As unlikely as it sounds, the most widely prescribed drug in the United States is made from animal waste. The drug is Premarin, an estrogen substitute manufactured by Wyeth-Ayerst and used by millions of women worldwide to ease the symptoms of menopause. Wyeth-Ayerst claims that Premarin’s “secret ingredient” pregnant mares’ urine (PMU) sets it apart from other estrogen drugs on the market. But Premarin contains another secret ingredient as well: animal suffering.
Why, Oh Wyeth
For six months of their pregnancies, an estimated 75,000 mares are confined to PMU farms in the United States and Canada, kept in stalls too small to take more than a step or two in any direction. The cumbersome rubber urine-collection bags that mares must wear at all times chafe their legs and prevent them from lying down comfortably. Mares are given limited drinking water so that their urine will yield more concentrated estrogens.
And although equine veterinarians say horses need daily exercise, Wyeth-Ayerst’s voluntary “Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Horses in PMU Operations” states only that horses must have as much exercise as is necessary for their welfare.(1) Interpretations of this vague code vary greatly: One PMU farmer in Alberta claims horses can “exercise in the stall. … [T]hey can lay down, move ahead, back up, [and] go sideways.”(2) Some farmers admit to exercising their horses as little as once every three or four weeks; others do not let mares out of their stalls once during the entire six months. When questioned about horses? need for exercise, a Wyeth-Ayerst spokesperson flippantly replied, “Some horses are active, some are couch potatoes.”(3)
PMU Farms Under Fire
After participating in a tour of PMU farms approved by Wyeth-Ayerst, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) identified several problems that contribute to the suffering of mares. For example, WSPA’s investigators found horses with untreated wounds and respiratory problems; dehydrated mares fighting and “sometimes becoming injured” as they struggled to drink during water-distribution times; and some farmers tying horses up so tightly they could not lie down at all in their narrow stalls. Says WSPA’s John Walsh, “The barns we toured were selected from a list prepared by the industry, so we expect we saw the best. If those are the best, we have very real concerns.” Wyeth-Ayerst now refuses to allow WSPA to conduct further inspections of PMU operations.(4)
The American Association of Equine Practitioners, which participated in the same tour, noted similar problems and also observed “numerous lower limb abnormalities” on mares (conditions associated with lack of exercise and strict confinement) and chafed flanks caused by urine-collection bags. The association added that some PMU farmers, did not demonstrate a satisfactory knowledge of routine veterinary care.(5)
Similarly, when inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) toured PMU farms, they found mares with stiff gaits and limps from “standing the line” without adequate exercise and at least one mare who had been denied veterinary care for a wound that was “dripping pus.” The inspectors said they “suspect that some producers may be failing to give parenteral antibiotics when needed to avoid dumping the urine.” A veterinarian who treats horses on PMU farms told the USDA inspectors that some horses were suffering from “renal and liver problems,” the result of insufficient drinking water.(6)
The Fate of the Foals
The fate of the approximately 70,000 foals considered industry “byproducts” who are born on PMU farms each year is equally disturbing. Some are used to replace their exhausted mothers, many of whom have been confined to PMU farms for up to 20 years. Most of the remaining foals, along with worn-out mares, are sold to “kill buyers” and are fattened, then slaughtered. Says one PMU industry insider, “See, the foals and the mares which can’t get pregnant any more-they are the by-product of the PMU industry. … We crush-’em and recycle-’em, just like [aluminum] cans.”(7)
A Bitter Pill to Swallow
A growing number of physicians are challenging the idea that a drug derived from animal waste is beneficial to humans. Dr. Phillip Warner, for example, director of the Menopause Institute of Northern California, has said, The notion that a substance derived from horse urine is “natural” to the human female is simply a tribute to 50 years of successful advertising. … Premarin is a combination of substances having estrogenic activity, but most of the compounds are foreign to the human female and not made by the human ovary. … To replace the products of the human ovary, we should use compounds identical to those that are being secreted into the bloodstream from the ovary. These hormones are estradiol, estrone, and estriol, as well as progesterone.I’m not an animal-rights person. If I felt Premarin was the best product, I’d say take it and to hell with the horses. But it isn’t, so I don’t prescribe it.”(8) And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which “has historically had significant concern about” crudely purified natural-source drugs, cautions that “the urinary estrogen excretion by pregnant mares is widely variable.” Studies have shown that the amount of estradiol-one of the active hormones in Premarin-can vary by almost 400 percent from one batch to the next.(9)
Hormone-replacement therapy drugs made from plant sources or synthetics more closely mimic the estrogens found in the human ovary, and at least three of the drugs currently on the market-Estrace, Estraderm, and Ogen-have been approved by the FDA for use in preventing osteoporosis.
If your doctor recommends estrogen-replacement therapy, please ask for one of the many humane alternatives to Premarin.
What You Can Do:
Please educate your colleagues and patients about the cruelty involved in Premarin production and the many alternatives that are available.
* Ask the FDA to require Wyeth-Ayerst to list the source of Premarin in all the drug’s patient inserts. Write: Jane E. Henney, Commissioner, FDA, 5600 Fishers La., Rockville, MD 20857.
* Urge the National Institutes of Health to include other estrogen drugs besides Premarin in the Women’s Health Initiative studies. Write: Dr. Suzanne Hurd, Director, Women’s Health Initiative, 2 Rockledge Center, Bethesda, MD 20892-7952.
* Check the formulary where you work to make sure it lists synthetic and plant-based estrogens, and speak out if it doesn’t.
* Call your health insurance provider to ask if synthetic and plant-based estrogens are covered by your program’s prescription drug plan. If Premarin is the only estrogen drug covered, please contact PETA and write a letter of complaint to the president of the insurance company.
* Write letters to the editors of your local newspapers to educate others about Premarin and its alternatives. Readers will value and trust your opinion on this issue. Contact PETA for a list of synthetic and plant-based alternatives to Premarin at 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; 757-622-PETA; www.peta-online.org.
And finally, stop supporting Monty Roberts!
1. Wyeth-Ayerst, “Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Horses in PMU Operations,” June 1, 1990.
2. Thomas, Don, “Horse Urine Farms Scrutinized,” The Edmonton Journal, March 18, 1995.
3. Russell, Frances, “Wall of Silence Hides PMU Industry,” Winnipeg Free Press, June 24, 1995.
4. World Society for the Protection of Animals, “Millions of Women Taking Premarin Cautioned,” news release, September 28, 1995.
5. American Association of Equine Practitioners, “AAEP Officials Inspect PMU Farms,” AAEP Report, July 1995.
6. Greene, Laurie H., and Don Borchert, “Tour of PMU Barns, Conducted March 21-25, 1994,” United States Department of Agriculture memo.
7. Jones, David, “The Price of a Wonder Drug: What Happens When the Medical Men Have Got What They Came For,” Today, January 17, 1995.
8. Read, Nicholas, “The Ark,” The Vancouver Sun, February 25, 1995.
9. Russell, Frances, :”New Hormone May Close Gate on Urine Farms,” Winnipeg Free Press, November 14, 1995.