, that would be a good start. In Europe there are more organizations focused on transportation and treatment of livestock. I just felt over here there is a greater need for an organization like that.”

Keith, 50, was raised on a multi-generational farm in West Virginia. His father was a coal miner who lost a leg when a truck fell on it, then went to work on the family farm to support his wife and children. The Meadows family milked dairy cows and slaughtered pigs and chickens but treated the animals as “pets,” not industrial products.

“The animals all had names,” Keith recalls. “My grandfather called them into the barn every night. I remember until I was 14, still slaughtering a hog every fall. They did it really tenderly, compared to what you see in the plant. My dad would rub it and my grandfather would kill it.”

Shortly after Sonja arrived in the U.S., the pair met in a bookstore—“I dropped a whole bunch of books on him,” she says—and decided to team up personally and professionally. Keith is the business manager and employs surveillance techniques he learned in the Navy while Sonja writes investigation reports, confronts abusive auction owners, and conducts media interviews. (During a dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Shipshewana, Sonja did almost all the talking; stealth and silence are essential qualities in Keith’s work).

Until they’re able to change the law, the Meadowses are trying to enforce laws already on the books. Forced to obey all federal regulations, they believe, auction houses and kill buyers won’t be able to stay in business. At the Shipshewana auction, Keith and Sonja lingered outside a stock truck in the parking lot, hoping to see how many drivers were manning the cab. In one of their most time-consuming investigations, they tailed a truck full of slaughter-bound horses from Sugarcreek, Ohio, to Morton, Texas—a 42-hour trip. When the driver stopped at a rest area, the Meadowses stopped there, too. When he stopped to eat, they stopped to eat. The driver didn’t notice he was being tailed by a pickup truck until the final 40 miles of his journey, after turning onto a rural two-lane highway. The U.S. Department of Transportation limits drivers to 11 hours at a stint and does not allow slaughter-bound horses to be transported for more than 28 hours without being offloaded to eat and drink, so Sugarcreek Livestock Auction was forced to pay a fine. (Over the years Sugarcreek Livestock Auction owner LeRoy Baker has been fined $162,000 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violating its Commercial Transport of Equines to Slaughter Regulations).

Enforcing DOT rules for the long interstate hauls to the Mexican and Canadian borders “would make it very costly,” Sonja says. “A lot of these transports would require two drivers.”

As that cross-country drive demonstrates, this couple will go to almost any legal lengths to expose mistreatment of horses. Sonja donned a wig as part of a disguise that allowed her to infiltrate the Sugarcreek auction, where 85% of horses sold go to slaughter. She found 120 horses crammed into a single pen without water, bleeding from ear wounds, thin with starvation, and one horse dead in the parking lot. Animals’ Angels published photos on its website and encouraged followers to complain to Sugar Creek’s mayor, Jeremiah Johnson. After hundreds called, Animals’ Angels was able to arrange a meeting with Baker and local officials, including the mayor, the chief of police, and the county humane officer.

Johnson was sympathetic to Animals’ Angels’ complaints but didn’t appreciate that the Meadowses went public before contacting him.

“It brought negative attention to the town,” Johnson said. “We could have sat down and talked to them first. I understand they have a cause, but I got nasty, nasty phone calls from California at two or three in the morning. It didn’t help their cause. It was well over a thousand emails—nasty, nasty emails.”

At the meeting Baker agreed to instruct his employees to stop hitting horses in the face and poking them in the eyes, to segregate aggressive horses, and to move no more than four horses at a time to the auction ring. The county humane officer agreed to attend the auction regularly. When the Meadowses returned a year later, they wrote, “We were pleased to see that certain improvements had indeed taken place. Horses were moved in smaller groups, pens were not overcrowded, and employees were not striking the horses in the face, which had previously been the norm. There were no extremely emaciated horses or those with bad injuries. Handling by the employees had improved, and they seemed more professional in their demeanor.”

For his part Baker denies he’s doing anything differently. He attributes the less-crowded conditions to the recession, which has made horse ownership a luxury rural Ohioans can no longer afford.

“Things haven’t changed one bit; it’s just the horse numbers are down,” he says. “A lot of people quit raisin’ ’em. (Animals’ Angels) didn’t shut us down, but they’re takin’ credit for all this happening.”

Like many subjects of Animals’ Angels’ investigations, Baker believes the Meadowses—and anti-slaughter activists in general—are naïve idealists who actually increase the suffering of horses by extending lives no longer worth living.

Without slaughterhouses Baker says, “80% of the horses in the country wouldn’t be worth nothin’. People’d turn ’em loose. First thing, when one of ’em goes through a windshield, they’d start thinking about common sense instead of animal rights. They’ve killed horses from the beginning of time, and anybody that thinks they’re gonna change it overnight, they’ve got a lot more problems to worry about.”

Animals’ Angels caused its biggest stir in New Mexico. Its exposé of the Southwest Livestock Auction in Las Lunas resulted in criminal charges against the owner and influenced the debate over opening a horse slaughterhouse in the state.

In March 2012, Sonja and a volunteer assistant filmed four sick, emaciated horses lying in the dirt at the auction’s feedlot. They alerted an inspector from the New Mexico Livestock Board, who allowed an auction employee to shoot all four horses. Several weeks later Animals’ Angels posted the video on YouTube. The images landed on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, inspiring investigations by the state attorney general and the local prosecuting attorney. The video also appeared in Britain’s Daily Mail, the most widely read newspaper website in the world. The auction’s owner, Dennis Chavez, was charged with 12 counts of animal cruelty. Chavez pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of not having a bill of sale for the horses, after prosecutors could not prove how long the animals had been in his possession. He received a year’s probation and was ordered to donate $5,000 to a horse rescue group.

The livestock board faulted Chavez for not paying close enough attention to the horses—but was even more critical of Animals’ Angels, charging that Sonja added to the horses’ agony by filming them for several hours before alerting authorities. According to a timeline put together by the board, Animals’ Angels discovered the downed horses at 11 a.m. but did not notify its inspector until 2:30 p.m.

In an affidavit to New Mexico Livestock Board, Sonja testified she spotted the downed horses at 11 a.m. and began looking for a veterinarian “after documenting the situation.” In an interview, she said the gap was about 35 minutes. After failing to find the veterinarian, she said, she informed the auction’s office of the downed horses at 1:00 p.m.

As a result of the case, the livestock board adopted a new regulation making it a misdemeanor for “animal enterprise terrorism groups” to “intentionally cause to suffer or contribute to the suffering or prolonged suffering of any livestock animal.” The board also asked the state legislature to pass a law that would make interfering with animal enterprises a felony. That bill failed.

“From the investigation it was clear to us that the Animals’ Angels had, for their own purposes, intentionally allowed the prolonged suffering of the horses,” Myles Culbertson, who was then director of the livestock board, told BloodHorse.com. “They were getting good, salacious video of animals suffering.”

Not only is Culbertson a critic of the Meadows’ methods—he’s a critic of their goals, too. Slaughter, he believes, is a humane and practical end for horses that have outlived their usefulness to humans. Closing American slaughterhouses has led to an increase in horses abandoned on public and tribal lands, he said. The ragged horses that died in Chavez’ feedlot were likely strays rounded up on Navajo lands. Passing the SAFE Act would compound the problem.

“It would be like plugging the release valve,” he said. “If you had 100,000 horses that had nowhere to go and another 100,000 next year, the impact would be immediate.”

Animals’ Angels argues that there are 10 million horses in the U.S. but fewer than 2% are sent to slaughter each year.

“For the vast majority of owners, slaughter is not an option and never will be,” Sonja says. “It comes down to responsible ownership. If you have a horse, you have a responsibility to provide it with a humane death.”

The New Mexico horse rescue community, on the other hand, believes Animals’ Angels performed a public service by publicizing the mistreatment of horses in the state. Two and a half weeks after its exposé hit the news, Gov. Susana Martinez and Attorney General Gary King asked the USDA to prevent the opening of a horse slaughterhouse in Roswell. The slaughterhouse was blocked when President Barack Obama signed a bill withholding money for federal inspectors.

“The Animals’ Angels’ exposé of conditions at the Southwest Auction House woke up New Mexicans to the conditions in the horse slaughter pipeline, which cannot be accomplished humanely,” said Patience O’Dowd, president of the Wild Horse Observers Association in Placitas. “They were able to get it into the media out of state. What they did was they made it so unpopular that the public officials would have to pretend they were against horse slaughter.”

It’s the end of the afternoon at the Good Friday sale in Shipshewana. The sturdy trail horses and the blooded Quarter Horses have been auctioned, the crowd reduced to a few locals who are either looking for a last-minute deal or regard this as the best entertainment in a small town. Keith and Sonja are back at their hotel, uploading two hours of video to a computer. (The Meadowses admit to violating the “no camera” signs: “It’s a public auction,” Sonja says, “so I think the public has a right to be there and document what’s going on.”). The kill buyers are still on the grounds, however. In fact, Jaron Gold, who owns a horse farm in Port Huron, Mich., across the river from Canada, is sitting in the auctioneer’s booth. When he spots a horse that looks cheap enough to peddle to the slaughterhouse, he raises a finger for $100, two fingers for $200. To Lambright these are fair prices for washed-up horses.

“What do you do with a car when it’s worn out?” he said later. “You get rid of it. They’re an animal. They’re not pets. What do you want to do? Do you want to leave it alive to suffer and die?”

After the auction ends, at 4:15 p.m., trailers back up to the stables. Wranglers lead horses into tightly confined stalls and tie them up for their final journeys. But the wheeling and dealing still isn’t over.

A racemare named Proud Mover—a 9-year-old daughter of Proud Citizen, runner-up in the 2002 Kentucky Derby (gr. I)—is purchased by Beyond the Roses, a Michigan horse rescue operation whose members identified her by flipping lips. Founder Gail Hirt has rescued 32 Thoroughbreds since last December, including Otis Ridge, who raced at Arlington Park, and Senita Lane, winner of the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Lassie and the mother of foals by Big Brown and Malibu Moon.

Proud Mover was brought to Shipshewana after going barren as a broodmare and sold for $550 to Gold. The kill buyer resold the mare to Beyond the Roses at a small profit and personally vanned her to the group’s farm. She is now back with one of her old owners, Deann Baer of Indiana. When Hirt contacted Baer and told her the mare had been rescued from a kill pen, “she was beside herself. Now she has her turned out with her other mares. She’s retired.”

With all of this going on, Keith and Sonja wait in their pickup truck, out of Lambright’s sight. Lambright looked at Sonja earlier and didn’t recognize her, but the Meadowses are not taking the chance of blowing their cover and getting kicked off the grounds.

“He knows our name, and he hates us with a passion,” Sonja says. “They’re protective of the industry. We’re threatening.”

The couple debates whether to tail a kill buyer’s truck headed for Kentucky then decide against it—such a short trip is unlikely to result in a regulatory violation. The auction in Colorado beckons. The trailers pull away. Keith and Sonja Meadows watch. They will keep watching until the day there are no more trailers, the day when American horses are no longer sold for slaughter.