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Paws to Consider — Don't rock the boat, part 1 PDF Print E-mail
Friday, October 18, 2013 12:24 AM



“That’s my test!” I exclaimed to the GenAlysis receptionist. “Not really, but six years and a month ago I did make the first call to Dr. Beever to see about developing it.”

A proud moment for me, I could barely contain my excitement. I had just received a fax from the genetics lab, and in a little box to the right of my scrapie results were the words “Ectodermal dysplasia [ Hairy lamb syndrome ].”

Although I knew the commercial availability of the test was imminent, this was my first proof it was actually real, and the effort begun those six years ago truly worthwhile.

I was never going to mention my hairy lambs in one of these columns again. To be honest, some bitterness on my part played a role in that decision. But one night I made a discovery that put a lot of things in perspective, and I felt compelled to tell this story. I guess you could say “it was in my genes.”

While looking for an old photograph in a hutch by our kitchen, I found a far greater treasure- the Spring/Summer 1982 edition of The Speculum, a news magazine published by Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Inside was an article about a retiring professor and the book he wanted to write, “Don’t Rock the Boat,” a memoir on “the foibles and political intrigue of university life.”

Included was advice he often gave his students: “The price you pay for nonconformity is non-acceptance. But go ahead if you can stand the non-acceptance — that’s how things get done.”

Last November, my five-year stint as a member of the board of directors of the American Southdown Breeders Association came to an end. Minutes from the board meeting state that I didn’t seek re-election. One reason for that is because I was never elected to begin with. The true reason, though, is that I wasn’t intrigued by the politics anymore, just tired of it.

In May 2007, I was appointed by the association president to chair a committee to find a solution to a problem that had been plaguing our breed for more than 20 years — hairy lambs. These lambs are born not with wool but a short, silky, curly hair-coat, have a fine bone structure and a jaw deformity resulting in a “parrot-mouth.”

My first hairy lamb was born in the spring of 2006 and presented a “What the heck is that?” scenario. Was the poor little creature caused by a viral infection, a toxic plant or some kind of vitamin/mineral deficiency? When the second was born a year later, a familial link surfaced. The third and fourth born two weeks after that were nails in the genetic coffin.

My first act as chairman was to contact Dr. Jonathan Beever, a molecular geneticist at the University of Illinois and one of the best livestock geneticists in the world. Perhaps it was his professorial aura but something about him reminded me of my dad and I sensed that he, too, might be a bit of a boat-rocker.

Immediately we set about to collect blood samples from hairy lambs, their parents and siblings and study pedigrees to look for common ties. In November of that year, I was asked to fill a board seat vacated by a retiring member.

It didn’t take me long to realize that on a board full of sheep sellers, I was probably one of the few, if not the only one, who represented buyers. And the really big sellers didn’t want anything or anybody to disrupt that process.

Soon I began to hear this phrase: “We can’t be pointing fingers at anyone.” I didn’t have to. The sheep with their ear-tags and registration papers did all the pointing necessary and without exception, every hairy lamb I was privy to, and their associated pedigrees, pointed in the same direction.

Hairy lambs had been reported from Texas to Minnesota and Massachusetts to California and they all traced to a single flock located in the center of our nation. Apparently, sweeping bad recessive genes under the rug doesn’t make them go away; it just spreads them farther and wider.

When I joined the 16-member board, I became the 13th to have the problem in my flock; I simply didn’t know the status of the other three. Yet during the first two years of sample collecting, besides the president and me, only one other board member provided any samples. I found that profoundly disappointing.

To be fair, I guess they were trying to protect their flocks. Unfortunately, not enough of them recognized I was trying to do the same — for theirs as well as my own.

…to be continued


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