By Marc Paulhus
(Reprinted courtesy of The Humane Society of the United States)
Horses have the largest eyes of any land animal. Those who buy and train horses often look for what they call a “kind eye” when making their choices, but it is, more accurately, an expression of interest and alertness, without fear.
I, on the other hand, am troubled by recent memories of young horses who were very, very afraid. Their eyes were opened so wide that the white rim normally hidden from view was visible. The youngsters whinnied and huddled together, trembling, crammed onto the sale floor at a crowded and noisy livestock auction in Canada. The bidding had begun. . . .
I had gone to Canada hoping to resolve disparities among the statements of a giant pharmaceutical company, a trade association, and their opponents. At issue is the treatment of more than 50,000 pregnant mares used in the production of the estrogen-replacement drug, Premarin®, and those mares’ foals.
For years there have been allegations that the mares are abused during the six-month season every year that their estrogen-rich urine is collected. Harnessed in narrow stalls and unable to turn around, pregnant mares have been found deprived of exercise, adequate water, and veterinary care while tethered by chains so short they could not even lie down comfortably. The World Society for the Protection of Animals, among others, documented such serious problems in 1995 during tours of pregnant mare urine (PMU) production farms (see the Winter 1996 HSUS News). Since then the manufacturer of Premarin, Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, has claimed that many problems have been corrected and that company inspections of PMU farms have increased. But Wyeth-Ayerst has refused to allow The HSUS access to PMU farms to independently verify conditions.
The fate of the foals also has been hotly contested. Wyeth-Ayerst and PMU farmers have denied allegations by animal-protection advocates that most of the foals go to slaughter. That denial lacks credibility.
More than half of all PMU farms — 282 of approximately 500 — are located in the province of Manitoba. The 1994 Manitoba Agriculture Yearbook, a provincial government document, reported that the PMU industry in Manitoba “produced close to 27,000 foals, some of which were used as replacement stock, some sold as pleasure horses, and the remainder, approximately 17,800 animals, sold to feedlots.” (Horses and foals that are not sent directly to slaughter are often “fattened” in feedlots for several months before being killed.) Thus the 1994 Yearbook data show that two-thirds of all PMU foals born in the province that year were slaughtered — nearly identical to the figure the government reported for 1993.
Many PMU foals could not have been offered for sale — for slaughter or for any other purpose. Many were dead before the farm sales and auctions ever occurred. A research study published by the Canadian Veterinary Journal reported that 22 percent of foals born on PMU farms in western Manitoba between April 18 and May 31, 1994, had died. Extrapolating these findings to the entire province, almost 6,000 PMU foals may have died within the first six weeks of life alone. The study cited comparable figures for foal mortality on farms managed to produce riding horses as ranging from 3 percent to 12 percent, asserting that such foals “were assigned a higher value, so that more resources were spent on individual foals.” Sadly, PMU foals, only a by-product of the drug industry, are usually worth far less than is the urine their mothers produce.
The Journal article listed the principal causes of death for PMU foals as starvation and/or exposure. Under conditions said to be typical of the PMU industry, mares were removed from the collection barns in early April after several months of near total immobility. They were then turned out in fenced paddocks to deliver their foals, often in subzero temperatures, without benefit of any shelter. Most of the foals that died were dead within days. Such deaths are totally inexcusable and entirely preventable.
If the 1994 Yearbook statistics are properly adjusted to exclude foals who had already died on the farm from the total made available for sale, then the proportion of all surviving PMU foals sent to feedlots and slaughterhouses would increase from 66 percent to 81 percent.
The North American Equine Ranching Information Council (NAERIC), a nonprofit group organized to represent PMU farmers, provides vastly different estimates. According to information posted on NAERIC’s World Wide Web site, fewer than one-third of the foals born on all PMU farms go to the international meat market. The Web site states that 24 percent are retained as future PMU replacement stock, 20 percent are sold for recreational purposes, 15 percent go to ranches and rodeos, and 9 percent are sold as show horses. NAERIC points to data from its survey of member PMU farmers throughout Canada and North Dakota to confirm its assertions. The only similarity between its claims and the official Manitoba government records is that both conveniently neglect to mention the thousands of foals who apparently die on PMU farms before any dispersal sales can be held.
As a representative of PMU farmers, NAERIC has a clear interest in countering criticism of its industry. That interest aside, some of NAERIC’s statements, such as the claim that nearly one-quarter of the foals are retained for replacement stock, are inconsistent. NAERIC maintains that the average PMU mare is in production for twelve years. If so it should be necessary to keep less than 10 percent of the female foals as future replacement mares and probably less than 1 percent as breeding stallions.
Manitoba’s agriculture officials, on the other hand, are arguably more objective. (Unfortunately, the agriculture departments in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where PMU farms also exist, either don’t collect or don’t make available comparable data on PMU farms.) They support their estimates with inspection reports of livestock auctions, health records, and other forms of public documentation. The NAERIC survey data used to substantiate its position are not so credible, since they are generated by NAERIC itself. The HSUS sent me to Canada in early September , when PMU farmers sell their surplus foals at public auctions and farm sales, to gather information independent of either government or trade group sources. I attended two of the largest auctions, held in Virden and Winnipeg, Manitoba, where approximately 1,700 foals were offered for sale. Large crowds attended these sales, but preferential seating in the front row was given to individuals representing certain feedlots and slaughterhouses.
Often foals were sold in lots of up to 60, with the auctioneers announcing the number of foals in the group and the average weight of the animals before the bidding began. As a result people who might have been willing to provide a home for a single foal or two were locked out of the general bidding. The auctioneers often referred to the foals as “meat horses,” making it all too clear what their eventual fate would be. Foals were quarter horses, Belgians, Percherons, Appaloosas, Thoroughbreds, paints, standardbreds, and crossbreeds of all kinds. They were also very young, averaging only three to five months of age, though some appeared to be even younger. (Although equine veterinarians generally agree that the best time to wean a foal is at about six months of age, PMU foals are weaned much younger. Because they have an eleven-month gestation, PMU mares must be reimpregnated eight to ten days after foaling and returned to the urine collection barns.)
From my own observations and the consensus of several others attending the sales, at least 70 percent of the foals at these auctions were purchased for slaughter. Because an overpopulation of horses exists in North America, thousands of surplus foals cannot find ready buyers. In this sparsely populated part of Canada, where the winters are harsh and the summers are short, relatively few people keep horses strictly for recreational riding. Most PMU foals are unregistered, even if purebred, and they are not as desirable or valuable as are “papered” horses in the eyes of many horse buyers. It is no surprise then that, without a local demand, many of the foals are disposed of as surplus horses usually are — by being sold to slaughter buyers.
We can take some comfort in knowing that improvements have been made by the PMU industry, however difficult it may be to evaluate them. Tom Hughes of the Canadian Farm Animal Care Trust has followed the industry for more than thirty years, and he remembers a time when conditions for PMU horses were much worse. Eventually, in 1990, government officials, veterinarians, and industry representatives drafted a voluntary code of practice that set minimum standards that farmers must meet to maintain their contracts with Wyeth-Ayerst. After the farm inspection tours of 1995, additional improvements were implemented and the drug company pledged to undertake more frequent compliance checks. Yet some serious problems remain — notably the long-term confinement without adequate exercise of PMU mares and the killing of surplus foals.
The HSUS Scientific Advisory Council sent a mailing to nearly 50,000 obstetricians and gynecologists last May that described the many alternative estrogen-replacement drugs available that are not derived from horse urine. [See “Facts About Hormone Replacement Therapy.”] It outlined a number of alternative approaches to treating menopausal symptoms and estrogen deficiency. Doctors requested thousands of additional brochures to share with their patients and colleagues, spreading the word that alternative therapies to Premarin are available to every woman.
A few people at the auctions I attended did purchase foals who would certainly go to new and better homes. Fifty foals were acquired by two U.S. horse-rescue groups, Ipswich Equine Rescue in Massachusetts and United Pegasus Foundation in California. A Canadian group, the Responsible Animal Care Society, purchased 22 more.
Those lucky few are now living and thriving in British Columbia, California, Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee, and elsewhere.
If “only” approximately 17,000 PMU foals are killed annually, that number is still horrifying. If twice that number are slaughtered, the magnitude of the horror is increased but it cannot be intensified.
I wish all women who take Premarin could look into the eyes of PMU foals and judge for themselves what kindness really is. Every woman has a choice, and every choice will make a difference.
Marc Paulhus is HSUS director, Equine Protection.