Above: Victoria McCullough and Joseph Abruzzo.Victoria McCullough received the Humanitarian Award at the Pegasus Awards Dinner on January 18th during the US equestrian annual meeting in Lexington, Kentucky.
PHOTOS BY George Kamper A life-long animal lover, an avid equestrian, and patron of the equestrian sport, McCullough is the chairman and owner of Chesapeake Petroleum in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the country’s largest privately-held petroleum company. She assumed the position in 1989 following the unexpected death of her father and company founder. Having to prove herself in a very male-dominated industry, McCullough learned to handle adversity with finesse and political savvy.
In 2007, McCullough became aware that over 200,000 American horses were being slaughtered and their meat was being shipped overseas for human consumption. Determined to stop this practice, Victoria gathered the facts to prove that horse slaughter is not simply inhumane, but that consumption of the meat is a serious threat to human health. She may have personally rescued more horses than any one else in America. Florida Senator Joseph Abruzzo works with Victoria as her Washington lobbyist. Equestrian Living publisher C. Wynn Medinger spoke with them in early 2017, and edited excerpts appear here.
Florida Senator Joseph Abruzzo: Victoria and I met in a buffet line at the Jacobs’ home (Deeridge Farm) here in Wellington about two years before I was elected. She started to educate me on the equine issues of our state. When I got elected, one of the first bills I worked on was the Ivonne Rodriguez and Victoria McCullough Horse Protection Act.
If it passed, it would be one of the first laws in the nation making it a felony to abuse, neglect, or abandon an equine. It also said that if a Florida restaurant put horse meat on the menu, it would automatically be shut down. We spent a lot of time traveling the state trying to get people and groups involved, and I’m proud to say, it passed unanimously, and it is now the law in the State of Florida.
Victoria McCullough: Then what happened is that other states like California and Texas started to copy it. Next the senator got passed Nicole’s Law that required mandatory helmets for young riders. It was named after Nicole Hornstein, a 12-year-old girl who was riding a horse without a helmet, when the animal stumbled and fell. Nicole died in 2006 after 20 days in a coma.
Abruzzo: As Victoria and I started to work together, we talked about Washington, D.C. I was going to line up some prominent lobbyists to work with us, and I realized that Victoria could do this in her sleep. She is just as good as any top lobbyist, so we decided to team up and do it ourselves.
McCullough: We’re lucky because we have friends. The senator works across the aisle, both here in Florida and in Washington, where he is my lobbyist. He’s not my advocate. He is my lobbyist. There’s a difference.
Congress doesn’t work. If you have to wait for Congress, it will never happen. You have to go to the top, work the pieces together, find your friends and relationships, and turn the key. You have to do it so people want to help. We need the White House and we need the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Abruzzo: It’s very rare that someone who works in advocacy gets taught by their client. But Victoria is so much more than a client. We’re truly a family. She is held in such high regard in Washington, where it’s about respect and the relationships we build. She has taught me how to operate in Washington—how to actually get things accomplished.
McCullough: When we wanted to end horse slaughter, we had to question, how do you really end it? How do you really stop each state from applying to the Department of Agriculture to open a facility? The senator had a brilliant idea when we visited Vice President Joe Biden. Biden is just so dear to us, and we love him so much. We walked into his residence, and he greeted us in his jeans with his German shepherd and dog toys all over. He said, “OK, guys, you are preaching to the choir. But just give me something. Give me a legality, something I can win with.” And we said, “OK. Here it is. Horsemeat is not agriculture. It’s not a USDA food product. It is filled with the drugs that are banned in Title 21. Horses are being shipped secretly in the evening in an unregulated industry for people to eat, with a toxin that is forbidden by the FDA for any of our food animals. Here’s the idea: It’s our liability if we knowingly sell horses to kill buyers—knowing where they are going—let’s say to a Belgian company that sells horsemeat. Therefore if it is not a viable product, we are liable.” And Biden said, “OK, I get it.”
Horse slaughter is legal in Canada, and they are a large meat exporter. We spoke in front of Parliament there and told them that no member of Parliament can say to their constituents that the horse meat they export is safe. That’s because it’s ours. Seventy-five percent of the horsemeat exported from Canada comes from the U.S.
Abruzzo: You know the horse world and the chemicals and drugs that are given to horses. If people abroad knew what they were truly eating…
McCullough: In 2013, Biden authored the agricultural de-fund mechanism within the national budget to deny funding for horse slaughterhouse inspections, thereby shuttering these facilities.
Another friend of ours, Senator Udall, authored and passed our Udall Kirk Amendment in the Senate in 2015-16 to protect wild horses and burros from slaughter. And in October we joined one of our favorite allies, Fleet of Angels, to save over 800 mustangs from an overburdened sanctuary in blizzard conditions in South Dakota. Now, fewer than 200 remain, safely housed in Colorado waiting for new homes.
Then there were 150 wild burros that the Bureau of Land Management had that had no protection, and they sent them to me. I have two of them here in the barn.
McCullough: We plan on having many friends and allies in the new (Trump) administration. The attorney general of Florida is a great animal lover. She has a Saint Bernard that goes to work with her every day. She’s wonderful and helpful, and also close to President Trump. I know Trump; he has been to my rescue. And I’m also in the petroleum industry, and that helps a lot.
Some Republicans are pro-slaughter, but I don’t think they are pro having this served to people as food. Even the ranching mentality isn’t always aware of where the product goes. It’s just a matter of economy. How many horses do you keep when they are old or infirm? Euthanasia should be a responsibility that goes with horse ownership. Owners need to be responsible for the end of life, too.
We have wonderful friends on both sides of the aisle. The trick is how many friends can you make. You put the (anti-slaughter) pieces together so that it’s such a perfect argument that you can’t even debate it. So we won’t have setbacks. To truly save equines it takes a network of reliable resources. The U.S. is blessed to have so many warriors for our horses.
In order to end slaughter and transportation, you need to build up the pieces of the pyramid. What have we done since 2013? We’ve been able to show that the country doesn’t want to eat horsemeat. We have made serving it an automatic felony in several states. We have shown that there is a health risk in eating it and a liability in selling it. And I’m just this close in proving that it is in U.S. food sources.
Abruzzo: I believe the vast majority of the American public stands with us in protecting horses and making sure they are treated in a humane way. But this will be an ongoing issue. Thank God for Victoria. We have to keep the fight going. Victoria understands how the government works, how the agencies work, where the bills and loopholes are. I can’t say enough. Working with her has been the ride of my life.
McCullough: Advocacy has a place, but the real truth to where power lies in the U.S. is the White House and the Senate Appropriations Committee. Those are not advocacy accessible. Advocacy has not figured out how to make itself powerful instead of emotional. Emotion does not win here. This is a game of leverage and relationships.
And we don’t plan on losing—I guarantee it.