Posted on Tue, Feb. 17, 2004
Fort Worth Star Telegram

Fate of mares sparks equine controversy

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Animal rights groups warn that tens of thousands of horses are doomed to become what's for dinner in Europe and Asia, because women are using fewer estrogen-replacement drugs made from the urine of pregnant mares.

"The horses will be slaughtered," asserted Jennifer Fearing, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento-based United Animal Nations, speaking of horses that have been maintained for urine production. "We know that because there is a long track record."

Groups such as Fearing's have organized "rescue" or "adoption" programs for mares and their foals that they contend would be otherwise trucked to Canadian and U.S. slaughter plants. And they're using the issue to further their campaign against slaughtering horses for human consumption.

But people involved in urine collection and horse sales argue that the picture is more complicated, stressing that measures are being taken to ensure that mares face no greater chance of being led to slaughter than other horses.

They note that the two U.S. slaughter plants, including the Belgian-owned Beltex in Fort Worth, customarily refuse to buy bred mares and that their foals do not carry enough meat to make processing worthwhile.

Norm Luba, executive director of the Kentucky-based North American Equine Ranching Information Council, calls the controversy "hysteria."

For years, animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and United Animal Nations have campaigned against the operators of ranches in North Dakota and three Canadian provinces, accusing them of abusing pregnant mares that produce urine for the popular estrogen-replacement drug Premarin.

But publication of a health study in July 2002 caused greater damage to the urine industry.

The Women's Health Initiative found an increased risk of cancer, heart attack, stroke, dementia and other problems from Premarin. To make matters worse, a new drug using much less urine-derived hormones accelerated the slide in demand for Premarin.

Once used by an estimated 10 million women, whose purchases generated revenues of $2.1 billion for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, Premarin sales fell 31 percent in 2003 alone. Wyeth then cut the number of horses contracted to produce urine.

Numbering 37,000 head at their peak, so-called pregnant mares' urine or PMU herds contracted by Wyeth now number 25,000 horses, a number that will be reduced to 11,000 by October, said Luba, whose group represents the Wyeth-related urine ranches.

The operations are concentrated in Canada's Manitoba province, where a company later acquired by Wyeth began producing a PMU-based hormone replacement in 1942. Some ranchers have been collecting mare urine for three generations, becoming dependent on it.

Vivian Rooks and her husband, urine ranchers for three decades in Swan River, Manitoba, were among the producers who left the business.

"After 31 years, it's kind of like you lost your identity and your livelihood," Rooks said. "It's almost like a grieving process."

Urine ranches

In 2002, Manitoba alone had 248 mare urine ranches that racked up sales of $36 million to Wyeth. Urine revenues represented more than three times the province's total live horse sales of $10 million that year.

Urine is collected two to three times a day and stored in chilled tanks until hauled away. A typical mare produces about five quarts per day. Prices paid to ranchers range between $9 and $10 a gallon, they said.

In Blaisdell, N.D., rancher Dallas Moore said his 240 mares generated urine sales of about $300,000 until 2003, which, after feed and labor costs, netted his ranch $75,000 to $90,000 -- about three-quarters of its annual income. He lost his Wyeth contract in October but has not sold off his herd -- all registered appaloosas.

"Those horses bred for urine and not registered had no value except to the 'killer' market," Moore said, referring to quarter horses or other breeds sent to slaughter. But many operations began with registered stock or improved their herds' genetics, creating added value to the mares and their progeny.

After Wyeth began cutting back the number of ranches under contract, some panic selling of horses occurred in October through December, but ranchers and livestock auction officials called the numbers traded not extraordinarily large -- apparently because prices fell so low.

"The killer market dropped from 40 to 50 cents to 25 to 31 cents, then came back last month to 42 to 45 cents," said Marlin Hagen, manager of Northern Livestock Auction, of Minot, N.D. Prices are effective per hundredweight.

In Manitoba, prices crashed after Wyeth's moves and then recovered, said Ray Salmon, a horse and bison expert with Manitoba's state agricultural service.

"Contrary to what PETA will tell you, not all are headed for the slaughterhouse," said Salmon, adding that many ranches over the years have improved their herds, raising some horses for logging, the show ring or as bucking rodeo stock.

"The majority of guys up here had good breeding programs," Salmon said. "If you have quality animals, you will get your price."

"Rescue" campaigns

Various animal rights groups are using the situation to publicize "rescue" and "adoption" campaigns.

Horse meat can be legally consumed in Canada, where there is limited demand, mainly in Quebec, but it is not sold for human consumption in the United States. Today, the meat is federally inspected as if it were beef or pork, then shipped to Western Europe and Japan. Consumption in Europe rose 11 percent in 2001, reversing a 10-year trend, apparently because horses do not contract mad cow or foot-and-mouth disease.

Aside from the Beltex plant in Fort Worth, the other U.S. horse processing plant is also in Texas -- Dallas Crown of Kaufman. A third plant, in DeKalb, Ill., reportedly will reopen this year if efforts to block it in the state Legislature fail. A suspicious fire destroyed it two years ago.

At the core of the debate are conflicting perceptions.

Many ranchers see horses as productive livestock from which every dollar of value must be extracted. Without the slaughter market, which sets a floor price, the value of their horses would plummet, they argue.

Outlawing slaughter would mean added veterinarian fees and the cost of burying a dead animal, which could run $300 or more per horse instead of a $250-$800 sale. For that reason, the American Veterinary Medical Association said last month that banning horse slaughter could lead to greater abuse and neglect.

On the opposing side, animal rights groups and their supporters view horses as valued pets and companions. And they find the consumption of horse meat by some Europeans and Asians repugnant.

For years, activists have attacked the mare urine industry, decrying barn conditions where urine-collection pouches are attached to mares confined in stalls. At least one activist mistakenly claimed that ranchers use painful catheters to collect urine.

Luba said the well-insulated barns are some of the best of their kind and that the soft rubber pouches are strung from elastic cords that allow horses to lie down in their stalls.

A former urine rancher in North Dakota, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said pressure from animal rights groups over the years had a positive effect on conditions. It pushed Wyeth to impose an exercise program for confined mares and insist on bedding over concrete barn floors, he said.

Urine ranches are inspected by Wyeth representatives, equine veterinarian groups and by state or provincial agencies. A 1997 report by an international review committee recommended some "improvements" but found that, "generally, the horses are very well-cared for."

Although his Kentucky group is cooperating with a self-described "rescue" group in Pennsylvania, Luba claimed that some activists are exploiting the highly emotional urine issue to solicit donations so horses can be "saved."

"This borders on fraudulent practices," he said. "The chance of them going to slaughter is the same as for any other horse -- about 60,000 a year in the United States and 50,000 in Canada."

Put into perspective, that would be 110,000 of 800,000 horses that die every year, out of roughly 7.9 million head in Canada and the United States, he said.

Fearing said she knows of no group using the PMU issue to appeal for funds, although United Animal Nations did receive an unsolicited, anonymous donation of $3,500.

Paying for moves

Wyeth has earmarked $3.7 million to subsidize the transport of horses beyond the concentration of 131 PMU ranches in North Dakota, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan so that local markets aren't swamped. It also covers some of the veterinary costs.

Fearing said the Wyeth subsidies have run out and that they only covered shipments of 20 horses at a time.

Not true, Luba said. The payments are still being made and the subsidy on shipments of fewer than 20 horses are simply prorated.

However, there are no dispersal subsidies for roughly 2,400 mares contracted to produce urine for Natural Biologics.

The Minnesota-based company, which once produced a generic estrogen replacement for export, closed down in late September after losing a patent suit lodged by Wyeth.

That result left producers such as Stephanie Bennis without a safety net. The North Dakota rancher said her bank forced her to sell off all 120 of her mares.

Bennis used a Web site hosted by a Georgia-based animal rights group to place about 20 of her horses.

But, pressured by the bank, "we liquidated all of our cattle, all of our horses as efficiently as possible," she said. "I can tell you most were purchased by meat buyers; I can't tell you where they went."

Jim Lineberg, a Fort Worth attorney for Beltex, said it's against the law to transport pregnant mares for slaughter and, in any case, the slaughter plants don't want them.

If Natural Biologics had subsidized a national dispersal program akin to Wyeth's, Bennis said she could easily have doubled the $250 to $300 she received per head in North Dakota.

The fire sale prices, she said, left her and her husband "hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt," forcing them to sell the home built by her grandmother. Her husband is now working for another farmer, and she remains unemployed.

Tim Gompf, a Manitoba rancher who had contracted with Wyeth, took advantage of the company's dispersal program and sold 130 mares at a nonslaughter Arkansas sale in December that he found through the Internet. Gompf said other ranchers are taking advantage of similiar sales.

"We would have gotten 100 to 150 Canadian dollars (about $77 to $115 in U.S. dollars) here," Gompf said. "But by taking them down to Arkansas, we got $250 to $600 American -- way more, four or five times more."

Gompf, whose family has raised horses near Oak Lake, Manitoba, since 1880, said nobody is pointing fingers at the pharmaceutical industry or animal rights groups.

"Ranchers and farmers are tough enough," he said. "They'll carry on, do something else."

Barry Shlachter, (817) 390-7718