HUNDREDS OF thousands of women are currently enjoying an extended prime of life after their menopause because of hormone therapy with estrogen. What most of these women don’t know (and probably don't want to know) is that almost the entire world supply of the estrogen used in this treatment is derived from the urine of some 25,000 Canadian mares —most of which will be kept continuously pregnant for the 20 or 30 years of their lives.
There are now' about 500 Pregnant Mare Urine (PMU) farms established in Canada (183 in Ontario, about 100 in Quebec and the rest scattered throughout the West). Each farm stables an average of 50 mares. For 5‘/2 w'inter months the pregnant horses are kept tethered in a stall and fed a rigid diet while their urine (about a gallon a day) is collected by means of an elaborate harness supporting a rubber funnel under their hind quarters.
Virtually all the urine is bought and processed by the Montreal-based drug firm of Ayerst, McKenna and Harrison Ltd. (Another Montreal firm, Charles E. Frosst and Co., has a small fraction of the market.) Ayerst supplies farmers wáth the harness and funnel equipment at cost price plus a set of specific instruc-
tions. The most important details are that the mares must not be worked or given outdoor exercise during the 51/2-month collection period and that salt, minerals or stock conditioners should not be used while the mares are on production. These will reduce the potency of the urine.
Ayerst pays between S2.50 and $2.70 a gallon for urine and each mare produces about 140 gallons during the season. That means a PMU farmer with 30 mares can expect to gross more than $10,000 during a winter for relatively little work. It's attractive money, especially if the PMU farmer is otherwise doing badly or the farm is in a depressed agricultural area.
That is what worries Tom Hughes, general manager of the Ontario Humane Society. “These farms are attracting bad horsemen,” says Hughes. “There are many legitimate and efficient PMU farms where the care and attention given the horses is tolerable. But there are enough bad farms cropping up in our records to cause concern. In some cases the horses are treated atrociously.” The society has prosecuted several PMU farmers for neglect in recent years but Hughes says he doesn’t have enough funds or inspectors to police all 183 Ontario farms properly.
(Hughes hasn’t much faith in government inspectors doing the job. Recently the veterinary branch of the Ontario agricultural department ran a survey on 10 percent of the province’s PMU farms and found “there was nothing that could be described as inhumane.” “The government isn’t likely to crack down on a $4,000,000 business that's saving many farms from extinction,” sniffs Hughes.)
John A. Walker, executive vicepresident of Ayerst Laboratories, says critics of PMU farms are befuddled by romantic notions of horses roaming wild and free: “What people like Tom Hughes forget is that farm horses have been kept stabled and harnessed since the world began.”
Walker denies that the PMU harness is uncomfortable if the horse is properly cared for or that the diet (which involves a salt substitute) in any way harms the mare. He points out that so far nobody has been able to synthesize the type of estrogen that
is derived from mare urine. It is this type that is used exclusively in postmenopause therapy and is also becoming increasingly important in the treatment of heart-attack victims.
At any rate Ayerst, who have been developing PMU estrogen for 25 years (although production started to boom only in the last four or five years), are so convinced the PMU method can't be synthesized that they are opening an $800,000 processing plant in Brandon, Man., later this year. Eventually the Brandon plant will be able to handle the urine from 10,000 pregnant prairie mares. (By that time one tenth of Canada’s surviving 400.000 horses will be estrogen-producing machines.)
Hughes concedes that the medical virtues of estrogen may justify the questionable (but only available) method by which it can be extracted. What worries him more is the end product of the process — the 25,000 PMU foals that are born each year, most of them unwanted. “Since the mares are serviced by the cheapest studhorses available, the resulting foals have no economic value whatsoever,” says Hughes. “Even if they are sold as dog meat, the farmer would lose money.”
Walker denies this. The mares are usually serviced by good studs, he says, and Ayerst pays farmers $80 to rear filly foals for the first two years. As future PMU producers, these fillies are an asset to the industry. Hughes, however, has records of colt foals being force-weaned when they’re a week old and sold to dealers for about five dollars. They are then crammed into trucks, carted across the province and resold at cattle markets for $15 or $20. What happens to the colts after that is a mystery. Obviously there are only a limited number of low-grade horses that our mechanized agricultural industry can absorb. Hughes suspects, but can’t prove, that some sort of “slink” or illegal meat trade may be in operation.
What can be done? “It would be the easiest thing in the world,” says Hughes, “for Ayerst to include in its PMU contract with farmers that colts
must be humanely destroyed at or shortly alter birth. Alternately they should be reared to a minimum age of six months and properly weaned before being sold.”
As for the policing of the farms themselves, Hughes also has a simple answer for that: “The provincial governments should be prepared to finance three full-time stable inspectors on special PMU duty for our society. It wouldn't be asking too much in view of the importance of the industry and the amount of money involved.”
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