Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Yet another twist to the property rights argument...

My longtime readers know that I have frequently observed that it is not that easy to protect horses from poor ownership, because, legally, horses are personal property. But today I want to talk about an interesting question: How do you feel about the government's right to take possession of your animal - and even euthanize it - to serve the greater good?

Someone sent me this news story. Two horses affected with equine piroplasmosis were stolen, probably by individuals not wanting to see them put to sleep. The story does not address whether or not the horses were actively suffering, or had just been identified as carriers. I'm guessing the latter.

I had to look up equine piroplasmosis. From the Blood Horse - "Equine Piroplasmosis is a blood-borne parasitic disease primarily transmitted to horses by ticks or contaminated needles. The disease was eradicated from Florida in the 1980’s, and the tick species believed to transmit EP in other countries have not been identified in Florida in many years. This disease is not directly contagious from one horse to another but requires direct blood transfer." So, it's like Equine Infectious Anemia, "swamp fever," another disease that can only be spread that way - typically by biting ticks and mosquitoes, but also by re-used syringes (What kind of moron does that? Well, apparently some do.).

Years ago, I remember the EIA panic, when those in mosquito-laden states started requiring Coggins testing for all shows and events. I have to say, I thought the response from some was extreme. EIA was not - is not - an easy disease to spread. It never had the potential to be a horsey Bubonic Plague, taking down everything in its path, but that's exactly what you'd think from listening to people talk at the time. The rule with EIA was that if you had a horse test positive, it had to be either euthanized or confined a certain distance (it's 200 yards now - can't remember if that was the standard then) from other horses, in a enclosure such that bugs couldn't get in or out. Not much of a life for the horse, yet I remember thinking that I would happily build such a structure rather than put down one of my horses. And I deliberately chose not to compete two of my horses after testing became mandatory because I was not willing to test them and run the risk of a positive - especially after hearing about incidents where horses falsely tested positive. I'm sure I'm not the only horseowner who applied that logic!

All of this brings up some very good questions. What kind of transmissible disease is bad enough for the government to step in and say, that's it, we're going to put your horse to sleep whether you like it or not? Is that ever appropriate? If there is a way to confine the horse and control the spread of the disease, should that be allowed? How do you enforce compliance with confinement? What other options might exist? No, I certainly don't want my horses to get it (whatever "it" is), but at what point do I have the right to stomp on someone else's property rights, not to mention feelings, and say, hey, you have to euthanize your (potentially asymptomatic) horse because there's a tiny chance a mosquito might bite yours and then bite mine?

When the EIA panic occurred, I remember reading studies about how positives were pastured with negatives for years with no cross-transmission. Of course this information was not being put out there freely for the general public, who were freaking the heck out over the possibility their horse would get it. Despite the fact that many horses are never Coggins tested and there are surely some positives among them, it's still not an epidemic that drops thousands of horses a year. Last year, two million horses were tested and fewer than 200 positives reported, according to this article. Of course, the argument is that the reason EIA isn't a problem is because we did kill off all those positive horses in the 70s and 80s. I haven't done enough research to know if I agree with that. But as even the veterinarians who wrote the article admit: "In 2006, if the 66 cases found on a single premises in Minnesota and the 20 on one other premises in Mississippi are subtracted from the statistics, over $50,000,000 was paid by owners to find 101 new cases of EIA in the United States, nearly $500,000 to find each new positive horse." Ouch. Am I being snarky if I note that Coggins tests are an awfully easy way for a vet to make a buck? Well, snarky but accurate.

Of interest: A horse rescue specifically for EIA positive horses. I don't know anything about this group, but I'm going to read the site later. It looks like a great idea - a sanctuary for the positives. Could this be done with piroplasmosis positives, too, or is there some veterinary reason the two diseases are different? Is it really necessary for our tax dollars to go to the FBI hunting someone down who just didn't want to see two horses die?

(Law enforcement's involvement in public health seems to be a pretty odd relationship to me. I'm old enough to remember the early HIV panic and how people were suggesting positive humans be confined in camps. And we say horses are prone to panic!)

I tend to be pretty Libertarian in my political beliefs and this is no different. I really don't think the government should have the right to euthanize your horse for disease control without giving you the option of confinement - yet I recognize that confinement is nearly impossible to enforce. So what's the solution? And are these diseases so terrible a threat that euthanasia is the correct choice, or would they always be rare, hard-to-spread diseases no matter if we attempted to control them or not? What's your take on it? Where do we draw the line between private property rights, the greater good, and just being kind and fair to the animals we love so much?