RESCUING FOALS (AND EARNING WINGS)
By Carolyn Battista
Several Years Ago, Frank Weller adopted two foals named Toby and Drahma; that is, he purchased them to save them from being slaughtered. Soon he was rallying others to save many more foals. Last November, with the help of some cohorts, he established the Equine Angels Rescue Sanctuary, a nonprofit horse rescue organization.
"I have a love of horses and a sympathy for them" said Mr. Weller, who lives in New Milford and is President of the group.
In 2002, he and his associates helped organize an event in Greenwich that raised $40,000 for foal rescue. They also brought 53 foals back from Canada and eventually placed all but two of them. In 2003 the group brought back 36 foals and so far have placed all but 14.
Last November, the Equine Angels booth at the Affaire Equine, an exhibition at the Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds in West Springfield, Mass., drew some 450 visitors, including one who adopted a foal.
Mr. Weller, a divorced father of two daughters, ran a retail store in Danbury for 20 years, but he has a background in film. He now works at a variety of jobs, including location scouting for films. These days, he said, working with the rescue group, "has sort of taken over."
He went to Canada in 2001 to make a documentary about the activities related to Premarin, a drug made by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals that is widely prescribed in hormone replacement therapy. The drug is made from estrogens obtained from the urine of pregnant mares; the mares are impregnated so that they can produce the estrogens, and the foals - byproducts of the pregnancies - are usually auctioned off.
Some issues have arisen. There are about 260 farms - mostly in Canada - involved in Premarin production; in recent years, there were more than 400. The North American Equine Ranching Information Council, which represents the farmers, sayhorses are well treated, but many groups devoted to animal welfare, including the Humane Society of the United States, have often cited problems such as restrictive and uncomfortable conditions for mares.
"I began exploring this," said Mr. Weller, who added that more than 35,000 foals were produced a year. "The recreational market absorbs 7,000 to 8,000 foals per year. But most of them go to feedlots and then to slaughter."
At one of the auctions, Mr. Weller saw many of the foals left without homes. Various organizations saved some of them, but the groups could not keep up with the numbers. "It was heart heart wrenching," Mr. Weller said. "I put down my camera and started to help out."
After adopting Toby in 2001 and Drahma in 2002, he gathered other people to help buy foals, provide inital veterinary treatment, border-crossing fees and transportation. They also worked at keeping the foals in herds on farms and finding a foster or permanent home for each. Last December , Mr. Weller was accompanied by Marianne Lewis and Carl Dunham, also Equine Angels members from New Milford, on a visit to a foster home. Ms. Lewis, an administrative assistant for an outpatient psychiatric service, doled out apples and hay; Mr. Dunham, a lawyer and the legal adviser for the group, described what drew him to Equine Angels. "Frank is the reason I got involved in this," he said. "He's a doer and a good catalyst."
Mr. Dunham said that Mr. Weller started a film commission in town and volunteers at homeless shelters and elsewhere. "He has a very kind heart," he said.
Equine Angels (www.foalrescue.com) places its foals carefully, doing background checks and then monitoring each situation. At the foster homes, the foals not only receive shelter, food and routine veterinary care, but they can also get used to people.
"They become part of a family, not just part of a herd," Mr. Weller Said.
Tara and Turk Aksoy of Warren have been providing foster care to five foals since last October. Mrs. Aksoy described how much she and her husband enjoyed their foster arrangement and how quickly it occured.
"It happened overnight," she said. After an acquaintance mentioned the group to them, they spoke with Mr. Weller. They liked horses, and although they hoped to have some someday, they didn't yet have the proper facilities on their 11 acres. Within days, Mr. Weller brought portable fencing, Mr. Aksoy built a shed, and the foals arrived.
"I love having them," said Mrs. Aksoy, who has a degree in animal science. "I get to work with them every day."
The foster people do not pay for the horses, but they do pay for care and feeding. People who adopt usually pay $800 for a mixed-breed foal, more for a purebred. That helps cover costs, Ms Lewis said.
At the Equine Angels booth at the exhibition in West Springfield, Susan Keys met a black foal with a mark on his head in the shape of a dove.
This little guy walked up to me and put his head on my shoulder; I fell madly in love," said Dr. Keys, a biology professor who lives on a farm in Granby, Mass.
Dr. Keys soon made arrangements to adopt the foal, which cost $900 because he was a purebred Percheron. "He was delivered the weekend before Thanksgiving; we named him Blessing." she said.
Nicole Cloutier, of Washington, adopted a foal, Gunnar, for a required Senior project, this year at Shepaug High School. Her parents chipped in $400; to pay the rest and to complete her project, she has been working with Equine Angels. She helped out at the Affaire Equine, has a Web site (www.pmufoalproject.com) and talks with people about the Premarin industry and its foals.
I'm learning alot," she said.
Equine Angels, like other horse rescue organizations, is now facing a new problem. Sales of Premarin have declined since May 2002, when the Women's Health Initiative reported that in healthy, post-menopausal women the risks of hormone replacement therapy outweighed possible benefits. Wyeth Pharmacuticals has cut its production of the drug, according to Douglas Petkus, a spokesman for Wyeth, and Mr. Weller thinks about 20,000 mares at the Premarin mare urine farms may need a place to go.
Norm Luba, the executive director of the North American Equine Ranching Information Council, said about 12,000 mares are being retired, and that some 9,000 of them had already been placed.
But as Mr. Weller sees it, "there's an overabundance of horses that need homes. That leaves the door open for them to go to slaughter."
Equine Angels plans to have 20 pregnant mares transported to farms in Connecticut and New York to await foster or permanent homes. The group is also looking into placing mares at sites out West, perhaps at Indian Reservations or prisons where they can be cared for and trained.
To raise funds for its projects, the group has scheduled a showng of the film "The Young Black Stallion," with a silent auction, at the IMAX Theater in Norwalk, CT next Saturday. Equine Angels also plans to have a major fundraiser in 2004.
All this keeps Mr. Weller
"People are getting involved," he said. " We meet alot of angels"