Guest View By Janice
Michelle Knutilla raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to rescue horses, only to end their lives by putting a twenty cent bullet in their brain.
The founder of HiCaliber Horse Rescue in Valley Center California, and the self proclaimed “Angel of Death,” found herself embroiled in controversy, under investigation by several government agencies, and evicted from the Valley Center, California ranch she literally trashed.
“We were a well loved, productive and respected rescue”, Knutilla wrote in a Facebook post. “Over the years, we have helped rescue over 1000 animals. And while our critics like to tell you our euthanasia rates are astronomical, inhumane, fraudulent and unnecessary – They aren’t”.
Who are these critics, and why has HiCaliber Horse Rescue become their target?
Was Knutilla really helping horses, or using them as fundraising pawns so she can take advantage of kindhearted supporters and donors, who think they are helping save lives?
“Michelle has pretty much created a cult of followers who hang on her every word”, said Barbara Benson who has been following HiCaliber for two years, including watching Knutilla and her associates on Tuesdays as they worked parking lots at the Ontario Livestock Auction. “She has perfected the art of pulling people in and making them feel as if they are part of something big. They see Michelle as a charismatic leader who can do no wrong. They hang on her every word, and throw money at her with no questions asked”.
It was the parking lot deals at the auction that ultimately triggered Knutilla’s fall from grace. She and former HiCaliber CEO Romney Snyder and volunteer Robyn Armstrong would go live with a Facebook video each Tuesday, and the more they cried over the condition of the horses, the more donations they received. They were so good at their pleas for money, they would get people donating the last few dollars in their bank accounts in order to help “save” the horses from slaughter.
According to Teresa Cook, a Valley Center resident who has also been watching HiCaliber, Knutilla had a network of locals she could call upon to bring her horses each week. The more crippled or skinny they were, the more the donations poured in.
Cook, who has been documenting animal cruelty at the Ontario auction, said “When I first started coming here in 2015, there were rarely any horses to be found. Suddenly the ‘rescue ladies’ began showing up, and each week, anywhere from three to ten horses would come through, not including the ones who were considered too lame to run through auction”.
Cook and Benson made multiple visits to the Ontario Livestock Auction, in disguise, in order to watch and document HiCaliber’s activities.
They felt there was something about their behavior which didn’t seem right, and they wanted to uncover the truth.
The two women came up with a plan to watch the covert and illegal activity transpiring between HiCaliber Horse Rescue and a few locals. They disguised themselves and used hidden cameras in order to document parking lot transactions. Their efforts resulted in hours of video and dozens of photos.
They learned Knutilla had an agreement with a few locals, in which they would meet her in the auction parking lot, and sell her horses that were too sick, too lame or too thin to be accepted for sale at the auction.
Knutilla clams they were relinquishments or owner surrenders, yet money always changed hands.
According to a former HiCaliber volunteer who had access to the contracts, there was never any paperwork for these parking lot horse deals.
Selling animals in public parking lots is illegal in California.
Cook witnessed many of these transactions.
One sticks out in her mind. It was a horse named Galle. She was a thoroughbred mare who had a dismal showing in her first race, and for reasons unknown, never raced again.
“Galle was probably the worst cruelty case I have seen while observing HiCaliber at Ontario”, said Cook. “This horse was so lame, she could not bear weight on one of her legs. She was obviously in pain, yet HiCaliber allowed her to stand tied to their trailer for five hours in the hot sun, with no hay or water. They should have called a vet, the minute they laid eyes on her”.
Rather than taking the mare to a nearby vet clinic for pain medication and an examination, they chose to haul her back to the ranch, where part of the road is only two lanes and windy.
When horses are being hauled in a trailer, they need to put weight on all four legs in order to stay balanced, something Galle couldn’t do. A horse who cannot support itself is at risk for falling in the trailer, which can cause catastrophic injuries.
Cook said, “The handling of Galle was the cruelest I saw by the HiCaliber team at the auction. When she was finally loaded into the trailer at 3:30, she had been standing for five hours with no wraps or bandages on her legs for support. She also spent much of the time with no hay or water”.
If a horse is severely lame, the lower leg with the problem as well as the opposite leg are usually wrapped in cotton wraps to help support the tendons. Not bandaging the opposite leg can lead to severe problems as it’s hard for the non-injured leg to support the extra weight.
Cook was enraged by what she witnessed. She called Animal Control and the sheriff. Animal Control never showed up.
She eventually met with the Riverside District Attorney who agreed the evidence she presented might be considered criminal animal cruelty, but charges were never filed.
So why was the horse forced to stand for five hours on an injured leg when she clearly was in pain?
Because Knutilla had more parking lot deals to make, and more fundraising to do on social media, including making multiple posts on Facebook.
HiCaliber had a policy in which they asked for an additional $650 beyond the purchase price of the horse, for what they call “Responsible Rescue”. The extra funds were designated for the initial care of the horse which included an exam by a vet, hoof trims, vaccinations, and in some instances dental care.
After speaking with several people who adopted horses from HiCaliber, it seems the routine care that should have been given as part of Responsible Rescue, was not given.
If the extra money raised for each horse was not actually used to care for the horse, what happened to the funds Knutilla spent hours crying for on live video?
“That’s for the California Attorney General to uncover.”, according to Jennifer Marek, another horse advocate who began to notice discrepancies in money raised versus money spent about two years ago.
“We were able to get our hands on some financial documents which clearly showed Knutilla was using the same bank account for both personal and rescue related expenses. They were turned over to the AG a few months ago.”