On December 13, which coincidentally was National Day of the Horse, HiCaliber Horse Rescue, and its founder, Michelle Cochran Knuttila, were evicted by San Diego Sheriff Deputies from a Valley Center, California ranch they had rented since 2014. They had failed to pay rent for seven months.
At one point, an estimated 200 horses were living on the 15-acre ranch, although by the time HiCaliber was evicted, the horses had dwindled to less than 25.
During the eviction, Knuttila walked horses off the ranch, tethering them to trees and poles on neighboring property, awaiting transport to a new location.
The $32,000 in back rent may be the least of the landlord’s problems. Brenda Markstein-Fox, one of the landlords, told Channel 7 News San Diego, “The destruction of the property is unbelievable. All the landscaping is gone. Inside, animals had lived and there’s feces all over, inside the houses. It’s just really appalling.”
According to landlord Travis Fox, he had to remove 30 dump trucks worth of garbage and horse manure, which was two feet high at various locations on the property. Fox said he spent $100,000 in legal fees to evict HiCaliber. Knuttila lingered for months on the ranch despite an eviction notice, claiming she had nowhere to go with the horses.
The landlords are suing HiCaliber for more than $4 million in damages and property devaluation.
HiCaliber founder, Michelle Knuttila says it was her critics who sabotaged her work – including an anonymous blogger named Shedrow and horse activist, Jennifer Marek – causing donations to plummet, which, in turn, made it impossible to care for horses and pay rent.
Shedrow, in a series of blog posts, accused Knuttila of obtaining donations to buy horses under the pretense of saving them from the slaughterhouse, and giving them refuge, when she planned all along to euthanize them. For nearly two years, Shedrow reported on conditions at HiCaliber, gathering a large audience, growingly aghast at revelations in her reports.
Shedrow also gathered a network of “moles,” some of them volunteering to work at HiCaliber, and secretly taking pictures of conditions and trying to keep track of horses that were euthanized. At one point, Shedrow wrote, “the body count was becoming alarming.”
HiCaliber first moved into the ranch in 2014, with 50 horses, along with Knuttila and employees, and soon grew into one of the largest horse rescue operations in California. Knuttila launched a social media campaign which reportedly raised millions in donations through Facebook, PayPal, and Venmo.
In 2017, HiCaliber Ranch claimed to have rescued 463 horses, placed 169 horses with adoptive families and organizations, completed 128 private purchases and euthanized about 100 horses, the latter, Knuttila said, were purchased with incurable illnesses and in critical condition. Knutilla referred to shooting ailing horses as “compassion pulls.”
Adrienne Moore, a veterinarian familiar with HiCaliber, has accused Knuttila of shooting horses that, “in the right hands, would be fine.” Knuttila claims decisions regarding euthanasia were made by veterinarians, not her.
As Knuttila became more widely recognized for her work, her YouTube and Facebook videos attracted attention, particularly ones where she discusses shooting horses.
In one video, she sings about killing horses.
In another, she refers to herself as “An Angel of Death.”
In another video, she speaks about how she is thankful to God to be able to kill horses, to stop their pain.
She says, “There is something very, very powerfully tragic, but beautiful to be able to look this horse in the eye and tell him, ‘It stops here. No more.’ He will not have to face another day in that body. And I get that not everybody could do my job. I’m OK with that. If everybody could do my job than I wouldn’t be where I am and we wouldn’t be as successful as we are.”
In another video, she jokes about shooting horses, as gunshots are heard in the background. The camera shows horses running, as she laughs, pretending they are about to shoot horses. She laughingly admits that her jokes are in bad taste.
It was not euthanasia alone that prompted a growing outcry against HiCaliber. Horses awaiting adoption or sale on the ranch were subjected to inhumane treatment, her critics contend. Shedrow reported that pens were filthy and muddy. There were often empty water tubs, or tubs filled with slimy green water. There was too much manure and too many horses for staff to care for. Few horses received enough interaction and exercise. Many were depressed.
Shedrow posted pictures of injured and sickly horses. Horses with scraped up skin, jutting ribs and bones, wounds, ratty manes, and dirty coats. The mounds of manure, which were overwhelming, trailing around large sections of the stall areas, created a horrendous fly problem. Consequently, horses were never at rest. Meanwhile Guinea hens made constant noise, defecating in water buckets and feed, adding to the horses’ discomfort.
Then there were reports of tarps, manure and too much blood for the death of specific horses to have been painless. Outside were seen pools of blood, a thick trail of blood, and a pile of manure on top of the blood. Shedrow called Knuttila and her group, “The Manson Family.”
Towards the end, HiCaliber simply stopped paying rent, and utilities. Finally, when they were actually escorted out by police, they left the ranch.
The landlords allege in their lawsuit additional details that support what Shedrow reported.
The landlords allege that dogs inside the main house chewed up the banisters. The floors were buckled by dog urine. There were bird droppings caked in the tile shower. In the guest house, the walls were chewed. In the cottage, where some 16 cats were housed, they filled the place with feces and urine. Rat droppings lined the cupboard inside another home.
The electric-powered water well, the only source for fresh water to the property, was not operable because Knuttila failed to pay the electric bill. The septic tank was made inoperable after Knuttila reportedly threw underwear in it. The house had a bidet and reportedly Knuttila had men or boys use it as a urinal.
She allegedly broke the tractor. The golf cart is missing. Trees, bushes and flowers were cut down or are now dead. Thousands of feet of fencing was destroyed. She cut down the vineyard.
Death also haunted the premises. Reportedly cow skulls and bones were found a few feet from the driveway. The remains of two cows were found. Both skulls had gunshot wounds to the head and spent .22 caliber shells nearby. A stillborn horse was found in a pile of manure.
The body of an endangered species bobcat was found in a garbage bag in a freezer, next to a package of Omaha Steaks, a headless chicken and a horse leg. Animal Control authorities have removed the bobcat to investigate the cause of death.
Explaining the condition of the property, HiCaliber’s attorney Sean Jones told NBC 7, “Considering the thousands of horses and hundreds of volunteers that have passed through HiCaliber Horse Rescue over the last several years, the wear and tear on the property is to be expected. While the HiCaliber Horse Rescue staff had plans in place for remediating any property damage prior to their exit, those plans have unfortunately been frustrated by the current eviction process.”
In addition to critics, Shedrow, Marek and others, a series of articles written by popular, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization in San Diego, inewsource, raised public awareness. inewsource senior reporter Brad Racino reported that HiCaliber raised substantial money from donors and some of the money was spent on late night fast-food, mobile phone spy technology, bar tabs, computer games, Weight Watchers, trips to sushi spots, Starbucks, Barnes & Noble and other expenditures seemingly unrelated to horse rescue.
Knuttila claims these were legitimate expenses, such as business related entertainment, necessary for her work and that “the paper trail is solid”. The spy technology, she said, was purchased to protect her computer from spies and moles who were trying to get unauthorized information to use against her.
According to inewsource, there were, or are ongoing, numerous investigations for fraud and improper veterinary practices related to Knuttila’s management of HiCaliber. According to Racino, in a March 2018 report, “Local and state agencies investigating HiCaliber include the California Veterinary Medical Board and Attorney General’s Office, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, the Inland Valley Humane Society and the Ontario Police Department.”
The status of those investigations are unknown.
At least one investigation seems to have cleared HiCaliber of wrongdoing. inewsource reported, “The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles visited HiCaliber on Jan. 2, 2018 and ‘closed their case after finding no evidence of animal cruelty or neglect,’ according to emails obtained under the state’s public records law.”
San Diego County spokesman Michael Workman said county inspectors found nothing wrong.
Michelle Knutilla at Hi Caliber Horse Rescue
Prior to her work at HiCaliber, Knuttila was a San Diego County animal control officer. In 2010, she fell at work and suffered a traumatic brain injury that required significant treatment including speech therapy. After her fall, she lost her job, got divorced, and lost her home.
She applied for disability but was reportedly denied due to conflicting evidence about the nature of her injuries. Knuttila, unable or unwilling to work as an animal control officer, and unable to obtain disability, started HiCaliber, with the IRS recognizing it as a non-profit [501 C-3] horse rescue business.
After starting HiCaliber, she purchased as many as 1000 horses, snatching them, she said, from the slaughterhouse pipeline, where horses are hung upside down alive and multiple strikes are required to render the horse unconscious prior to slaughter.
To find horses to rescue, Knutilla ran an operation called “Bad Backyard”, where she offered $200 to anyone who located a sick or neglected horse which she could rescue. Once she got a horse – she would publish a fundraising video showing the animal, some in near-death condition, and seek donations to save them from the being taken to the slaughterhouse.
Knuttila would go live on Facebook each Tuesday, often crying over the condition of horses she rescued. The more crippled or skinny the horses were, the more donations poured in, her critics claim.
If they ultimately had to be put down, Knuttila argued, she did it with compassion – with a single bullet to the head. Her critics claim Knuttila often continued seeking donations to save horses after she had killed them.
In her defense, Knuttila says her critics are cyberbullies, focusing on her personal life, such as her breast enhancement surgery and personal appearance. Yet her online behavior seems to have given critics plenty of additional fodder for criticism.
She wears a sweatshirt which says, “Well-behaved women rarely make history”.
She appears on videos using vulgarities and sexual references. At her HiCaliber gift shop, Knuttila offered t-shirts, shot glasses, and thongs with “Eat a Dick” written on it, and coffee mugs with “Eat My Horseballs!” These may have a literal meaning.
Knuttila published a video showing her slicing, and cooking the testicles of a horse she castrated, which she ate, then washed down with wine which she drank from the bottle.
Michelle eating horse testicles.
One of her most vocal critics, as mentioned above, is horse rescue advocate Jennifer Marek. In one YouTube video, Knuttila shows a horse she says she must kill and tells her audience the horse is named Marek.
Knuttila said things came to an unhappy ending at the Valley Center ranch because of bad press and unfair online criticism – and the poor horses were the victims. When she could no longer get sufficient donations, and stopped paying rent, she was given notice of eviction. She tried to find another ranch to rent to continue operations but her critics, she said, contacted property managers and real estate companies in the entire area, sending photos of Knuttila and her operations, and asking them not to rent to her.
In a September video, after she got notice of eviction, Knuttila is seen driving around the ranch, saying, “It’s a wake-up call when we walk through a ranch that used to have over 100 of your dreams sitting here happily munching hay, and now there is about 30… I can’t believe this is really the end. I worked so hard. I gave everything I had to these horses.”
According to inewsource, some are still giving to Knuttila. An online fundraiser to give her “a hand up” recently raised about $2,400. Meantime, Knuttila started an online women’s empowerment group which she calls Alpha Mare and is raising money for that also.
A status conference for the landlord’s lawsuit against HiCaliber is scheduled for May 2019. Considering Knuttila was unable to pay rent and donations are at low ebb, the chances of the landlord collecting anywhere near $4 million from Knuttila or HiCaliber may be nil.
When she was evicted, Knuttila reportedly owned nearly 25 horses. Critics are questioning what happened to them, how they are being treated and how many are still alive.