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Still the most popular hormone replacement therapy in North America, PremarinTM is an oral estrogen replacement drug derived from pregnant mare's urine (PMU).

Still the most popular hormone replacement therapy in North America, PremarinTM is an oral estrogen replacement drug derived from pregnant mare's urine (PMU). The debate about PMU ranches and the raising of mares (and foals) continues throughout North America.

Although conditions do appear to be better than they once were for these equines and the sales of PremarinTM are down, many animal rights groups and individuals still question why these horses have to be confined and bred for such purposes. Another newer concern has also arisen: as the drug's sales fall, what will happen to those redundant, healthy mares and their foals?

Horses are one of the most intelligent mammals. Sometimes steady, sometimes excitable, they are subject to boredom or depression as are all sentient creatures. If forced to live in difficult conditions, they suffer physically and emotionally.

PremarinTM, the most popular HRT drug in North America, is made from the urine of pregnant mares, which produce a high concentration of estrogen, as do pigs and cows. Produced by Wyeth-Ayerst, PremarinTM has been in wide usage since 1941. Ayerst Organics Ltd. in Brandon, Manitoba, has produced it since 1966, exporting it to more than 80 countries around the world.

During PMU production, the mares breed naturally during June and July and pregnant mares go back into their stalls, where their urine is collected from mid-October to March. The mares foal in early May and remain outside in the pastures with their mothers for three to five months.

In the fall, thousands of the foals are sold to feedlots and slaughtered for the horsemeat industry in Europe and in Japan. A few fortunate foals are placed as people's companions by adoption organizations. One placement group is FoalQuest Ltd., headquartered in Olds, Alberta. Since 1999, they have found homes for more than 800 PMU foals.

Haley Hashagen of San Jose, California, has adopted eight PMU foals through FoalQuest and plans to adopt more this year. Although she went to Alberta last summer with a negative attitude about the entire PMU business, she was impressed with what she found. "These are small family farmers trying to make ends meet. They name their mares; the horses seemed healthy. I don't necessarily agree with the whole industry, but FoalQuest does a good job."

However, not everyone shares her optimism. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protests the treatment of these mares and foals. Brandi Valladolid, campaign coordinator, says, "The PMU business is a vicious cycle of impregnating horses, confinement, and ripping away their foals for slaughter until the mare is worn out and she, too, ends up on the kill floor."

The Animal Alliance of Canada, a nonprofit organization of 20,000 supporters and volunteers who advocate for protection of animals and the environment, do not endorse PMU farming either. Explained Shelly Hawley-Yan, a director, "Our organization is completely opposed to the treatment, use, and abuse of PMU mares and foals. There are many compassionate herbal alternatives to the symptoms of menopause. The abuse of these animals for the sake of producing pharmaceuticals of questionable benefit to women is completely unnecessary."

The groups have several concerns. The mares are tied in stalls, approximately 3.5 to five feet wide, with leads that allow them to move slightly forward and back while they are connected to urine collection lines for approximately 150 days. The horses cannot easily lie down; they stand for long hours on concrete floors. The animals are required by law to be exercised at least once every two weeks, a very small amount of time for such a large animal. Explains Andrew Lang, DVM, equine specialist and manager of animal health in the Animal Placement Department of the ASPCA in New York, "The best conditions for a mare during pregnancy include free access to water and the ability to walk around and rest at will. I think there are relatively well-run operations that try to minimize the discomfort of the mares, but they are still restrained for long periods of time with a strap-on funnel, unable to roam or fully lie down. Most of these operations are not open to outside scrutiny, and I don't doubt that some are poorly run operations with poor conditions for the mares and foals."

The ranches are inspected by the states, provinces, and pharmaceutical company inspectors, but many observers say more inspection is needed. The president of Canadian Farm Animal Care Trust (CanFACT), Tom Hughes, has been inspecting PMU ranches since 1965. CanFACT was instrumental in PMU ranches moving from Ontario to the Prairies around 1990 and in Wyeth maintaining higher standards on the ranches. CanFACT has investigated ranches on several occasions. Hughes believes the PMU horses are treated well, even in some cases, better than horses on private farms or in racing stables. He believes the horses have adequate food, water, and time with their foals. But, says Hughes, also president of the Canadian Wild Horse Society, "exercise is the controversial area. We've [CanFACT] recommended indoor arenas. Some ranchers have implemented this, but many disagree. This is one of the remaining areas of criticism. But many, many other horses never get out at all."

Although PremarinTM continues to be the post-menopausal drug of choice in Canada, its sales fell significantly in 2002 after the Women's Health Initiative study, a clinical trial designed to determine if HRT was beneficial to healthy women, was halted five years into the study due to serious safety concerns. The study found a 41-per-cent increase in the risk of stroke, a 29-per-cent increase in the risk of heart attack, a doubled risk of blood clots, a 22-per-cent increase in cardiovascular disease, and a 26-per-cent increase in the risk of invasive breast cancer. PremarinTM dropped from number one in the top five prescribed medicines in Canada in 1996 to number four in 2002, according to IMS Health, a private health information company.

Now that the health risks involved with taking PremarinTM are known, sales will certainly continue to decline. That will be good news for many horses in the long run, but probably not in the short term.

In October 2003, Wyeth announced that it would downsize its operations, meaning a significant challenge to the horse industry; the ranches were viewed as one of the more stable livestock industries in Western Canada. While the company honoured existing contracts and assisted with the care and feeding of their horses, the short-term welfare of these animals continues to stand in question.

Before the October 2003 announcement more than 400 PMU ranches were on contract with Wyeth, primarily in Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and North Dakota. The family-owned and operated ranches had between 150 and 400 horses, with as many as 50,000 mares, mostly purebreds, living on these farms. With Wyeth's announcement, the number of ranches would be cut by about one-third, meaning that close to 135 PMU ventures will leave the industry.

Some ranchers are already liquidating their mares. Concerns are rising that PMU horses will soon flood the feedlots.

According to Shelly Hawley-Yan, "In the short term there will undoubtedly be more mares and foals going to slaughter. With less demand, the supply will have to fall due to lower prices."
Wyeth has promised to work with the North American Equine Ranching Information Council (NAERIC) to develop programs to place former PMU horses for adoption.

However, some close observers, like the ASPCA's Dr. Lang, believe the entire situation has long been no-win for both women and horses: "The biggest crime is that any suffering on the part of these mares and foals has no purpose, and probably has resulted in more harm to women's and horses' health than we'll ever know. The story of PremarinTM is a study in greed, propaganda, and voodoo medicine."

In the meantime, the fate of thousands of horses hangs even more perilously in the balance.

Adopting a PMU Foal

The following organizations help to reduce the number of PMU mare and foals slaughtered by facilitating their adoption into good, loving homes. Contact them to adopt a foal. PMU Foal Adoption Network Inc. at pmufoaladoption.org. PMU FoalQuest at pmufoalquest.com.

Herbal Alternatives For the Symptoms of Menopause

Take black cohosh, dong quai, vitex, red clover, gamma oryzanol, and wild yam to reduce symptoms of menopause.

Source: Lorna Vanderhaeghe and Dr. Karen Jensen, No More HRT: Menopause: Treat the Cause (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2003).

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