Victoria McCullough may have been born with a silver spoon, but she prefers a pitchfork and boots.
The only child of the late Rexford Davis, founder of the country’ s largest, privately held petroleum company, McCullough says she has no idea of her net worth as Chesapeake Petroleum’s heir and reigning board chair, nor does she care.
A weekend show jumper, she can often be found mucking her horses’ stalls, even though she has a staff of 13 to do it for her. Three times a week, McCullough commutes from one of her two farms in Wellington, Fla., to Washington D.C., where she has a home in the Georgetown Ritz Carlton.
Hers is a life of privilege, but McCullough doesn’t take it for granted. Money can make you, break you or give you some vision, she says, and for her, it’s the latter. For her, it has helped fuel a passion for saving the animals that have given her such joy, and purpose.
Long before public outrage erupted over European beef products that contained horse meat, McCullough was hard at work ensuring that horses and the human food chain could never mix. At least, not in the United States.
“I found out in late 2007 that the U.S. was slaughtering 200,000 horses a year,” McCullough said. “Horses were being sent to auction, and the people buying them were contracted by foreign-owned companies, mostly Belgian.”
A lifelong animal lover and avid horsewoman, McCullough couldn’t believe it. Possessing both the means and motivation, McCullough set out to stop the practice.
She enlisted the help of state Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, to first tackle the issue on a state level. Together they crisscrossed Florida, bringing awareness of equine slaughter – a growing problem in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties — into the spotlight. In 2010, the Florida Legislature unanimously passed the Horse Protection Bill, making it a felony to slaughter horses for personal or commercial use.
McCullough’s name and reputation influenced the bill’s breezy passage, according to Abruzzo.
A bloody slaughter
When horses are purchased at auction by buyers intending to kill them, they are hauled away in double-decker tractor trailers, where they are beaten and often blinded with baseball bats to mollify them. After crossing the border into Mexico, the animals are stabbed on either side – an act said to tenderize the meat – and immobilized. Workers then saw the horses’ legs off at the knee and hang them so they bleed out. All while the animals are still alive.
Once slaughtered, the horse meat is sent to Europe and other countries, where it is considered a delicacy. Horses in the United States are not raised as a food source, and federal regulations ban specific substances from being administered to animals that are destined for the dinner table — everything from cattle to sheep.
While McCullough recognized she could not control what other cultures deem acceptable to eat, she felt she could have an impact on whether those animals were safe for human consumption — and horses from the Unites States are not. Most, if not all, have been give the anti-inflammatory painkiller phenylbutazone, known as bute, which causes cancer in humans.
“If you ban Chinese milk in the U.S., why would you export this product?” McCullough asked.
In 2008, she went to Sugarcreek, Ohio, to attend what was then one of the largest auctions in the country for horses intended for slaughter. She bought the entire auction – 82 horses. The group, whose average age was 3 years old, included everything from race horses to pleasure horses whose owners could not or would not carry them through the winter season. The next year, she purchased 263 more horses and brought them to Wellington to expose the bloodshed.
To date, McCullough has rescued 1,800 horses.
She has now taken her fight to the federal level, where the fight to pass legislation comes with much tougher hurdles. For 10 years, according to McCullough, elected officials have tried and failed to pass federal laws banning the slaughter of horses for human consumption. Typical measures make it through the House but die in the Senate.
But owning a petroleum company offers a level of access enjoyed by few. In 2011, McCullough happened to be at the same event as President Obama. She “quickly and briefly” filled him in, she said, and he told her he’d be on board to end the senseless slaughter. At her own expense, McCullough hired a lobbyist, and the campaign began.
In the budget slated to take effect Oct. 1, funding for equine slaughter-house inspectors has been stripped.
“There is no slaughter without inspectors,’” McCullough explained.
But that wasn’t enough of a guarantee for McCullough. What if a new administration came in and re-funded the inspectors?
Thanks to McCullough’s efforts, the Safeguard American Food Exports, or SAFE, Act is pending before Congress. The bill would prohibit slaughtering horses for human consumption in the United States and ban their export abroad. It has bipartisan support, something Abruzzo says McCullough is adept at winning.
“She’s extremely effective because she has the experience, respect and resources to get things done in Washington as well as work across party lines,” he said. “She’s not coming from a self-serving angle; she’s coming from a humanitarian and protection angle.”
Rescue a “favorite” part of life
McCullough’s interest in the horses doesn’t wane once she buys them. The animals, which will live out their lives with her, receive the same veterinary care, blacksmiths and feed as her expensive jumpers, who may occupy a neighboring stall in one of McCullough’s luxurious facilities. Walk through her barns and she rattles off the names and stories behind each rescue as though they are her children. There’s Walter, a former rodeo horse sporting 12-foot scars from spurs ground into his sides; 35-year-old Jeffery, named for his striking resemblance to a giraffe; and Sundance, an energetic gelding who sticks his nose through the stall for a loving nuzzle. She even has a rescue donkey named Jesus that would have been used as filler meat, she said.
McCullough’s friends from politics and show jumping have stepped up and adopted many of the rescues. There are 60 farms in Wellington alone hosting some of the animals she saved. She’s looking to buy a large farm in Maryland and convert it into a rescue facility. She formed a nonprofit, Triumph Project, to raise awareness.
“Rescue is one of my favorite parts of life,” she said. “I’m going to get that legislation [passed]. I guarantee you. We are human. We are expected to be humane.”