Unhealthy Horses

Critics say the UA's Equine Center may be skimping on care due to cash-flow problems

Domino kicks up dirt in a dusty corral on Tucson's far eastside, with all the feistiness you'd expect in a healthy young thoroughbred.

Although today, his eyes are bright, and his coat glistens in the late morning sun, Domino was in rotten shape when he arrived here at the Heart of Tucson horse sanctuary a year ago. He suffered stomach ulcers and contracted tendons, and was about to lose an eye.

The foal did not come from some hard-scrabble ranch or a sleazy, back-lot breeder. Instead, this horse, with lineage tracing back to 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral, was adopted from the UA's vaunted Equine Center. With headquarters at the university's farm on North Campbell Avenue, the center cares for some 50 horses, which are raised and sold to the racing industry or used for breeding.

But Domino's once-deplorable condition raises questions about the center's competency, and its ability to care for animals on an ever-tightening budget.

Judy Glore runs the Heart of Tucson. When she first heard about Domino from students in the equine program, it was almost too late. "They were going to euthanize him on a Monday, and students were calling me and sending me e-mails," she says. "We went in on Saturday. ... I was shocked at what I saw. I thought, 'And these people raise baby horses for a living?'"

Domino's mother died when he was three weeks old, and the center turned him out with the other mares and foals. After getting kicked in the shoulder, he was brought back inside and laid in a bed of shavings. One shaving got in his eye, causing an infection.

The eye was almost completely white when Glore first saw him. But that wasn't Domino's only problem. "They were also feeding him alfalfa," she says, which gave him chronic diarrhea. "You can't feed a baby that young alfalfa. He had contracted tendons on both legs, because he couldn't get up and move around. He had fractured his shoulder, but they didn't do an X-ray on him. He had a hernia, and they were giving him a gram of (phenylbutazone) a day."

Phenylbutazone is an anti-inflammatory commonly used to treat horses. "But they were giving him too much," Glore says, "and it was giving him stomach ulcers."

Center staffers were also dosing Domino four times a day with an antiseptic called Betadine—but in astronomically high concentrations of 25 percent, says Glore. "That's enough to scald his eye out. You're supposed to put a 2 percent solution in the eye and immediately flush it with water and saline solution. But they weren't even flushing it."

Glore then talked with center manager Laura Walker about adopting Domino. "Laura told me that Domino wasn't viable for their program anymore," Glore recalls. "And I said, 'Well, he's viable for ours.'"

Walker defended the treatment provided to Domino, pointing to the center's on-call vets and Ph.D.-level nutritionists. "We love all our horses," she says.

But love doesn't pay the bills. According to Estella Trevers, business manager for the UA Animal Sciences Department, the Equine Center took a huge hit in recent years, as sales of horses—its primary funding source—took a recessionary nosedive. "The money that the equine unit operates from is not a state-allocated budget," Trevers says. "Their budget is basically whatever they make at the (horse) sales that year."

In 2006, the Equine Center operated on $73,817, which included $44,100 in auction sales. The remaining revenue was generated through breeding, boarding and other services, says Trevers. But by 2009, the center was running on $53,665, as auction sales fell to $7,275.

Critics question whether these budget constraints play a role in the treatment of horses—and the number of horses euthanized rather than treated. Since 2001, the center has euthanized 11 horses and at least two foals, for causes ranging from cancer and colic to chronic hoof inflammation called laminitis. Four of those horses were killed in 2009.

When asked about this, UA officials offer conflicting perspectives. Walker says that resources are always a consideration in treatment. But Ron Allen, head of the Animal Sciences Department, denies that cost is a factor in euthanization. "If it's a money issue, the horse is sold or given away so it has another home," he says. "But we don't euthanize horses just because we don't want to feed them."

Allen also defends the center as a top-notch facility. "I've been here 30 years," he says, "and the care these horses get—and the expertise—is just excellent." He then suggests that Glore is making allegations about Domino because she's "trying to get attention for her organization."

But Glore isn't alone in ringing the alarm. She's joined by an Equine Center student who voiced similar concerns. "I don't think the center is taking measures they need to in order to save some of these horses," says the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, to protect her academic standing. "With colic, for instance, I think they give up far too easily and don't ask for help. My opinion is that they're doing that to cut costs. They make decisions to put horses down that shouldn't be put down."

One of those horses was named Ellie. "She was in her 20s, and she had a little trouble walking, but she was happy as can be," says the student. "She didn't have any medical problems other than arthritis and the typical things with aging horses. And they decided to put her down just simply because she was old."

Those allegations are vigorously denied by Dr. Mark Arns, an equine specialist with the Animal Sciences Department who says that Ellie suffered from chronic laminitis. Still, Arns admits that money is part of the treatment decisions. "It depends on the cost," he says. "I mean, if it's a $10,000 surgery, and we don't have $10,000, the surgery would not be done. You don't spend money you don't have."

Back at the Heart of Tucson, Glore puts a halter on the playful Domino. After simple treatments—such as giving the horse an antibiotic to clear up his eye, and putting him on a special formula to halt the diarrhea—the yearling is a different animal.

"He's doing great," says Glore. "And he's going to make somebody a great horse."