The 1971 Kentucky Derby was less than two weeks away when a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee rushed into the Hyattsville, Md. office of Dr. Richard Omohundro, assistant director of the USDA's Animal Health Division. "There's some South American horse waiting for clearance at the Miami airport," he said. "He's on his way to the Derby, but he hasn't got a health certificate."
"Well, he can't race without one," Omohundro said. "Have him put in quarantine and kept there." Fortunately for Canonero and the national pride of Venezuela, the certificate arrived shortly afterward and the horse was released in time to make his bid for immortality.
Early this summer another Venezuelan arrived in the U.S. by air, but this time there was no question of holding it at the airport. The second visitor came across the U.S.-Mexican border somewhere near Brownsville, Texas around the first of July, traveling by mosquito. Before this traveler was slowed down last week, more than 1,400 horses lay dead along the Texas Gulf Coast, and the $12-billion U.S. horse industry was threatened with disaster.
By curious coincidence, the same man who nearly stopped Canonero—Richard Omohundro—also led the holding action against VEE, Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis. In the second instance it took more than a phone call and the muscle of the Federal Government; before Omohundro would relax last week in his Houston motel room and discuss the campaign at leisure, more than 4,000 persons in 11 states had been marshaled to battle the disease; over one million inoculations had been given; six states had been slapped with a federal horse quarantine and race commissions and tracks from New York to Tijuana were slamming their stable doors to incoming horses from the endangered areas. In Ireland, England, France, Italy and West Germany, governments issued a total embargo on U.S. horses for an indefinite period.
VEE, sometimes called the blind staggers for the debilitating effect it has on horses, kills four out of every five animals it infects. It is an entirely new strain to this country, although, since 1936, it has drifted north from Venezuela through Central America. Other strains of equine sleeping sicknesses have appeared sporadically in the U.S., the most recent serious case being the 1959 epizootic that resulted in the death of 21 persons and 52 horses in New Jersey.
On July 9 the first two VEE horse fatalities in U.S. history were confirmed at Brownsville. Within two weeks perhaps 1,100 horses had died in the same area, and the disease appeared out of control and heading north, east and west simultaneously. It would have been better drama if Dr. Omohundro had entered at this point, grappled with the dread microbe and, after a bunch of sleepless nights and grueling days, saved the equine from extinction on this continent. Actually it wasn't quite like that. Omohundro, at 56 a balding, down-home version of Robert Mitchum, had had his eye on VEE for some time. And what he saw as early as mid-May was an estimated 6,000 Mexican horses dead of VEE (another estimate said the number was closer to 12,000), some as near as 250 miles from the Texas border.
Reports of hysteria were reaching Washington, and not all of them were coming from south of the border. Texas ranchers were watching VEE even closer than Washington, and their message was clear: Do something, fast. But Washington couldn't declare a national emergency until the disease crossed the border. Although earlier cooperative efforts by U.S. officials to stem the spread of the disease in Mexico were now intensified, certain international amenities still had to be observed. "We couldn't just march down and say this is what we're going to do," Omohundro said. "That just wouldn't be right."
By June, 12 cases of VEE were confirmed only 100 or so miles from Texas, and the USDA sent down veterinarians to help. Vaccinations were begun, but the Mexican government required one of its vets to accompany each American, and a job that cried for speed was creeping along. Many Mexicans with still healthy horses were afraid of the vaccine, called TC-83, which uses live VEE virus. The first serum was developed from the brains of a dead jackass in Trinidad 28 years ago. The vaccine was listed as experimental, and many farmers feared it would cause VEE, rather than prevent it. About this time it began to rain hard, and now the carrier mosquitoes had thousands of new breeding spots, and the threat to U.S. areas grew measurably. On June 18 the USDA banned all Mexican horses from entering this country, and a few days later U.S. forces retreated north of the border to Harlingen, Texas, 20 miles from the marshy, mosquito-rich Gulf shore.
At this point Omohundro was still in Hyattsville, coordinating Government personnel from all over the country in and out of Harlingen. Veterinarians and technicians came from Washington; the U.S. Public Health Service sent virologists and entomologists; Air Force spray planes flew in; and within Texas the Department of Health and the Animal Health Commission supplied help. The entomologists began studying mosquito populations, but there was debate on when and where to spray. Vaccine was distributed to veterinarians in 13 South Texas counties, but its use was voluntary, and too few horse owners took advantage of it. Others, like the giant King Ranch 100 miles north of Brownsville, began immediate vaccination. "We were the first," said the ranch veterinarian. More than 2,000 animals were inoculated there, and no illness was reported.
Then, sometime late in the last week of June, VEE entered the United States. On July 11, two days after Texas' first two horse deaths from VEE were confirmed, there were 44 suspicious cases in four Texas counties: Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr, at the border, and Aransas, 135 miles and six counties north of it.