Animal Rights vs. Women’s health

Animal Rights vs. Women’s health

By: Staff  Date: 12/15/1998 Category: | Farm and Ranch Almanac | Research Reports |


These days, women's health concerns are given top billing in medicine. Osteoporosis, breast cancer, uterine and vaginal cancer, menopause, and women's version of heart disease get a great deal of concern from researchers, doctors, and patients alike.

Prevention is the key, according to medical professionals, beginning with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and continuing with exercise and relaxation. For menopausal women, prevention can be enhanced by estrogen replacement therapy that not only relieves the symptoms of the change of life but also protects against osteoporosis, heart disease, and some cancers.

Estrogen replacement is big business for Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, a division of American Home Products and manufacturers of PremarinT, an estrogen replacement product derived from pregnant mare urine. The pharmaceutical company gets the raw material for its conjugated hormone product by extracting the estrogens from the urine, and therein lies the problem: In its efforts to chip away at the fringes of all animal enterprises, the animal rights movement has targeted these farms, claiming that the mares are inhumanely treated and their offspring are sold for meat.

Animal rights campaigns

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Animal Protection Institute, and Animal People, an animal rights newspaper, conduct their anti-PremarinT campaigns on the World Wide Web by exaggerating the number of horses involved, misrepresenting the fate of the offspring, and distorting the circumstances in which the horses are kept.

In an effort to bring their campaign to the streets, PeTA held a demonstration outside a pharmacy in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on November 14. In a press release announcing the demonstration, PeTA said that "because pharmacists frequently neglect to inform women of Premarin'sT 'hidden' ingredient, a PeTA member dressed as a foal" would "greet" customers outside the pharmacy at noon that day.

The press release contained the usual distortion of conditions on the farms, claiming that the pregnant mares are tied in small stalls, unable to turn around, take even a few steps, or lie down comfortably; the urine collection bags cause sores on the mares' legs and groins; water is withheld from the mares to concentrate the urine; and the foals are considered an 'unwanted byproduct' of the industry and are sold for meat.

Truth is, however, that the PMU farms are the most-inspected horse operations in the US and Canada and that, while some of the charges may have been true years ago, the farms have improved conditions for the horses and opened new markets for the foals.

Farm conditions

Simply put, the picture painted by several animal welfare and horse organizations and individual horse experts differs sharply from the PeTA and API rhetoric. According to the North American Equine Ranching Information Council; the American Veterinary Medical Association; the American Association of Equine Practitioners; the Canadian Farm Animal Care Trust; the Alberta, Canada, Minister of Agriculture; and other organizations and individuals that have inspected the farms, the horses are well-cared for, the majority of the foals are sold for recreation or work or kept as replacement animals, the mares can move around in their stalls, and water is not withheld. Furthermore, while the number of mares on urine collection lines varies with the size of the contracts with Wyeth-Ayerst and the percentage of pregnancies in a given year, it probably averages about 35-40,000 animals, not the 60-75,000 claimed in animal rights pamphlets and press releases.

In 1995, Maurice Telleen of Draft Horse Journal traveled with his son to several Canadian PMU farms. Comparing the husbandry techniques with those used on dairy farms, Telleen told his readers that the farms they visited followed the industry Code of Practices, assuring that the horses were given space to move around in their tie-stalls, were not subjected to pain or discomfort from the collection bags, had plenty of water and high-quality food, and were kept in well-ventilated barns during the winter. Following inspection of 25 PremarinT farms in November 1996, veterinarians from the AAEP, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, and the International League for the Protection of Horses, reported that "Based on our inspections, the allegations of inhumane treatment of horses involved in PMU ranching are unfounded. Generally, the horses are very well cared for. The ranchers and the company have responded in a progressive and pro-active manner to both professional and public interest."

In January 1997, Kim Herbert, vice president of the Kentucky Horse Council and editor of The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care, visited four PMU farms and reported to readers in the March issue of the publication. She especially noted the efforts to correct problems mentioned in earlier inspection reports, including modifications to the tie-stalls that make it easier for the mares to lie down and get up and increases in the amount of exercise provided.

The Code of Practices was drafted in 1990 by a committee of independent veterinarians, ranchers, and government veterinary specialists. All PMU ranchers must abide by the code as a condition of their contract with Wyeth-Ayerst, the only purchaser of horse urine. Code enforcement is assured by up to 15 inspections per year of the farms.

In addition to the code, more than 90 veterinarians participate in a herd health program that includes the 480-plus PMU farms. These veterinarians inspect herd health three times each year and compare their reports with those of the industry's monthly inspections.

In 1995, the Canadian Farm Animal Care Trust reported that their organization inspected 30 PMU farms and was pleased with the care given to the horses.

"CANFACT is impressed by the improvement in the welfare of horses on PMU farms in recent years and believes that most PMU producers, like most livestock farmers, are genuinely concerned about the care and welfare of their animals. CANFACT is also convinced of the sincerity of Wyeth-Ayerst's commitment to ensuring that the welfare of horses on PMU farms meets the highest possible standards."

The mares

PMU farms are located in southern Canada and North Dakota for easy delivery of the urine to the processing plant in Brandon, Manitoba. Contrary to the extremists' claim that draft horses are used because they produce the most urine, NAERIC said that Quarter Horses are the most common breed on the ranches, outnumbering next-most-common Percheron and Belgian draft horses by a two-to-one margin.

The urine collection system works well in the climate; mares enjoy late spring, all summer, and early fall outside and move inside for the harsh winter. Foals are born in late April and in May, weaned in September, and sold or put in the replacement herd before fall.

Breeding is done in June and July when the mares are pastured in small bands with their foals and a stallion. The stallions are removed from the pastures at the end of July. After the foals are weaned and as the grass-growing season winds down, the mares are moved to the barns and switched to a hay and grain diet. In October, pregnant mares are put on the collection line.

According to the Code of Practices, the mares must be kept in tie stalls that are roomy enough for them to eat comfortably and lie down. The light-weight collection bags are suspended from pulleys with equipment that must not rub against the horses or cause sores. Stall flooring must have "adequate amounts of suitable bedding material" for comfort; Telleen reported that the farms he visited used heavy belting or rubber mats along with straw bedding. Temperature in the barns is about 40 degrees F - even while the outside temperature may dip to a frigid -40 degrees F.

Exercise on these prairie farms in winter can be difficult to obtain, but the mares are turned out for short intervals. Some of the farms have mechanical walkers in sheltered areas to make sure the mares move around even when bitter cold sub-zero temperatures last for days or weeks on end.

Contrary to claims of animal rights groups that water is withheld from the mares to concentrate the urine, the Code of Practice requires that mares be offered water at least twice each day in amounts recommended in the National Research Council Nutrient Requirements of Horses as revised in 1989. Some farms use automated delivery systems; others bring water by hand several times each day. Horses are sloppy drinkers and often splash in their buckets, so, in the interest of keeping the barns dry, some farmers do not provide free-choice water.

The foals

The level of estrogens in the urine drops in the middle of the third trimester, so the mares spend the last six weeks of their pregnancy on pasture. Foals are born in May and remain with their dams until at least September 1.

In his article in Draft Horse Journal, Telleen debunked the animal rights charge that the foals are "merely a byproduct" of urine production and are treated like veal calves. That assertion, he said, "portrays a colossal ignorance of food production and animal agriculture."

Dairy calves are removed from their mothers at 48-72 hours after birth, Telleen wrote, but the foals on PMU farms stay with their dams for four months. And most of the foals do not go to slaughter.

"Many of these foals find buyers in the United States," Telleen wrote. "These colts go into the trade. Some wind up as breeding stock, some as work horses, probably a few as hitch horses, and the bottom end goes into feedlots."

Herbert noted that farmers get more money for foals sold to horse enthusiasts than those sold to feedlots, an incentive to produce flashy, sound, manageable, healthy animals that can fetch $3000 or more. She said that farmers have improved their breeding programs to produce better foals and no longer depend on the meat market.

"The foals were, for years, thought of as a byproduct of PMU ranching," Herbert wrote in an editorial accompanying her article. "They sometimes brought $25-50 each, most of them going to feedlots where they would be raised for slaughter. That time has also passed. Most ranchers now view those foals as important as mare urine. Many already have registered Paint, Quarter Horse, Appaloosa, warmblood, and draft horses which are used as PMU mares. Other ranchers are working to improve the quality of mares on line and are using better stallions."

In its fact sheet about PMU ranching, NAERIC states that more than two-thirds of the foals are sold for equine activities or used as replacements on the farms. NAERIC and Wyeth-Ayerst encourage the sale of good horses for performance events by offering purses for contestants who win with horses bred on the ranches.

Myth versus fact

Dr. Arthur King, a veterinarian and chairman of the Ontario Equestrian Federation Ethics and Animal Welfare Committee who has visited PMU farms, wrote an article in Horse Sport magazine in March 1995 about the PMU debate in which he highlighted the differences between animal welfare advocacy and animal rights extremism applied to the use of horses for the collection of estrogen.

"In a nutshell, animal welfare advocates are interested in the overall welfare of animals used for the benefit of humans," King wrote. "Animal rights advocates, on the other hand, believe that any use of animals is synonymous with their abuse. . . . For those of us involved in the horse industry, an animal rights advocate is our enemy. These people have only one long-term goal in mind - namely, to eliminate the use of animals, including horses, by man."

King had these suggestions for checking the veracity of any claims about animals made by organizations or individuals.

  • educate yourself about the issues and the organizations behind the issues;
  • check the information to find out if it is outdated or is not representative of the industry;
  • consider the original source of the information;
  • remember: if the condemned practice sounds too horrible to be true, it may be exaggerated or sensationalized.

King said that animal rights activists are using the PMU issue to drive a wedge into the horse industry in their campaign to end the use of horses for any purpose.

". . . If there is mistreatment of horses in any aspect of our industry, we need to take steps to correct it," he wrote. "All of us should be united against the abuse of horses. That's what animal welfare is all about. But be careful not to join forces with, or in any way show support for those who want to abolish the use of horses. They are animal rightists. We need to make sure that we do not condone, through silence, any abuse that we know of or suspect. In my opinion the vast majority of horses are treated humanely with the care and compassion they deserve. Unfortunately some abuses do come to light from time to time. There are mechanisms in place to deal with these. We also need to correct any misrepresentations that would lead someone to believe that a particular group of horse owners or segment of the industry is uncaring about their animals. It reflects badly upon us all. The animal rightists know that one bad apple can spoil the barrel. They will search out the bad apples, or in some cases create the perception of bad apples, in an effort to turn the public against us."

About The Author

Staff's photo
Staff -

All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |
Like this article?
Don’t forget to share, like or follow us