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Prescription for Cruelty

By refusing drugs like Premarin, women can end an industry that still holds thousands of mares captive

All Animals magazine, March/April 2015

by Karen E. Lange

  • Retired PMU mares Bella, Delilah, and Sydney at Duchess Sanctuary. Jennifer Kunz/The HSUS

Delilah, Sydney and Bonnie are older now, in their 20s, so naturally they don’t move as well. But the three draft mares living out their final years at Duchess Sanctuary in Oregon have slowed down even more than usual.

Once, for about six months each year during their pregnancies, Delilah, Sydney and Bonnie stood tethered in concrete-floored stalls too narrow to turn around in, hooked to bags to collect their urine at a Canadian "PMU" farm. The Pregnant Mare Urine, which contains estrogen, was used by Pfizer to manufacture a hormone replacement drug called Premarin.

Horses' bodies have evolved to always be moving, says Jennifer Kunz, director of operations at Duchess, but these animals could not walk or run or shift positions. The unnatural constant pressure on their front legs, which bear most of a horse's weight, left them with stiff, arthritic joints. Today, staff members at the sanctuary, operated by HSUS affiliate The Fund for Animals, give the animals anti-inflammatories to ease the discomfort and monitor them closely for signs of pain.

In 2008, when 90-plus rescued PMU mares, including these three, arrived at Duchess, the industry appeared to be on its way out. Following the disclosure in 2002 that Premarin increases the risk of cancer, heart attacks and strokes for women, demand for the drug plummeted. There were 50,000 horses kept on Canadian and American PMU farms. Now there are, at most, 4,000.

The industry isn't dying, though; it's just moved overseas, with new farms in China, Kazakhstan and Poland, says Vivian Farrell, founding president of The Horse Fund, a U.S.-based advocacy group. And North American women continue to buy a growing number of PMU products, including Premarin, Prempro, Premphase and a new drug that launched quietly and is set to be promoted this year: Duavee, which is being marketed to menopausal women and people of both sexes who suffer from osteoporosis. The name gives no hint of the suffering at its source.

But U.S. women can put an end to PMU farms, Farrell says, by asking doctors not to prescribe them drugs made with "conjugated equine estrogen." Women in this country still make up 90 percent of the market, she says. Other medications and treatments are available.

Kunz says she’s never met a woman who kept taking PMU drugs once she understood the cruelty involved. "If women know, they’ll choose something else."


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