At the center of the property lay a grisly butcher’s table, and a tub to drain the blood into from each slaughter. Chickens and ducks squawked in cages strewn about; dozens more darted through trash and broken fencing, or hid beneath floorboards to evade the chopping block. Elsewhere, fly-coated pigs lay in their own waste. They all scrounged on rotten fruit and sludge-filled water to survive.
This was not your typical slaughterhouse. Nestled into an unassuming residential neighborhood in Fort Myers, Florida, this illegal backyard butcher was hiding in plain sight. Customers came and went, and the stench of neglect, decay and slaughter filled the air.
On behalf of a compassionate neighbor, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) won a court order to seize the animals. On April 22, Farm Sanctuary led five Florida-based Sanctuaries—Critter Creek Farm Sanctuary, Kindred Spirits Sanctuary, Peacefield, Shelter Farm Sanctuary, and Yesahcan Sanctuary, Inc.—to free over 100 animals and bring them to Sanctuary.
The legal case
In August 2019, thanks to a nuisance lawsuit filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund on behalf of the concerned neighbor, the courts ordered the backyard butcher to cease operations. They did not comply. ALDF filed another petition in 2020, asking the court to enforce the August order and seize the animals.
On March 30th, 2020, the Court signed the second order. The same day, we learned that we had 30 days to get the animals out—a challenge even during the best of times, but especially difficult under government-mandated COVID-19 restrictions limiting travel and gathering in groups. Florida-based Sanctuaries Critter Creek Farm, Kindred Spirits, and Peacefield—all members of our Farm Animal Adoption Network—agreed to help with rescue, transport, fostering, and placement.
The day of the rescue
Our rescue teams approached the site at 8 a.m. per sheriff’s orders, ready to bring what was initially reported to be four cows and one chicken to safety. But the scene awaiting our trusty cohort surpassed what any of us had expected.
A team of police officers stood guard while the squawks of ducks and chickens filled the air. “We walked into the backyard and there was a small cooped area with probably 50 birds in it,” Logan Vindett from Kindred Spirits said. “Other birds were running everywhere, and there was a giant pig behind them.”
“I wasn’t psychologically prepared for what we were going to see, from the sheer number of animals to the conditions,” Chris Amerman from Critter Creek said.
Logan, along with Emma Hoel from Peacefield, got to work catching birds and placing them in cages for transport. Since we thought we were only transporting large animals, we lacked smaller crates to contain the panicked birds. John Hoel from Peacefield and Martin Linney—Farm Sanctuary’s representative on the ground—went to the nearest farm supply store to purchase all the crates they could find. “We bought them out of all their dog crates,” John said, “and at the end of the day there seemed to be just the right amount.”
Knowing we needed more help, Chris called in Shelter Farm Sanctuary, located just about an hour away. Co-founder Jenni Presley agreed on the spot. “We have all tried really hard to bridge the gaps between the state, and make sure that we can all act pretty quickly together. I think the network here is something that makes Florida unique.” Jenni then reached out to Karla Dumas at Yesahcan Sanctuary, Inc. to bring more hands (and a trailer) to the scene.
Back at the property, Emma and Logan turned their focus to the giant pig. “He was 600 pounds,” Logan observed. “He was in this little area. His food bucket had moldy bread covered in flies, and rotten fruit.”
“He had a water dish that you’d give to a small dog with not much water in it,” Chris added. “And he was trying to make a wallow for himself instead of drinking it. Watching that was heartbreaking. He had such a sweet disposition.”
With just a little bit of fresh fruit for coaxing, the pig walked himself right onto Logan’s trailer. One individual was now safe—but with the discovery of a second property, the animal count kept increasing.
The second property
Time is of the essence during rescue missions. We only had that day to get everyone out, and we kept finding more individuals in need—including at a second property across the street, where we found 5 goats, 3 sheep, a pony, a second pig, and close to 30 other birds.
“Animals kept running and hiding—they didn’t know we were there to save them,” John reflected.
As Logan loaded the goats, sheep and pony, Emma continued with the birds on her own. There was also a young pig tucked away out of sight. “We’re in this concrete block prison with stalls,” Jenni said. “There were gestation crates and machinery for removing hair from the animals. There’s troughs of rotting food and no water.” She found the young pig, now named Gabriel, huddled in a corner, lying in his own waste.
“We weren’t sure he was even alive,” Karla added.
Karla pulled the trailer in as close as she could, and she and Jenni checked him for signs of life. They brought him a banana. He raised his head and tried to eat, but didn’t have the strength.
Karla and Jody had heavy duty straps, which they placed under Gabriel to help hoist him up. He was able to stand with this support, but still needed to be carried to the trailer. “At that point he kind of went crazy because he thought he was next,” Karla choked. “Once he was in the trailer, he was actually very sweet. And also extremely sick.”
By happenstance, Karla’s veterinarian for Yesahcan was spending her day off in Fort Myers. She volunteered to come and help with the rescue, and was able to start treating Gabriel immediately. “He had a 106.5° temperature, which is extremely elevated for a pig,” Karla said. “The biggest concern was trying to cool him down immediately before we could leave.”
The vet recommended bringing Gabriel directly to the clinic. Karla recounts, “We were about an hour away, and she rode in the trailer with him. He was laying up against the side of the trailer and she laid right next to him, petting him. If she stopped to respond to a text message, it was very subtle—but he lifted his hoof up and touched her arm. Like he knew he was okay and he was safe.”
Still, Gabriel’s journey is just beginning. In the days following, he required several courses of antibiotics, as well as frequent nebulization for respiratory distress. Despite all he is up against, his new caregivers are giving their all to help him pull through.
The work continues
The team rescued 113 animals that day from starvation, neglect, and slaughter. Some have already passed from the ailments they sustained; others, like Gabriel, have a long road ahead of them.
“It boggles my mind that animal cruelty really only applies to dogs and cats—and maybe horses,” Chris reflected. “I just hope that in ten years from now, a lot of things have changed in the way that we treat animals in general.”
We still have a long way to go. Despite the deplorable conditions of these plots and their inhabitants, the owners still don’t seem to think they did anything wrong. This rescue serves as a reminder that animal cruelty extends beyond factory farming; supporting smaller, local farms like this establishment can be just as damaging.
Collaborative work like this rescue helps us change the tide. Together, we can spare more individuals from harm and honor farm animals for the sentient beings they are.
“Despite how difficult it was to see the animals living in these conditions, the Sanctuaries on the ground and Farm Sanctuary’s shelter team worked incredibly well together, demonstrating a beautiful spirit of collaboration and professionalism,” Martin added.
“I would do it again every day if I had to, just to get them out of there,” Jenni said. “No matter how awful and heartbreaking it is to see, and no matter the work you have to put in afterward to keep them safe.”
We thank ALDF, Critter Creek, Kindred Spirits, and Peacefield for all their preparation and work with this rescue; to Shelter Farm Sanctuary and Yesahcan for joining our endeavors at a moment’s notice; and to all the volunteers and local authorities who assisted us that day.