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PBSO and state investigations launched in deaths of 21 Venezuelan horses in Wellington

At least 21 polo horses have died after being struck by a mysterious ailment just before competition at the U.S. Open polo tournament in Wellington.

WELLINGTON — When the horses began to falter, collapse and die, dozens of people came to their aid. And as the horses died around the polo field, strangers from the stands shared in the animals’ last moments.         

Few love their horses as they do in this small Florida village.

Even fewer have watched 21 prized polo horses, worth more than $2 million, mysteriously die so quickly.     

“I’ve been in the sport for 50 years and never been around something as tragic as this,” said Peter Rizzo, Wellington resident and executive director of the United States Polo Association. “It’s a bond that is close to marriage – it’s different than a dog – it’s an amazing thing and these horses were some of the best in the world.”

On Monday, investigators with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services opened death investigations.

The bodies of the horses arrived at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville and a state laboratory in Kissimmee so scientists could examine them for answers. And a tightknit community of horse lovers began to mourn the loss of not just 21 animals, but veritable family members.         

So far, investigators said they’ve ruled out infectious diseases as a cause of death. And nobody as of Monday suspected foul play.

Instead, they’re looking to see whether the horses, part of the Venezuelan Lechuza Caracas polo team, came in contact with poison or were injected with anything that could have killed them.

“Because of the very rapid onset of sickness and death, state officials suspect these deaths were a result of an adverse drug reaction or toxicity,” said Terence McElroy, spokesman for the state agency, in a written statement.

Answers could take weeks as scientists test every substance ingested by the horses, screen blood for toxins and question caretakers and the team’s owner, Venezuelan multimillionaire Victor Vargas.

Dr. John Harvey, assistant dean of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, said a necropsy is much like an autopsy: The body is checked for visible trauma, and fluid and tissue samples are collected after a preparation process that takes two to three days.

“The suspicion here is toxins because of how sudden these animals died,” Harvey said. “But since we don’t know what we’re looking for, there are literally thousands of things we can test for. It could be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Sunday afternoon, the horses took to the International Polo Club Palm Beach field. Some started having trouble immediately after coming off the truck. Some became dizzy and collapsed.

More than a dozen local vets and vet technicians dropped everything and came to the field. They administered intensive therapy, including IV lines and fluids, and treated the horses for shock. The animals showed signs of pulmonary edema, which means fluid accumulated in their lungs, and cardiogenic shock, said Dr. Scott Swerdlin, a veterinarian with the Palm Beach Equine Clinic.

“There was no pain, they were just disoriented,” Swerdlin said.

As the horses suffered around the field, each had no fewer than three people there to see them through their last moments, said Don Dufresne, a Wellington attorney who specializes in equine law, is past president of the Palm Beach County Sports Commission and is a member of the U.S. Polo Association.

“The community rallied around the situation with probably 100 volunteers,” Dufresne said. “Over every horse were three to five people triaging. The reality is that the polo community is much more like a family.”

Twelve or 13 horses died on the field and another was later euthanized at Swerdlin’s Wellington clinic. The others died at Lechuza Caracas’ barn, which has about 85 horses. A team of such horses could take 10 years to rebuild, Swerdlin said. Each horse is worth more than $100,000.

“These were some of the best horses in the world,” he said.

But to this horse-loving community, money doesn’t tell the story.

“To some riders, their horses are like their children,” says Richard Wood, who owns Woody’s of Wellington, a boot shop frequented by horse owners.

A small memorial sprouted up, with bouquets of flowers left outside the Lechuza Caracas property on Monday. Rivals offered the team their extra horses if they chose to continue playing in the tournament Wednesday. The team declined and has since pulled out of the tournament.

The team put out a brief statement Monday night thanking the community for its support. “We wish to thank those from the polo community who tried to save our precious ponies by selflessly lending their assistance,” the team statement read. “Although the ponies could not be saved, our gratitude to them cannot be overemphasized.”

John Wash, president of club operations for the International Polo Club Palm Beach, said the have already have affected people well beyond Wellington, especially in the polo community.

“In polo’s history there’s never been an incident like this that anybody can remember,” Wash said. “This was a tragic issue on the magnitude of losing a basketball team in an airplane crash.”

Toxin is Suspected in Death of 21 Horses 

Source:  South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Posted:  Just One More Pet

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Update:  The tragedy of the Venezuelan polo horse deaths is becoming clearer, with a Selenium Overdose Confirmed as the probable cause of death.

Polo Horse Deaths: Selenium Overdose Confirmed

In a report to Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services, Florida State Veterinarian Thomas J. Holt stated that the animals had “significantly increased selenium levels” in samples tested. He reported that the findings obtained at the department’s Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Kissimmee were confirmed by independent testing conducted at multiple other facilities across the nation. Selenium is a trace mineral which is essential for normal cell function and health in animals, and is often included in small quantities in supplements and feed for horses. Large doses, however, can be fatal to animals.

“Signs exhibited by the horses and their rapid deaths were consistent with toxic doses of selenium,” Dr. Holt said.

The University of Florida conducted necropsies on 15 of the horses and performed extensive toxicology testing. Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said that no further information on the investigation can be disclosed at this time to prevent the investigation from being compromised.

The Venezuelan polo team had charged Franck’s Pharmacy of Ocala, Florida, with preparing a substitute for a medication called Biodyl, which is not approved for use in the US, but is widely used elsewhere. Biodyl is a vitamin and mineral solution containing ATP, selenium and B12. The pharmaceutical compounding lab later admitted that “the strength of an ingredient in the medication was incorrect”. The medication was apparently given to the horses shortly before they began to collapse.

“In light of the statement from Florida State Veterinarian Thomas J. Holt, we can confirm that the ingredient was selenium,” Jennifer Beckett, the pharmacy’s chief operations officer, said in a statement.

It has yet to emerge if the error was due to the incorrect amount being specified in a prescription provided by the team’s veterinarian, or if the pharmaceutical lab was at fault with it’s dosage calculations.

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April 21, 2009 Posted by | Animal or Pet Related Stories, animals, Just One More Pet, Unusual Stories | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment