GORHAM, Maine — A rare botulism outbreak has killed 23 horses in the past month at the Whistlin’ Willow Farm, according to the state veterinarian.
There are no signs the animals were cared for improperly, Donald Hoenig told the Portland Press Herald last week. Another 40 to 45 other horses at the farm were not sickened.
The toxin is not contagious and most likely developed in bales of silage, he said. Silage is packaged in white plastic when grass is moist while hay is packaged after it has dried.
The person who provided the silage to the farm is cooperating with state officials, according to Hoenig. The individual has not been identified.
“There may have been other feeds and we’re kind of in the middle of this investigation,” Hoenig said. “We don’t know for sure whether there could have been another source of feed there.”
The veterinarian said no other unusual deaths of horses had been reported recently to his office.
The 175-acre farm where the horses died between April 7 and 17 is located at 17 Nonesuch Road and belongs to William and Anne Kozloff.
They have not responded to email or phone requests for interviews, according to the Press Herald.
The cause of botulism is the toxin given off by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, Hoenig said. It is fast-acting and powerful and can cause a horse’s death within hours after being ingested.
The same organism can sicken people, who usually become ill after eating improperly canned food.
State officials have been working with the owners of the Gorham farm to dispose of the animals’ remains properly without contaminating the water table, according to the Press Herald. The horses were buried 8 feet deep on the farm.
The concern is not about botulism, but the spread of other contaminants, Hoenig said. Research has shown the bacteria do not spread through water.
“We’re more concerned just about the deterioration of the carcasses and potential runoff into wetlands or in streams,” Hoenig told the Press Herald.
The carcasses might be composted after being removed from the farm, he said. The farm’s owners are working with a state compliance inspector and a soil scientist on a plan to prevent water from leaching through the carcasses and into the water table.