Ramona woman saves horses from slaughter
Union-TribunePenny Scott brushed one of two mares that had been shipped from Alberta, Canada, to her Ramona ranch this year. Motioning to a stocky, tricolor paint horse grazing on alfalfa, she said, "I call her Destiny, because she's going to have one."
It's hard for Scott to articulate where Destiny might have wound up had she not intervened. Perhaps on a restaurant menu.
Scott is the Southern California representative for FoalQuest, an organization that rescues mares and foals that might otherwise become part of this country's $25 million-a-year horse meat export industry. The rescued horses come from Canadian farms, where the urine of pregnant mares is collected and sold to Wyeth Pharmaceutical, which uses it to make Premarin, a drug used in hormone replacement therapy. After the mares give birth in the spring, their foals are largely disposable.
"They're just so darling," said Scott, whose organization saved about 500 horses in the past year. "I will do anything to save these foals."
There are between 35,000 and 50,000 mares involved in the Premarin industry, giving birth to an equal number of foals each year, according to estimates from various rescue organizations. Animal-rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Equine Advocates say the number is much greater – 75,000 and 80,000, respectively.
According to a Web site for the North American Equine Ranching Information Council, some foals "may get sold to feedlots to mature before they are sold to international markets for human consumption." NAERIC says about 50 percent of foals are sold privately, 30 percent at public auction and 20 percent in breeder production sales.
Though FoalQuest and other rescue operations previously concentrated on saving foals, since the demand for Premarin began plummeting in October because of health concerns, FoalQuest representatives such as Scott are scrambling to find homes for the mares, too.
"This has been a real shock to the industry," Scott said. "The farmers at first weren't sure what they were going to do. There aren't a lot of options other than to try and find homes for these mares . . . or at some point send them to feedlots."
Foals and mares sell for between $400 and $1,500 through rescue operations, depending on breeding, Scott said. Poway resident Alicia Muhr paid $1,400 for a pregnant mare that arrived at Scott's ranch Feb. 4. Called Gray Becky, the mare will give birth in May.
Muhr chose her horse from photos posted on FoalQuest's Web site, www.pmufoalquest.com. She was shocked to learn that it could have wound up on a dinner table. "I can't believe they're just throwing away perfectly good horses," she said.
Poway resident Leslie Dotzler has been rescuing animals at her ranch for 11 years – from cats to llamas to pot-bellied pigs. She adopted her first foal through a Hemet-based rescue operation called Pegasus, which also saves retired racehorses from slaughter. Dotzler later adopted two pregnant mares through FoalQuest.
"We're just awaiting the births," she said. "We're very anxious."
Rescue efforts began in the mid-1990s. Animal-rights activists were enraged at conditions they said the horses faced. The mares, they said, were confined to narrow stalls for up to 20 hours a day, five months at a time, while strapped to uncomfortable collection pouches. They often had no room to lie down and got little or no exercise, the activists said.
While other rescue organizations decry the horses' treatment on their Web sites and in literature, FoalQuest says the mistreatment is a myth.
"There's been quite a bit of improvement, plus the industry is now regulated by NAERIC," Scott said. The North American Equine Ranching Information Council is a group of ranchers, veterinarians and pharmaceutical representatives that oversees conditions at the ranches. It has received almost $4 million from Wyeth.
"The industry is greatly regulated now," Scott said of the eight or nine ranches FoalQuest deals with, which she said she has not visited. "It probably was bad in the old days. . . . I mean, how great can it be to stand in a stall? But on the other hand, the mares are only hooked up to the collectors during the winter months. They're inside during the Canadian winter in heated barns."
Organizations such as PETA say NAERIC and FoalQuest are "corporate apologists" financed by Wyeth.
"I think the FoalQuest site is a mouthpiece for the industry," said Mary Beth Sweetland, director of research and investigations for PETA. "No one who cares about animals could promote Premarin, regardless of how well the horses are cared for, because it all leads to exploitation."
"We think Premarin is dying a natural death," Sweetland said. "Maybe it's the fact that women were downing horse urine rather than hormones that are natural to the human body."
Wyeth spokeswoman Natalie DeVane said Premarin production has dropped by about one-third over the past year, and Wyeth reduced the number of contracts with ranchers from 409 to 130.
In response to Wyeth's decrease in Premarin production, Sacramento-based United Animal Nation began an Internet-based rescue effort, PMURescue.org, last year. It has saved 125 horses since December.
Jennifer Fearing, director of programs and communications for United Animal Nations, said her organization has questioned FoalQuest's ties to Wyeth in the past. However, the abundance of mares in need of homes has led the group to embrace all rescue efforts, including FoalQuest.
"The jury is still out as to why (Wyeth) . . . let their animals get pregnant over the summer," Fearing said. "The handwriting was on the wall that the industry was going to tank."
Still, Fearing said, "We are spending a lot less energy on who was right and who was wrong now. I applaud any effort to save any horse."
Wyeth spokeswoman DeVane said steps are taken to assure the horses are well-treated.
"They're inspected monthly by a field representative (employed) by Wyeth who is trained in equine care," she said. She denied claims that the horses were mistreated. "I've been with the company for 10 years, and I've never heard of that," she said.
Scott, the Ramona rancher, said animal-rights activists are overreacting. She said FoalQuest is run solely by volunteers and that she makes no money for her efforts. Food and veterinary costs come out of her own pocket, she said.
"I do it because I really believe in this," said Scott, a retired San Diego Park and Recreation employee. "I'm on a fixed income."
Scott said she has heard of those who travel to Canada, buy the discarded foals and mares at auction, return to the United States and sell the animals at a profit. Scott said what's important is that the horses are saved from slaughter.
"If we have to get along with NAERIC and get along with the farmers and use good PR skills, that's fine," Scott said. "If that's what it takes to save the foals.
"We're not going to change the industry. That's not our job. I tell women I run into not to take Premarin. That's not something FoalQuest sanctions; that's a personal choice I make."
Whether the horses recovered from Premarin farms are worthy purchases is a separate debate. Some say the treatment of Premarin horses and a lack of human contact during much of their lives make them difficult to work with.
Muhr considers herself lucky. "She's doing great," she said of Gray Becky. "She's very friendly and we can ride her."
"I was concerned," Muhr said. "There were 22 mares on that truck, and she was by far the gentlest. Other people were trying to go up and touch their horses and they wouldn't even let them touch them."
Pat Sherman: (760) 737-7559; email@example.com