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Archive for August, 2019

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young raccoons

Life and death act out their forces on nature and man. And so it went with this old house. No one lives there any more. The lawn has grown thick with meadow grasses and multiflora rose, and no one seems to remember much about who lived there or the dramas of existence that played out within its walls.

But one would be wrong to think such an edifice would be without life. Two orphaned raccoons, both brothers, wound up commandeering the premises one sweltering hot July evening.  Their mother had been crushed on the highway. She darted out just as a massive semi came racing down the lane, and she was exited this mortal coil in a loud thud and the whirring of tires upon bone and ligament.

They were well-weaned when she was killed, and they spent the better part of the summer learning to be proper raccoons. They negotiated the lazy streets and moved onto quite country lanes, where garbage was sometimes illegally dumped.  They avoided the barking dogs and the murderous boar racccons. They bluff-charged cats and swatted away slobbering opossums.

For weeks, they meandered about, but one day, the came across something quite nice. One a quiet country lane, an old house stood.  And to the curious young raccoons, it was a beacon. It was like finding an island full of hidden treasure. It smelled so interesting and so beguiling.

Weather had worn down some siding near the front door. All it took was a bit of chewing and pulling, and the two brothers had made themselves a good entry hole.

Upon entering the house the found it full of old tables and chairs and couches from the time Gerald Ford was president.  Scores of insects, including beetles and moths, had taken up residence in the house, and these creatures were a welcome nighttime repast for the two brothers.

A fox squirrel had made her nest in the attic, and her four little babies also were a nice snack, but after going through the house in search of food, the two brothers realized they had stumbled upon a true treasure.

Most raccoons den up in trees. A few unfortunate souls use burrows that were dug by other creatures.  Some raccoons do well in old barns, and countless ones have taken up residence in chimneys.

Normally, those that choose to live in human created structures find themselves evicted pretty quickly, but no one cared about this old house. A car might pass by the structure twice or three times a day, usually the crotchety old man who lived at the end of the road. He would curse about the eyesore had to pass when journeyed back to civilization, but he wouldn’t do anything about it. He would just motor on in disgust and go on with his day.

So the two brothers had found themselves a raccoon castle, and for the rest of the summer, they used it as their retreat. At night, they would make sorties into true dwelling civilization, and by morning, they would be at home in the old house.

And so through the summer, the two brothers lived well in their castle, but this situation could not go on forever. They could not know that the coming winter would bring on the rut, the great war between the boars. They could not know that someday they would be tearing at each other’s faces.

But for now they curled up beside each other as the sun cast down into the smudgy old windows. The light it cast in the house was ethereal. Ancient dust rose into the beams of light, casting about like some forlorn glitter.

They snuggled into each other as the hissing of dog day cicadas buzzed out from the adjacent walnut trees.  The youthful summer was now, and they could thrive and wallow in it.

But just as all things with man and nature, the summer of peace would be fleeting on.

But in youthful raccoon existence, there is no time to think of such matters or even to consider them. That something is temporal is not even understood.

And so they slept in the bliss of the current hour as if it were all that lay ahead. To be is to be, and one must be right now and not in the horrors of the coming future.

They were young raccoons in that state of ignorant bliss, a state our kind secretly admires though publicly disdains as if we all didn’t know the real truth.

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beowulf

Humans have an aversion to inbreeding. We find the idea of two humans from the same family marrying and having children quite disgusting.

We also know that wild dogs have strong inbreeding avoidance behavior. Wolves and African wild dogs generally avoid mating with blood relatives. Most domestic dogs will mate with their relatives without reservation, and inbreeding has been a tool that dog breeders have used for centuries to establish type and promote homogeneity in their strains.

I have been a critic of inbreeding domestic dogs, but I now realize that I was cherry-picking the science a bit and playing up to human aversion to inbreeding to give a fully nuance and accurate understanding of what inbreeding can do to domestic dogs.

Inbreeding does tend to reduce MHC haplotype diversity over time, which can make dogs more susceptible to various maladies.  It also can increase the chance of deleterious recessive alleles from being inherited homozygously.  All of these are potential risks from inbreeding.

However, I would be remiss to say that inbreeding has not always been a horrible.  Indeed, certain breeds have been founded through a rigorous inbreeding and selection process that surely cannot be thought of as entirely disastrous to the strain.

A few years ago, I came across a book called Working Sheep Dogs: A Practical Guide to Breeding, Training and Handling by Tully Williams. In the text, Williams refers to Kyle Onstott’s work on dog breeding in which Onstott mention an experiment at the Wistar Institute involving rats. A “Miss King,” writes Onstott, bred rat siblings for twenty generations with a strong selection for vigor and stamina, and after twenty generations, she produced a strain of rats that were longer-lived, larger, and generally healthier than the average laboratory rat.

Onstott was a dog breeder and novelist, and his book on dog breeding was considered revolutionary when it was published in 1962. It is called The New Art of Breeding Better Dogsand I have been trying to get my hands on a copy.  However, I was able to glean from the names mentioned in Williams’s quote of Onstott that the “Miss King” of the Wistar Institute is Helen Dean King.  Dr. (not “Miss”) King was one of the early researcher on the question of inbreeding, and one of leading lights of the Wistar Institute’s rat breeding experiments.

I was able to find her study in which she was able to create the super rats strain through inbreeding, and yes, she was able to do so through rigorous selection for vigor.

In dogs, it is difficult to find a similar experiment, but then I realized one was quite literally staring me in the face.

Most are unaware that German shepherd dogs are all quite closely related to each other. Yes, they appear to have a lot genetic diversity, because we have all these quite different working and show-bred forms, but they all derive from a very similar inbreeding experiment to the one that Dr. King performed at the Wistar Institute.

Max von Stephanitz based the breed upon a Thuringian sheepdog named Horand von Grafrath, which he then bred to Bavarian and Swabian/Württemberg sheepdogs. He then tightly bred upon the progeny. Indeed, the entire breed is based off of three grandsons of Horand. They were Beowulf, Pilot, and Heinz von Starkenburg. They were bred mostly to other descendants of Horand, and there was strong selection for temperament and vitality in the population. It is in these foundations of the breed that wolf may have been added, but the breed still derives from these three grandsons of a single dog.

We can have lots of debates about this in the comments, but the German shepherd dog as an entire breed is fairly healthy for a large breed dog.  In that inbred population, the deleterious allele that leads to a degenerative myelopathy was part of the founders, and the breed itself does have that issue.  Some eye issues were also part of the founding population.

However, if inbreeding were always such a terrible thing, every dog in the breed would be a genetic basket case. Regardless of what one might think about show dogs, the working police and military dogs derive from this exact same inbred population, and it would be folly to say these dogs lacked vigor or were universally unhealthy and unsound creatures. Indeed, it can be argued that the most useful dog ever bred was the German shepherd dog. It has that much utility in a variety of situations.

Now,  I am not saying that inbreeding problems don’t exist. I am saying that we need a nuanced understanding of what inbreeding can do to dog populations, and it is not universally a horrible thing.

Inbreeding and rigorous selection can be a good thing for a strain.  Of course, I know there are breeds that do need some genetic rescue. The Doberman pinscher was founded in much the same way as the German shepherd, using a much more diverse group of domestic dogs in the foundation strain. However, the breed suffers so much from inherited DCM that it an outcross program could very well be justified.

But those of us who advocate rationalism and science in understanding and caring for dogs must keep an open mind. We must look at all the objective science and avoid appeals to human prejudice.

That’s what I’ve tried to do here. I am correcting some of my earlier errors, and I hope this helps lead to a more nuanced view of the subject.

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