The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1/2/04 ]

Drug maker's cutbacks send 20,000 horses to auction block

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A decision made in a sterile, glass-and-chrome pharmaceutical laboratory in New Jersey might affect horse barns in Georgia and other states.

Pills produced by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals that use chemicals extracted from the urine of pregnant horses to ease menopausal symptoms for women have come under fire in recent months, causing the market to crash.

The drop in sales has forced the company to decide to cut its horse herds, leaving at least 20,000 horses at risk for slaughter.

An auction of hundreds of these horses is being held Saturday in Roanoke, Ala., just across the Georgia border, 26 miles from LaGrange.

In July, federal researchers said hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, was potentially harmful to tens of millions of post-menopausal women who had taken the drugs.

And later, a study of Prempro, another drug that uses ingredients from horse urine, was halted earlier than scheduled. Researchers found the chemicals seemed to increase risks of breast cancer, stroke and blood clots -- outweighing the benefits of lessening colon cancer and osteoporosis.

The result: A significant decline in orders for Prempro, from 3.4 million to 1 million, and a crash in sales of Premarin, a top-selling HRT drug, from 6 million to 3.5 million, said Natalie De Vane, spokeswoman for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals of Madison, N.J.

The company's sales of HRT products dropped by 33 percent, to $1.1 billion, in the first three quarters of 2003.

In response, the company has fired some of its horse ranchers. Wyeth used to contract with 400 ranches in Canada and North Dakota, but within the past month, it has cut that number by 25 percent.

That leaves a national glut of horses for sale -- not nags, but healthy animals whose owners "milked" them for urine.

Farmers are trying to sell the excess female horses, called mares, and their babies, called foals, because it costs too much to feed and graze them.

De Vane said the company is trying to help the ranchers find "good homes" for these horses. And equestrian experts say most of the animals are strong and suitable for adoption.

Quarter horses are the most common breed found on Wyeth's ranches. The next most popular, Percherons and Belgians, are said to be valued for their gentle dispositions. Most of the horses up for auction are between 3 and 8 years old.

Even so, horse activists say the reality is most of those horses are not going to find homes, and are instead likely to be slaughtered.

The Humane Society of the United States said that "equine sanctuaries and rescue group facilities are already filled to capacity" and can't absorb an influx of thousands of horses. "Most of them will inevitably end up at slaughterhouses," according to a statement released this week.

Cheryl Flanagan, who runs a group called Save the Horses in Cumming (save, and Shana Wingate, who heads Just in Time Equine Rescue in Douglasville (groups.msn .com/wingatefarms), are concerned that if horse lovers don't show up at the auction Saturday in Alabama, most of the animals will end up dead.