Diseased horses smuggled across Texas border
U.S. Border Patrol agents recently seized 10 adult horses and four yearlings as their handlers attempted to cross the Texas border near El Paso, according to the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC). The adult horses were later found to be infected with equine piroplasmosis.
Smugglers from Mexico were attempting to illegally cross the Rio Grande with the animals when federal officials intercepted them. The animals were turned over to veterinarians with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who tested them for disease. All 10 of the of the adult animals tested positive for equine piroplasmosis, a blood-borne disease commonly seen in South and Central America but not considered endemic in the United States. If left undetected, the disease could have a serious effect on interstate and international equine transportation, says the TAHC.
According to Dr. Grant Wease, field veterinarian for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in El Paso, the illegal movement of animals is an ongoing concern in Texas. “In some places, the Rio Grande poses no barrier at all to foot traffic for man or animal,” he says. Approximately 280 head of cattle and 160 head of equine (primarily horses) were intercepted by the USDA along the Rio Grande in 2011, Dr. Wease says.
TAHC also points out that many of the normal import processes for livestock coming into Texas have been adversely impacted by border violence, increasing the appeal of smuggling animals illegally over the border. Currently, because of unsafe conditions in Mexico, U.S. government employees are forbidden from conducting livestock and horse inspections south of the Texas border. As a result, the state has established a process whereby horses are retained in holding facilities and tested for infectious diseases before legally entering the U.S. However, at this time, there are no open holding facilities in Texas, which makes the process of smuggling horses into the state even more tempting for some. State officials are hoping to rectify this situation and resume the normal import process this summer by reopening a port in Nuevo Laredo, says Dee Ellis, DVM, state veterinarian and TAHC executive director.
In addition to concerns about illegal transportation of horses into the U.S., animal health officials are aware of other high-risk situations for the spread of equine piroplasmosis. Due to the highly transmissible nature of the disease from infected to non-infected animals, a number of racetracks and equine events around the country have imposed specific entry requirements related to the disease. For example, as of June 23, 2011, all horses entering Texas racetracks must have had a negative piroplasmosis test in the past 12 months.
“Racing quarter horses with some connection to Mexico appear to be at highest risk of testing positive to the emerging disease,” Ellis says. “This situation highlights the ongoing border security problems Texas is facing, which leads to an increased risk of disease introduction for the Texas livestock population when animals enter our state illegally. I encourage all citizens that witness unusual activity regarding livestock movement near the Mexican border to contact their local law enforcement or animal health officials as quickly as possible to report the situation.”
The USDA and TAHC are currently investigating the smuggling incident, focusing their efforts on both the source of the animals and their destination.