Investigation begins into death of 21 horses

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Polo fans and equestrian-lovers watched in horror as seven horses sickened and died in front of their eyes. The horses were meant to take the field for a polo match in Wellington, Florida on Sunday afternoon. Soon seven other horses fell sick. Veterinarians rushed the fields, but were unable to save a single horse. By Monday, 21 horses, all from the same Venezuelan team, had died. Now, investigators are searching for the cause. The Takeaway turns to Brian Haas, a newspaper reporter on the ground in Florida and Dr Celeste Kunz, a horse veterinarian, to try and piece together this equine mystery.

For more, read Brian Haas' article, PBSO and state investigations launched in deaths of 21 horses in Wellington in the Sun Sentinel.

CBS News has this report:

Click through for a transcript

John Hockenberry: So it’s a grim scientific mystery, but certainly the scene at the United States Polo Championship in Wellington, Florida on Sunday was not pleasant. Just before the start of the match 14 horses collapsed. Three died almost immediately and within 24 hours a total of 21 horses had died. It’s a scientific mystery. What could cause 21 horses to die seemingly instantaneously? Following the story is South Florida Sun Sentinel reporter Brian Haas. He joins us from Coconut Grove, Florida. We’re also joined by Dr. Celeste Kunz, an equine veterinarian with a practice in New Jersey. Dr. Kunz was once the chief examining vet at the New York Racing Association. Brian, Dr. Kunz, thanks for being with us.

Brian Haas: Thanks for having us.

Celeste Kunz: Thank you.

JH: I mean, Brian, this is absolutely unprecedented in the sport and it seems in the history of animals. What could possibly have happened here, and how’s it being covered down in South Florida?

BH: Well, you are correct, this is unprecedented. I talked to Peter Rizzo, head of the U.S. Polo Association, and he’s just dumbfounded by this. What you have going on right now is, you have necropsies going on at the University of Florida and at a state animal laboratory trying to figure out what killed them from their tissue samples, from their blood samples. At the same time you’ve got scientists looking at their feed, at their water, at any supplements they may have been given, just to see if something there may have been toxic. Basically, at this point, they think they’ve ruled out any kind of infectious disease, anything that could spread, and they’re pretty sure that there’s something they came in contact with that was limited to this group of horses.

JH: Putting this in context was Dr. Scott Swerdlin, who was a veterinarian on scene at the Polo Club on Sunday after this happened. He was very blunt.

Dr. Scott Swerdlin tape: These are the best horses in the world. If you were looking at athletes, it’d be like a plane crash of the greatest football players in the world.

JH: Dr. Celeste Kunz, what could conceivably explain 21 horses dying so suddenly?

CK: Sudden death is rare in a horse anyway, and this was a cluster, and apparently, from what I understand 100 percent mortality. Not one horse was able to be saved. No external wounds. It had to be same exposure, same time frame. The first thing that pops into your mind, from my area is monensin toxicity. We had about 20 years ago in the state of New Jersey, it was a feed mill error and there was a colorless, odorless additive in the feed and the horses died almost instantly. It was a myocardial necrosis. If that happened, that should be found. They would examine the stomach contents and the muscle tissue. Other things that come to mind, toxic vegetation. But these horses were not on pasture. There could be, boy, there could be…arsenic would be unlikely, and pesticides. They would have to be exposed to so much of it. And that would be more of a gastrointestinal problem. Blister beetle ingestion in hay, they would have to eat so many of them, but that would be something easily found. Moldy corn poisoning, that would affect the white matter of the brain. You may see some dizziness and ataxia which they did see. Again kind of unlikely. Clostradial spores, you would see more of a bloody diarrhea, I don’t believe they saw that at all. Carbon monoxide, it’s too open. Those areas are very well-ventilated. Organphosphates. Again, lead poisoning in the water very unlikely but possible. Toxicity, they should have a coagulation disorder. The unfortunate thing is, if this were a barn of school horses that died suddenly, horses that were planning on going trail running the next day, our list would be different. But one of our possible causes that we have to include here is a tainted pre-composition substance.

JH: Right. Let me just ask Brian Haas for a moment: Has foul play been ruled out? Is there a possible question of sabotage here.

CK: I don’t believe anything has been ruled out. And sabotage is possible, but extremely unlikely. First of all, the timing was poor. It was too close to a big event. It would be much easier if it were in the middle of the week. And there’s more scrutiny around these horses right before an event. And access to the horses, it’s a closed herd. I spent time in Argentina with the thoroughbreds down in San Isidro and Palermo and these people live with them, they eat with them. This is a national tragedy.

JH: Let me get a final word from Brian Haas. Are the authorities investigating this at this point? Is there an investigation under way?

BH: Yeah, yesterday in the afternoon both the state Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, which patrols Wellington, both opened law enforcement investigations. Up to that point it had been mostly a scientific inquiry to find out what was going on. But because of the magnitude of it, the did open law enforcement investigations. They’ve not ruled out foul play, but they say, at least as of late yesterday, that there was no evidence of that at this point.

JH: Well, we have to go, but I can hear the shock in both your voices. Just to remind our listeners, within 24 hours at the United States Polo Championship in Wellington, Florida on Sunday, 21 horses, 21 championship polo horses died. It’s a scientific mystery. We may find out what is going on as Brian Haas says, nothing is being ruled out at this point.