Video: The HRT horses

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NBC News
updated 1/18/2004 9:02:22 PM ET 2004-01-19T02:02:22

From "Black Beauty" to "Seabiscuit," horses have long had a special place in the human heart, and Hollywood. Now a coalition of animal lovers, and movie stars, are fighting to save thousands of horses who could soon be facing death. It has all the makings of a Hollywood movie -- except a happy ending.

A horse called Missy is part of a giant secret. Or, if not exactly a secret, then an uncomfortable fact. Thousands upon thousands of Missy's, used to make a drug for humans, are suddenly in danger of becoming horse meat. Why? One phrase: Hormone replacement therapy, or HRT.

For a half century the pharmaceutical giant, Wyeth, has been marketing HRT under the name Premarin, which, since it was FDA approved back in 1942, has been considered almost a miracle drug. It has also been incredibly profitable.

As recently as 2001 annual revenue from Premarin was more than $2 billion. Nine million women relied on it to relieve the symptoms of menopause. And where did this wonder drug come from? The urine of pregnant horses. Wyeth signed contracts with hundreds of farmers, most of them in western Canada, to breed tens of thousands of horses annually. And the result of all those pregnancies? Lots and lots and lots of foals, baby horses.

For years the way the mothers of these animals were used, in the production of Premarin, has infuriated animal activists. Pregnant mares were confined to narrow stalls for more than 20 hours a day, for five months at a stretch, all the  while strapped to cumbersome urine collection devices.

The USDA called the industry a model of self regulation, but opponents say it's cruel, inhumane.

"That to me is nothing short of torture," says Dr. Ray Kellosalmi, a gynecologist and horse advocate. "It's subtle torture, but it is still torture... Horses evolved through millennia in wide open spaces. They're not animals that should be subject to factory farming conditions."

And what of the foals, the by-product of these Premarin farms? They are usually sent to auction, along with those mothers whose production has waned. They can be bought for recreational use, or as often happens, purchased by what are called "killer buyers," who

send them to feedlots to be fattened up for slaughter. Horse meat sells well in Europe and Japan. That is how it has been for half a century, with perhaps a million horses giving their lives for Premarin. Then, in July 2002, a completely unexpected announcement changed everything.A portion of the women's health initiative study tested the effectiveness and safety of hormone replacement therapy. That portion of the study was halted when the women taking the Premarin-type medication were found to be suffering from higher rates of heart attack, blood clots, breast cancer and dementia.
 
Independent of that, Wyeth began marketing a lower dose version of Premarin-type drugs. The demand for premarin products dropped dramatically. By the end of  2003, Wyeth canceled the contracts of more than half of the premarin farmers.

"The amount of horses needed went from 40,000 to 20,000 overnight," says Dr. Kellosalmi.

With the stroke of a pen, thousands of once productive horses became a huge drain on the ranchers time and effort.

"These are pregnant horses now, and the only place they are going to is feed lots, and from there, to slaughter," says Dr. Kellosalmi.

The drug company is, however, taking steps to help. Despite the enormous loses in its income from Premarin-type drugs, Wyeth has created a $3.7 million trust fund to help transport the horses to recreational auctions and equine rescues. Wyeth is also compensating those farmers who either keep their horses or find new homes for them and resist the immediate cash they could earn by sending them to slaughter instead.

"If we look at 3.7 million, it's just a drop on the bucket," says Dr. Kellosalmi. "They have chosen to do the minimum."

But they might say that $3.7 million is not exactly minimum, that they are throwing a fair amount of money at the problem.

"Let's put that into perspective," says Dr. Kellosalmi. "Wyeth has been making billions from this industry."

Wyeth declined an on camera interview but in a statement told Dateline, "it is committed to the care and treatment of the horses," and says it has "acted quickly and responsibly to ease the transition for the affected ranchers and their animals... providing increased funding and assistance to help... ranchers have broader access to other productive markets for their horses including professional ranches, riding stables and show programs." 

But Dr. Kellosalmi says that simply isn't realistic.

"There's no homes for that many," he says. So what's the solution?

"The solution, so far, has been slaughter," says Dr. Kellosalmi.

But what about those who would say that these horses were bred for a purpose, to provide medicine for humans that we at least though was what they needed? And just as a cow or any other animal, we often kill them and eat them.

"Yes, and the one difference I supposed is that horses are though of as being in between, second only to dogs and cats in the population," says Dr. Kellosalmi.

Helen Meredith agrees. She has been working working for years to find homes for Premarin horses and their foals.

"This mare here, she's one of the foals we brought down from Canada four years ago, says Meredith.

It is an expensive process, buying one truckload of Premarin horses at a time and bringing them down to be adopted. And she says she is never, ever, able to save enough of them.

"You never say to yourself, I've saved 50 horses," says Meredith. "You always say you had to leave 50 behind."

So with the help of some of her Hollywood friends like Richard Gere and Stockard Channing  she is trying to raise awareness about how many horses are at risk.

"Everone I have ever mentioned this to goes -- they say what are talking about?" says Channing. "It's not like, yeah, I heard about that. They literally don't know."

It is why she helps Helen Meredith raise money to adopt these horse.

"It's so hard to think that they're all just going to go to a feedlot, be fattened up and shipped for slaughter," says Meredith.

"I mean, they're just... a total waste, just a byproduct of an industry."

But it is Wyeth that's paying the lion's share of transporting these horses across the border from Canada to Helen's ranch.

And Missy, what of her? There is a girl, 10 years old, named Beth Lowetz, who worked at 4H fairs to save money.  And just in time, she had enough to adopt, and Missy won't have to know what she missed.

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