The mysterious deaths of 17 horses across Florida, USA, since January has brought animal rights groups into conflict with local police.

The Florida police has offered little explanation for the spate of killings since January this year, which involve the butchered bodies of horses being found in out of the way places like as rural pastures, in stables and by the side of minor roads.

Animal welfare groups say the horses are being butchered for meat and think the same group is doing the killing.

Richard Couto, an investigator with the South Florida Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), said it is plainly obvious the horses were being killed and sold as meat.

He said: “Many people close to the SPCA have been approached by guys with coolers, offering horse meat.”

But Florida police detective Alvaro Zabaleta said: “It’s nothing like the spree of horse mutilation that people make it out to be.”

However, after the latest incident where two pet horses were butchered, another police spokesperson, Tania Reus, said: “When you come across a carcass and see a head and very little else, it’s pretty clear.”

Mr Couto said the stance of Florida police was disingenuous: “They’re lying to us. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it’s the same group of people doing this.”

Couto said the carcasses have all the same body parts removed and the identical pieces of plastic are left on the ground.

He said the police is classifying many carcasses as illegal dumping and not including them in crime figures.

The Humane Society of America is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the people responsible for the deaths.