INDIANAPOLIS – An animal welfare controversy that has garnered national attention pits a gun-toting activist — once described as a “Yuppie Rambo” — against an Indiana farmer so well connected he met with President Donald Trump at the White House in September and was mentioned in the governor’s State of the State Address.
One man is on a crusade to fight animal cruelty by infiltrating farms and slaughterhouses with hidden cameras.
The other is a pioneer of agricultural tourism designed in part to combat the bad press of large-scale farming operations that now produce much of the country’s food.
The controversy was sparked by a video that depicted workers abusing calves at Fair Oaks Farms, a Northern Indiana dairy farm and tourism attraction that has been called the Disneyland of agriculture. It is expected to play out not only in the legal system, but in the court of public opinion.
The shocking video, released earlier this week, showed farmhands stomping on calves’ heads, body slamming them and striking them with metal rods. The footage was recorded by an undercover activist who was hired at the farm.
Reaction has been swift. The release has generated strong emotional outcry on social media, spurred an investigation by the Newton County sheriff’s office, and prompted some stores to stop selling one of the farm’s best known products.
Fair Oaks’ owner has acknowledged the abuse and fired the workers involved. He has also pledged to install security monitors to prevent future abuse.
The men behind the controversy appear about as different as two men can be.
But they also have much in common: They’re highly regarded in their respective fields, have a knack for publicity, and both say they’re driven by a love for animals.
Batman fighting animal cruelty
Richard Couto, 48, leads the group that recorded the abuse.
Couto — who goes by the nickname “Kudo” — founded his nonprofit called Animal Recovery Mission, or ARM, in 2010 in Miami. He describes the small organization as an “uncompromising defending force” for animal welfare.
He is militant about his mission. He carries loaded weapons, wears bulletproof vests and paints himself as a sort of Batman who fights animal cruelty — a former businessman who developed real estate by day and infiltrated illegal animal slaughter farms by night. Others have described him as a “Yuppie Rambo” and the “Dark Knight of Florida’s slaughter underworld.”
“Money wasn’t doing it for me,” he told IndyStar. “I wanted my life to stand for something.”
The ARM website heavily promotes his larger-than-life persona. A biography for Couto describes his involvement with motor cross and “sailing as a team member in the America’s Cup,” though he told IndyStar he had only trained for the event. He never actually competed.
He began volunteering in 2007 at the South Florida Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which largely focused on horse rescues. Couto was working one Saturday when founder Laurie Waggoner took him out on a call to what ended up being an illegal horse slaughterhouse.
They saved a former racehorse, Freedom’s Flight, that Couto later adopted. It set him on a course that would eventually lead to a clash with Indiana’s most prominent dairy farmer.
He soon began doing his own investigations, embarking on nighttime surveillance operations. After receiving death threats, he says, he separated from SPCA and started ARM.
“When I started, I had no experience in the field and was self-taught,” Couto told IndyStar. “I had some training from a government contractor later on, but I had no clue what I was doing at first.”
ARM now has about 15 full-time employees. He says many are former law enforcement, members of the military and government contractors. Their initial focus was on animal sacrifices and illegal slaughterhouses where horses were killed for meat.
His commando-style approach and sensational findings fueled public interest. In 2014, Couto landed on an episode of National Geographic’s “Wild.” The host, punk rocker Henry Rollins, followed Couto to learn about the illegal horse meat trade.
“His SUV is tricked out like a cop’s,” Rollins says in the segment. “He’s ready for long term stake outs, surveillance. He has mace, a bulletproof vest, night vision goggles. He’s prepared to do whatever it takes to save horses from slaughter.”
Rollins told IndyStar this week that Couto is “one that you don’t easily forget.”
“I liked his cause, his determination and the intensity with which he did everything,” he told IndyStar. “He’s a very full-on person. He’s saving animals, so I liked him.”
Couto attracts criticism
Couto and his group have won both praise and criticism — sometimes from the same agency.
The group’s work has led to investigations, arrests and convictions of animal abusers. While some law enforcement officials have expressed thanks for ARM, others have complained Couto’s vigilante approach can undermine their ability to prosecute animal abusers.
In Miami, for example, the state’s attorney said ARM has done a “stellar job” investigating extreme animal cruelty, but some of her deputies soured on the group after a cock-fighting raid.
The prosecutor in that case decided against filing charges, according to a 2018 Miami Herald article, saying he didn’t want to encourage ARM “to conduct future undercover investigations without appropriate supervision and support from law enforcement agencies and thus engage in behavior that is both extremely unsafe and potentially illegal.”
On the other hand, Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said he was happy for ARM’s help. The group can access places and gather evidence in ways that police can’t because of limited resources, Bradshaw told the Palm Beach Post.
In the Fair Oaks case, Newton County Sheriff Thomas VanVleet questioned why ARM didn’t report the abuse right away.
Couto said he doesn’t believe law enforcement will act without evidence of repeated wrongdoing.
Other critics accuse ARM of being more focused on the publicity than actually saving animals.
Couto’s response: Ridiculous.
“We get so much press sometimes that people think that’s why we do this work, but for me to refuse an interview when it is educating people, that’s part of my job,” he said.
Opening the curtain on the dairy industry
The farmer he is crusading against is Mike McCloskey, founder of Fair Oaks Farms and Select Milk Producers, one of the largest milk cooperatives in the country.
McCloskey and his wife are considered pioneers of agricultural tourism. Fair Oaks has been coined the Disneyland of the industry and earned praise for pulling back the curtain on agricultural practices.
Fair Oaks’ Dairy Adventure offers a theme park-like experience aimed at the vast majority of Americans who don’t farm. But there was also another motivation.
The show-and-tell approach was launched in part as a proactive attempt to combat anti-agriculture activists like PETA and ARM. It stood in contrast to the approach many in the industry were taking, pushing for so-called “ag gag” legislation in Indiana and other states that would make actions like ARM’s illegal.
“These groups tend to be very committed to their cause, very articulate, very well-funded, and passionate,” Fair Oaks CEO Gary Corbett told Pacific Standard magazine.
Rather than hiding or waiting to react after an attack, Corbett explained, “our initial reaction was that we’ve got to go on the offense.”
It was Fair Oaks’ promise of radical transparency that drew Couto’s attention.
What ARM found was in sharp contrast to the persona that McCloskey has honed since he was a boy living in Puerto Rico.
An affinity for working with animals
McCloskey, 67, was born in Pennsylvania. After his father died, McCloskey’s mother moved the family back to her native home in Puerto Rico. It was there, McCloskey said in a 2017 NPR interview, that he found an affinity for working with animals through an uncle who was a veterinarian.
“A day out with him,” McCloskey told NPR, “was full of adventures.”
Multiple requests from IndyStar to speak with McCloskey were not returned.
His experiences in Puerto Rico led to what would become a driving force in his life: an interest in food production.
His family moved to Mexico, where McCloskey obtained a doctorate of veterinary medicine from the University of Mexico in 1976. He worked with dairy farmers in Mexico before entering a two-year program in 1976 on dairy production medicine at the University of California Davis.
In California, he met the woman who would become his wife in California and started his first dairy farm.
The couple moved to New Mexico in 1990 and four years later he incorporated Select Milk Producers to market milk from dairy farms in New Mexico and Texas. The new cooperative was established after McCloskey got into a dispute with another co-op that was marketing his milk, according to the NPR interview. The fight was over McCloskey’s push for consistent, high standards.
“They wanted nothing to do with it,” he explained in the interview. “No interest. They saw no value in it.”
The McCloskeys moved to Indiana in 1999 and incorporated Fair Oaks Dairy Farm, which would become one of the largest dairy farms in the U.S.
But as they began building up the Fair Oaks brand, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission accused McCloskey and three others of insider trading in 2001. McCloskey had purchased thousands of shares of Dean Foods stock after learning of a pending merger.
After the merger was announced, the stock value jumped by 19% and the men sold their shares. In a 2004 settlement, without admitting or denying the allegations, McCloskey agreed to pay a penalty of more than $185,000, the statement said.
The insider trading case did little to slow McCoskey and his business ventures. Select Milk Producers launched a cheese operation in New Mexico and Fair Oaks partnered with The Coca-Cola Company to distribute Fairlife milk, which was higher in protein and lower in sugar.
All of this has led to his reputation as an ideas man. It has also made him rich.
He owns numerous homes, including a $1.3 million, 11,000-square-foot mansion with a pool and a tennis court.
His role as a major campaign donor has also helped him to cultivate political connections.
McCloskey and his companies have contributed more than $325,000 to state and federal campaigns and political action committees in the past 10 years. That includes nearly $100,000 to Vice President Mike Pence during his time as Indiana governor, about $22,000 to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s campaign and $10,000 to Pence’s Great America Committee.
Holcomb’s office said he was unavailable to comment, but he did praise the couple by name during his January State of the State address, thanking them for “planting a field of dreams in Indiana.”
The Trump administration has also taken notice. McCloskey served on Trump’s agricultural advisory committee, and was among those considered for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, according to Politico. He visited the White House to discuss trade as recently as September.
‘It made me suspicious’
McCloskey maintains he didn’t know about the abuse uncovered by ARM and some powerful allies have come to his defense, even questioning the video’s authenticity.
State Sen. Travis Holdman, the Markle Republican who carried Indiana’s unsuccessful ag-gag bill, cast doubt on the video.
“The camera always seemed to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “It made me suspicious.”
But Couto just isn’t buying McCloskey’s claim that he didn’t know about the abuse. He fought back Friday against suggestions that the video was doctored, releasing extended footage.
He said the new video shows the undercover ARM investigator told a “top manager’ about the mistreatment, only to have those concerns dismissed.
“We’re being questioned by the media, we’re being questioned by the McCloskey’s, by law enforcement, by the greater public…” Couto said. “By putting a long video out with longer scenes it’s very apparent that nothing is staged, OK?”
Two mavericks who have spent their careers building a brand are now fighting over the public’s perception of the dairy industry.
Follow Sarah Bowman on Twitter: @IndyStarSarah. C