Last month's announcement that breast cancer rates had dropped 7 percent since 2003 has many researches linking the drop to the fact that millions of women quit hormone replacement therapy in 2002. Animal rescue groups now worry that even more women will quit HRT, and, in turn, more PMU horses will be discarded.
In a war of words, Wyeth and animal rescue organizations clash not only on the number of horses' lives at stake but over the conditions in which these animals are raised.
For much of the 11-month pregnancy, mares are kept immobile in narrow stalls, strapped to urine collection cups. After the foals are born -- one a year -- the horses are re-impregnated and the cycle begins again. PMU mares can produce only for 12 to 13 years and are then adopted or slaughtered.
"It's a secret business," said Helen Meredith, director of the Arizona-based United Pegasus Foundation, which has placed 5,000 PMU horses for adoption since its founding in 1996. "They are kept in stalls, 4-by-8-feet long, where they stand for six months at a time when they are pregnant. The harness comes down from the ceiling and straps between the legs to hold the collection pouch in place. They have little room to walk back and forth."
The foundation also supports about 75 unadoptable PMU mares, many more than 20 years old, and those who are disabled by injuries. The drug industry prefers those under 12. "Like women, the younger they are, the higher their estrogen levels," Meredith said.
The mares are let out at the end of March to foal in April. Mares are left to pasture breed with a stallion. By September, the sale of older mares and unwanted foals begins. Mares are given 30 days to "dry up and the cycle starts again," said Meredith. Those horses that do not sell go to auction for slaughter.
The cost to maintain one horse is about $1,000 a year, and ranchers have struggled financially since the cutbacks. An estimated 30,000 nonproducing mares entered the market after hormone drug sales dropped, according to UAN.
"The problem is, that's the ranchers' livelihood," said UAN's Alexis Raymond. "When the contracts are cut, they have bills to pay, providing food and caring for the horses. Slaughter is the financially feasible way to go. We have tried to pressure Wyeth to do more to encourage the ranchers to go the rescue route with financial incentives."
Wyeth contracts with 72 independent, family-owned horse ranches, according to spokesman de Vane. The company insists that those farms abide by a code of standards for the treatment of horses, which governs regulations on feeding, watering, stalls and exercise.
"These farms were inspected by an independent review group that concluded these horses were well cared for," said de Vane. "Because we were cutting back a few years ago, we wanted to make sure the horses went to good homes."
Since 2003, Wyeth has contributed $6.75 million to an equine placement fund to help find homes for horses too old to impregnate. De Vane said 22,500 horses had been placed since 2003. The fund provides aid to ranchers for veterinary fees, border fees and shipping costs associated with transporting horses from the PMU industry.
"We only put horses in the productive market like show riding, police work and farming, not slaughterhouse," she said.
It is illegal to sell horse meat in the United States and Congress will consider a ban on sale to foreign meat markets this year.