Premarin Foal Rescue

Like many young girls fourteen-years-old, Cory Lester adores horses. She started saving up her pennies and dimes for one when she was four, and two years ago bought a bay thoroughbred cross named Rosie, competing with her in dressage and quadrille shows.

Last year, while searching for a pony for her younger brother, she happened upon an article in Ride Magazine and a photo of Madonna, one of thousands of rescued Premarin foals doomed to the slaughterhouse. With her empathy and ire piqued Cory spent many hours scouring the internet to educate herself about the estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) drug Premarin, locating horse rescue organizations, and eventually connecting with a foal rescuer. There was the issue of money, but her parents kicked in a portion of the amount and she earned the rest.

Last October, Cory and her father drove down to Animali Farm in San Luis Obispo, California, to select her new baby from the 15 foals that Jennifer Johns and Cheryl Forbes had rescued from a Canadian Premarin farm. Initially, Cory wanted a black Percheron thoroughbred cross, but when she saw Sarah, a red roan, she knew that was the one. Sarah is bashful and easily startled, and it will be many months before Cory will be able to ride, but in the meanwhile they're getting acquainted.

"All of my friends have heard about my foal," laughs Cory, hugging Sarah's neck. "I go on and on and they wished they'd never asked. Most people are surprised about where Premarin comes from."

Not Just Any Old Pee

Many of the nine-million post-menopausal women or those who've undergone hysterectomies who daily take estrogen-enriched Premarin (and Prempro and Premphase) – making it the most prescribed drug in the USA – do not know where it comes from. It's made from horse urine. Not just any old pee, but only pregnant mare's urine will do. The name Premarin is derived from PREgnant MARe urINe. (Crush a Premarin pill and smell and you'll have no doubts)

With the urine from one mare providing yearly doses for about 150 women, about 60,000 mares are required to supply the 9 million women. The issue is not that it's made from pee – pharmaceuticals are concocted from all kinds of peculiar substances: tree bark, mushrooms, slim molds, leeches and placentas – but the operative word here is "pregnant." To be productive the mare must be continually in an equine "family way" and what's to be done with the 60,000 foals – adorable Paints, flashy Sorrels, sturdy drafts, Buckskins, Appaloosas, and Quarter Horses, and thoroughbreds, born every Spring? A few of the 60,000 fillies (the male colts haven't a chance) are put into future production lines. The finest among them are sold as pleasure horses, the rest killed and eaten. Not ground into mush, canned and made into dog food, but eaten by humans, mainly in France, Italy and Japan.

Depending on whether it's those in the Pregnant Mare Urine (PMU) industry or animal rights advocates making the estimates, 15% to 85% of the foals are slaughtered. According to the Manitoba Department of Agriculture and Food in 1999 there were 24,965 mares on 254 PMU ranches. 40% of the foals (about 10,000) are sent to "finishing" enterprises. According to the North American Equine Ranch Information Council (NAERIC), approximately 9% of PMU foals are sold as show horses, 20% for recreational riding, 15% for ranch and rodeo work, and 24% as replacement stock for PMU farms. About one third are destined for the international trade in horsemeat.

To The Rescue

Conceivably there are enough horse lovers in North America interested in these foals, but because so many are born within such a short period in remote regions of Canada the difficulty lies in the expense of transporting them south to where they can be bought.

"About four years ago I stumbled across the Premarin foal issue while surfing the internet and I was shocked it was going on," recalls Gina Brown, of Spring Hill, Vermont, who has horses of her own. "I knew I wanted to rescue several of them, but thought it would be a shame to pick up only a few. So I put the word out by creating and mailing an information packet to friends who also loved horses and the response was huge."

By the time the first 32 foals were delivered to Vermont two years ago 24 already had new owners anxiously awaiting their arrival. People concerned but unable to raise a foal can sponsor an adoption for someone else to raise it. This year Gina rescued 70 foals and hopes to up the number in 2002. "Five years ago foals could be bought for $75 or so," she said. "But now, especially with the Mad Cow scare, there's an increased demand for horse meat and we paid top meat price – averaging about $450 for each foal. The foals have become an industry of their own."

Sarah Grimm had just moved to Vermont two months when she learned about Premarin foals. "I'd never owned a horse before, but immediately knew I had to do something so I decided to adopt a foal. Unfortunately, the farm I had just purchased had been derelict for some time and the barn and fences were falling down. So instead of unpacking boxes I spent my first months in Vermont patching together a barn, paddock and pasture for the foal. We finished just in time for Lillybell's arrival at the end of September."

This year Sarah adopted from Gina Brown two more fillies: a seal brown Running Quarter Horse named Scout and a black Draft Cross named Raven. She intends to adopt a new foal every year for as long as she is able to provide a quality home for them.

"I try to tell whoever will listen about the foals," Sarah said. "I am also proud of my neighbor's children, ages 11 and 17, who've taken it upon themselves to make formal presentations to other young people about the Premarin foals at their 4H horse club and at their schools."

Family Haritage or Family Curse?

The cruelty with the offspring is only one aspect of equine slavery which defines the lifespan of these unfortunate animals. The mares at PMU farms are impregnated, fitted with a catheter bag to collect urine and stall-bound in "pee lines" for approximately 6-8 months. Many are kept dehydrated so their urine is concentrated. The mares are cooped up in small stalls and taken off the "peelines" at foaling time and put outside to birth. They are then re-impregnated and returned to the PMU production line. If the mares fail to get pregnant they, too, are generally sent to slaughter and replaced.

"Way back when there was nothing to do with the foals, they might be clubbed to death at birth, or quickly freeze to death if born in the middle of winter," explained Gina. "NAERIC eventually created rules and regulations regarding the treatment of Premarin mares and foals."

Pressure from animal rights groups have somewhat improved the lives of Premarin mares. More conscientious farmers have wider stalls, give horses more water, and regularly rotate the mares for exercise and relief from the catheter. To their credit, Wyeth-Ayerst now contracts for grams of estrogen recovered rather than by the gallons of urine collected and pays for the urine transport fees. Although PMU farms are not generally open to inspection, during the 1996-1997 collection season, vets from the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and the International League for the Protection of Horses toured two dozen PMU farms in Canada and North Dakota. Although they do not endorse the industry, they reported generally satisfactory conditions on the PMU farms.

Education and Alternatives

Despite the above incentives and reform efforts, thousands of PMU foals remain mere unwanted by-products of Premarin. Their ultimate main defense is the education of the millions of women taking Premarin: With baby-boomers reaching menopausal age, the numbers of women on ERTs could rise enormously. No doubt many women with growing awareness would opt instead to take a plant-derived substitute that makes the trail to slaughter entirely unnecessary.

Susan Wagner, the President of Equine Advocates based in New York, has helped coordinate several undercover television programs investigating PMU farms. She says, "The bottom line is it doesn't matter whether the farm treat their horses kindly or not because we know the majority of these horses are killed and eaten, which we completely oppose. We now have a generic alternative to Premarin that was approved in 1999, so there is no longer any need to use horses for this purpose."

Alternative ERTs made from non-animal sources are widely available, but because Premarin is the grandmother of ERTs – it first came onto the market in 1942 – doctors habitually prescribe it. A survey of 500 women age 40 and over concluded that 63% said their doctors failed to inform them that other medications were available. Forty-seven percent did not know that Premarin was made from pregnant mares' urine. When respondents learned about the truth of the urine collection process and about foal slaughter, more than half the women said they would forgo Premarin in favor of an alternative.

And then many doctors would argue that ERTs are not necessary at all, and some would argue that for many women estrogen can dangerous. "In my view and in the view of many other physicians, Premarin is responsible for a host of women's health problems, including such frightening entities as breast and uterine cancer," says Dr. Allan Warshowsky, a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist from New York.

Dr. Cheri Quincy, DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) in California who specializes in women's health issues and menopause, said, "The industry has been offering reasons to take estrogen based on very few long-term safety and efficacy studies..The side effect profile is such that it would never get approved today. Women should not ingest hormones for long periods of time. The best strategy for replacement of these complicated organic hormone is now with a transdermal patch which keeps it out of your liver and lowers the dose by about 90%."

And then there are doctors and healers that would first advise trying natural alternatives to drugs. DeAnna Batdorff, an Ayurvedic practitioner in Forestville, California, with expertise in the endocrine system says, "Proper hydration is essential in maintaining estrogen levels, which Evening Primrose oil and drinking flax seed water will help. Fennel seed is the first and easiest way to maintain progesteron levels in the body that promote estrogen."

Lawsuits and Boycotts

With sales of Premarin topping $13.5 billion annually Wyeth-Ayerst, American Homes Product (AHP) company, spent millions trying to quash its competitors such as Estrace, Climara, Estatab, Estinyl, Estraderm, Ogen, Ortho-Est, Provera, and Cenestin. Duramed Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Ohio produces a generic, slow release ERT, Cenestin, solely derived from soy and yams. In March 1999, the FDA approved Cenestin, which could cost up to 30% less than Premarin. While Cenestin contains the same three primary and six minor estrogens found in Premarin, Wyeth Ayerst charged that the generic did not contain delta 8, 9 dehydroestrone sulfate, an ingredient that the FDA repeatedly determined was simply an impurity and a non-required compound in Premarin.

Duramed Pharmaceuticals filed a lawsuit on September 5, 2000, alleging that Wyeth-Ayerst illegally monopolized estrogen products by inducing health plans and pharmacies into exclusive and "disguised" exclusive contracts for Premarin. In August 2001 the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio upheld Duramed's allegations. Theoretically, alternatives like Cenestin may now have an easier time competing in the market.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recently announced that Wyeth Ayerst lost an estimated $2 million dollars due to educational efforts and the Premarin boycott. Several popular brands on the boycott list are: Advil, Anacin, Dimetapp, Robitussin, Centrum, Chapstick, Preparation H, FiberCon, Denorex. (For a full list of products check

While Gina at Spring Hill Rescue is well aware of the politics around Premarin and boycott efforts, she explained, "Our particular goal and focus is to save the foals, and not lobby against Premarin.

Cory Lester adds, "There are two points of view. Some people say that buying the babies is just perpetuating the problem. Ultimately, the only way to stop the cruelty is to get women to stop using Premarin and switch to another ERT."

Bill Strubbe is a freelance writer in California and frequent contributor to Spirit of Change.


The following are websites with information about foal rescue, PMU Farms and Premarin: