State agriculture officials plan to meet with the owners of a Gorham horse farm today to outline options for disposing of 23 horse carcasses that died of botulism.
State Veterinarian Don Hoenig plans to present Anne and William Kozloff with a letter describing the two options for disposing of the horses, which died over a three-week period in the past month.
The preferred disposal method would be to compost the remains, a process by which the soft tissues decompose within a few months, and the long bones after about six months.
However, these horses are already buried about eight feet deep at the Nonesuch Road farm and the owners have said that digging them up would be upsetting as well as messy, he said.
An alternative proposed by the department's soils experts would involve installing a curtain drain. That method would entail digging a trench around the burial area, lining it with crushed rock and a plastic barrier so that runoff would not leach through the burial location but be diverted around it.
Hoenig had earlier said the farm has a history, but he elaborated Monday, saying that the last time state inspectors were called to the farm for a complaint was in January 2010 and the owners corrected areas of concern. He said he did not know the specifics of the complaint or the remedy.
A woman who said she was an owner said Monday she did not want to comment on the issue.
State authorities say they are not worried that botulism will contaminate the water table, but are concerned that water leaching through the decomposing carcasses would be bad for the water quality.
Linda Beck, who lives on nearby Mountain View Road, said she is worried about water quality. She already installed a filter system because of high arsenic levels in the groundwater and she doesn't drink the water but does use it for cooking.
Her husband Bill Beck said others also are worried.
"Everybody on this side of the road is concerned about the water table," said he said. "We need information on where the horses were buried."
Linda Beck said she also is disturbed that so many horses died so suddenly.
"I was just devastated" after learning about the deaths. "I'm an animal person. I love horses," she said, sporting a pair of earrings in the shape of horses.
State officials became aware a week and a half ago that almost two dozen horses had died from the paralytic condition that indicates botulism poisoning. The toxin interferes with the nerves ability to communicate with muscles and the horses are unable to swallow or breathe.
Some of the horses recovered from their symptoms. Between 40 and 45 horses remain at the farm, Hoenig said.
The state's investigation into the deaths was sparked by a complaint. A resident called Gorham police who forwarded the complaint to state authorities, said Town Manager David Cole.
The state welfare agent found no evidence of neglect, and the care for the animals met state standards, Hoenig said. State standards require that horses have waterproof shelter, unlimited access to clean water and enough food to maintain body weight.
He said the state has received complaints about the farm before, but the last one was in January of 2010. He said the owners complied with the corrective action that the state inspectors required. Hoenig said he did know the nature of that complaint or what inspectors required them to change.
The state is still trying to pinpoint what caused the poisoning, though it has suspects. Horses usually contract botulism from feed and because so many horses were exposed to it at one farm, that is a likely source.
Inspectors suspect that baleage, partially dried forage in large round bales that is then wrapped in plastic, might be to blame. The practice is common for cow feed because the partially dried grass has more nutrients than fully dried hay and it does not require three straight days of dry weather after being cut, as regular hay does.
However, the sealed bales can create the oxygen free conditions for the botulism bacteria to grow, especially if a dead animal like a rodent was baled with the hay. Cows are less susceptible because their digestive system includes four stomachs that reduce the impact of impurities. Horses, by comparison, have very sensitive digestive systems, said Richard Brzozowski, of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Experts recommend that owners feeding baleage to horses should make sure the animals are vaccinated for botulism.
Marilyn Goodreau, president of the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals, which runs a horse rescue farm in Windham, said she will not use the sealed bales of hay.
"You wouldn't feed that to horses," she said. "It deteriorates and it breaks down and can get black and dusty and has a lot of bacteria."
Goodreau would not say whether she received any complaints about the farm, saying such referrals are confidential.
The large-scale death of horses from botulism is almost unheard of in Maine, though not nationally. Experts at the University of Pennsylvania's National Botulism Reference Laboratory, said there have been other large-scale deaths elsewhere in the country, although botulism death among horses is rare.
"It's most common in the mid-Atlantic region, but even here is it is a relatively uncommon disease," said Dr. Amy Johnson, a consultant for the lab and neurology professor at the university.
In one California case in the 1990s, botulism was diagnosed in a dairy herd where more than 400 cows died after they ate feed that had been contaminated by a dead cat. And in Florida, botulism in feed caused the death of more than 120 horses.
The bacteria that causes botulism is common in the soil, but it is usually in its spore form, which is not dangerous, Johnson said. It is only when it is in anaerobic conditions -- when there is no oxygen present -- that it transforms into its vegetative state and gives off the deadly toxin.