Showdown at the not-okay corral

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2001:

CHENNAI, India–When lives depend on the health of horses, you keep the horses healthy. Even Wild West desperados who broke all Ten Commandments on a daily basis knew that–because the penalty for failure was to be caught and hung.

Civilization thrived in Pune and Madras, now called Chennai, for at least 5,000 years before the U.S. west was tamed.
Yet Haffkine Bio-Pharma Limited of Pune and the King Insti-tute of Preventive Medicine, in the Chennai suburb of Guindy, apparently never learned what illiterate gunslingers knew about horse care.

The two labs are now Exhibits A and B for more stringent regulation of lab animal use in India, as demanded by federal
minster for social justice and empowerment Maneka Gandhi, in a head-on clash with Tamil Nadu health minister L.K. Tripathy and Indian Medical Association state chapter president P.K. Kesavan.

The King Institute and Haffkine Bio-Pharma make snake antivenom for government clinics. The job is critical: India is
home to 52 species of poisonous snake, including the cobra, Indian krait, saw-scaled viper, and Russell’s viper. Each reputedly kills tens of thousands of people per year.

Indian state governments annually pay the families of about 200,000 snakebite victims compensation of approximately $435 per death, equal to a year’s wage for a common laborer. The payments often save families from ruin, at reported cost of sometimes inspiring the kin of terminally ill people to summon charmers whose snakes not only illegally end the victims’ suffering, but make the death lucrative.

Given to as many as 90,000 snakebitten people each year in Tamil Nadu alone, antivenom significantly lowers the toll.

Snake oil

The antivenom is made by injecting equines with venom at a dosage too weak to kill. After the equines fight off the immediate effects and produce antibodies, their blood serum is drawn and processed into the human antidote.

If the horses or mules receive quality care and adequate recovery time between venom injections, antivenom production can in theory be no harder on them than racing or pulling a carriage. But the King Institute has allegedly resisted meeting basic standards for equire care and humane inspection at least since 1964, when the late Blue Cross of India cofounder S.V. Sundaram and his son S. Chinny Krishna made investigating the institute a priority.

Krishna now heads both the Blue Cross and the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA), formed in 1998 by directive of federal minister for social justice and empowerment Maneka Gandhi.

Overdosing and over-bleeding the horses has long been suspected at both the King Institute and Haffkine Bio-Pharma,
Krishna told ANIMAL PEOPLE, because the production volume often exceeds the output that would be expected from the numbers of horses on hand. But a February 2000 CPCSEA inspection of Haffkine Bio-Pharma found that it had more than 700 horses in space meant for 230.The King Institute, meanwhile, mainly uses “retired” military horses, age 15 and up. The recommended age range for horses used in antivenom production is four to nine years. Also conspicuous at the King Institute is that horses often go blind there, a possible symptom of both overdosing and malnutrition.

The King Institute was supposed to register last year with the CPCSEA, but CPCSEA expert consultant Prema Veeraraghavan refused to accept the application, citing neglect of animal welfare. While that dispute simmered, 12 of the 142 horses then at the institute died in September 2000 from allegedly ingesting moldy hay.

“A visit to the premises by this reporter revealed that the animals were poorly maintained,” wrote P. Oppili of The Hindu. Another 19 horses died in October, and seven in November.”Laboratory reports later indicated the presence of
organo-phosphate pesticides in their feed and nitrates in their water,” reported S. Shanker of The Hindu. There was bad feed in Chennai. The Tamil Nadu Veterin-ary and Animal Sciences University lost 10 horses, the Officers Training Academy lost 11, and even the Blue Cross lost two. But the King Institute lost 77 equines in all during 2000–none between November 28 and Dec-ember 9, when the CPCSEA temporarily provided vet care. Haffkine Bio-Pharma lost 84 horses from April through Nov-ember; 26 allegedly bled to death.

Inspection

ANIMAL PEOPLE on December 3 joined Shiranee Pereira of the Chennai chapter of People For Animals and Prema Veeraraghavan of the CPCSEA in a surprise inspection of the King Institute. Their entry, and ours as guest experts, was facilitated by court order. We focused on basic care issues, apart from specific effects of the antivenom production.
Most of the 36 horses and mules stabled in the “sick” facility were hungry. Most lacked water. A few had stagnant water
in filthy troughs. Several longhaired Himal-ayan horses were in particular distress from the heat and humidity. Pereira asked the veterinarian and stable hand on duty to feed and water the horses and mules. The stable hand gave each
animal a few handfuls of low-quality hay–a fraction of what they needed. None of the equines had bedding. They were left to stand or lie on bare tile. All were in need of hoof-trimming. Many were lame, with swollen ankles and “boated” hooves.

An elderly mule with long hair and overgrown hooves was down and evidently unable to rise. When ANIMAL PEOPLE pointed this out to the vet, he ordered the stable hand to make the mule rise. The stable hand pulled the mule’s tail. ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett asked him to stop, begged the vet to make him stop, and finally stopped the tail-pulling by entering the stall herself.

Though the King Institute horses are not supposed to be ridden, one had fresh saddle sores and spur scars. A dam who later died (above) and foal (page one) had rubbed their necks raw on the iron rails which keep the stalls closed. The rubbing suggested skin mites. Another horse incessantly licked the rail. Called “pica behavior,” this could have indicated a mineral deficiency.

To determine whether the King Institute or the Indian military was most culpable for the condition of the equines, ANIMAL PEOPLE inspected a group of new arrivals. Most were probably 15 to 20 years of age, but seemed fit. None showed signs of malnutrition. They needed routine hoof-trimming, but none were lame. The new arrivals were also psychologically healthy–friendly and curious, albeit with the quirk of clenching their teeth when offered a pat. This is often a hint that a horse or mule has been worked with a steel or twisted-wire bit, which can cause painful mouth injuries.

That would confirm the observation of Tamil Nadu Veterin-ary and Animal Sciences University dean R. Manickam that dental disorders contribute to the King Institute equines’ ill health–for which reason they need better diets. Only two new arrivals showed signs of blindness.

Knowledge gap

The attending vet asserted that a farrier would be called on December 4 to do the necessary hoof care. But as of January 4, the Times of India reported, more than 90% of the horses had still not seen a farrier.

The vet further asserted that the horses and mules were on half rations to cure colic. ANIMAL PEOPLE pointed out that underfed equines may suffer colic from bolting their food too quickly, and is different from bloat, which is caused by eating too much of a rich food. There was no evidence from the King Institute equines’ condition or dung that they had seen rich food within recent memory.

The vet claimed that moldy hay had not harmed the King Institute horses because, “Horses have four stomachs.” This
directly contradicted the statement of a vet to S. Shanker of The Hindu that horses cannot be killed by contaminated feed because they have only one stomach. Either statement is absurd.

The vet interviewed by ANIMAL PEOPLE insisted that the King Institute equines receive regular exercise. ANIMAL PEOPLE pointed out that there were neither hoofprints nor dung anywhere to indicate that any of the equines in individual stalls other than the one with saddle sores had recently been removed for exercise. The attending veterinarian asserted repeatedly that he was only a weekend substitute, and that the bad conditions were not his
fault. The vet then begged ANIMAL PEOPLE to refrain from reporting our findings.

Update

Chinny Krishna told ANIMAL PEOPLE on December 16 that the King Institute had agreed to release 62 unfit equines from antivenom production, plus any others who were 15 or older. “The responsibility and financial commitment [of taking the sick, injured, and elderly horses] frightens me, but we have to do it,” said Pereira on January 4.

In the interim a new King Institute director was appointed, who “seems to be sincere,” Pereira said, about making improvements. Haffkine-Bio-Pharma meanwhile reportedly agreed to supervision by an animal ethics committee, to include CPSCEA representative Dr. Satish Bhande.

Animal Welfare Board of India chair Gulman Mal Lodha blamed the horse care scandals partially on the failure of Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to fulfill a February 2000 promise to strengthen the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Mal Lodha commented while announcing that Animal Welfare Board honors for distinguished service would be given to 11 animal advocates in 2001, including Chinny Krishna and D.R. Mehta, chair of the Stock Exchange of India. Mehta helped the Visakha SPCA to replace dog electrocutions in Visakhapatnam with an animal birth control program.

[Contact People For Animals c/o Dr. Shiranee Pereira, 114 Vepery High Rd., Chennai, Tamil Nadu 600 003, India; telephone 91-44-538-4330; fax 91-44-54330; <Cpcsea@hotmail.Com>.]
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