C A Sharp In Australian Shepherd Land

C. A. Sharp embodies for me the practice of love of a breed in its historical complexity.17 Evident in her kitchen table-produced Double Helix Network News and the Australian Shepherd Health and Genetics Institute, which she helped found—not to mention in her critical reflection on her own practices as a breeder and her adoption of a too-small Aussie rescue pooch, Sydney, after the death of the last dog of her breeding—Sharp practices a love that seeks knowledge, nurtures nondogmatic curiosity, and takes action for the well-being of dogs and people. Sharp's world is a good place to look for people who know more at the end of the day than they did in the morning, because they owe it to their beloved, both as kinds and as individuals.

Patsy Cline Plane Crash Body
C. A. Sharp and her rescue Australian shepherd, Sydney, in 2006. Photograph by Larry Green.

The dog-activist scene, or canine cosmopolitics, is also a good place to look for examples of some of the major themes in contemporary science and technology studies, such as the fashioning, care, and feeding of "epis-temic objects" like the dog genome or genetic diversity; the consolidation and strengthening of facts important for dog health for communities stratified by scientific status hierarchies; the power of boundary objects such as disease genes to stitch together diverse social worlds, including those of pet owners, kennel club breeders, veterinarians, lay health activists, entrepreneurs, and bench researchers; online community formation in digital culture; and the development of open health registries and databases that complexly operationalize the meaning of democratic, companion-species data apparatuses. Multitasking social activism in technoculture characterizes the work of dog people like Sharp, who are in the distinct minority in their breed clubs but who develop robust networks with the potential to change business as usual. Their multitasking includes such action as building grief support systems, peer enforcement of new standards of ethical behavior, above- and below-the-radar networking in highly gendered worlds, nurturing sophisticated lay scientific and medical knowledge, juggling the threat of lawsuits with risky open information sharing, running advertising campaigns, raising money, and acting as dog health advocates in science in a way that has become familiar in patient advocacy groups in human biomedical naturecultures.

Sharp begins her own origin story as a breeder with a traumatic memory that she mobilizes rhetorically to establish grounds for a better Aussie community. She recounts finding herself in the vet's office confronted with bad news about the very first bitch she hoped to breed for a litter of her own. "Within a year and a half of obtaining my first Aussie for show and breeding, I slammed up against the reality of canine genetic disease."18 Her dog Patte failed to get a hip rating of "good" or better from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, a necessary imprimatur for responsible use of a dog in a breeding program.19 A naive Sharp called Patte's breeder, who was also her mentor in Australian shepherds. The mentor agreed immediately that Patte could not be allowed to have the planned litter. But when Sharp said she'd call the owner of the proposed stud dog and explain why she was canceling the breeding, the mentor capitalized on her power as friend and teacher and pushed Sharp's guilt buttons. The mentor told C.A. that if she told anyone the real reason, she would damage her mentor's reputation as a breeder as well as that of the owners of the prospective sire. That last bit especially, Sharp reminded me, flew in the face of all logic, since the candidate father was unrelated to her Patte, but stress has a way of quelling logic. Properly intimidated, Sharp writes of her phone conversation with the owner of the stud dog, "I don't remember what I said, but I know it was a lie. . . . I felt dirty."20 From that shaming experience, fortified with a growing knowledge of genetics (and, I would add, no small amount of sheer guts in the face of retaliation), Sharp became a breed health advocate and lay genetic counselor.

This story is a classic conversion narrative. It is also a moving factual account of how denial, culpable ignorance, intimidation to enforce silence, and outright lies work to damage the dogs people claim to love. Sharp named this redolent complex the "Ostrich Syndrome." It and the people she calls "the Incorrigibles" run like a red thread through the rest of my story, providing the friction against which a more progressive future of dog and human coflourishing can be imagined and brought into being in some of the earth's technocultural neighborhoods. It should not need saying, but in case any reader thinks that noticing or mobilizing a narrative form somehow saps the juice of reality from the world, I insist that co-whelped meaning making and world making are material-semiotic litter-mates, that is, the stuff of robust, frolicking, bumptious, fleshly reality.

I will track Sharp's ways of living and promoting examined lives through three transformative, storied events: (i) establishing the fact of the collie eye anomaly (CEA) gene in Aussies in the early 1990s;21 (2) redoing the Mendelian self through engagement with genetic diversity discourse in the late 1990s; and (3) building a durable collective institution, the Australian Shepherd Health and Genetics Institute (ASHGI) in the early 2000s, thus supporting the struggle to defeat the Incorrigibles and the Ostrich Syndrome once again, this time in the face of epilepsy. Sharp's involvement in determining the mode of inheritance of CEA in her breed shows how "lay" agency can work in "clerical" canine genetics research and publishing. This is a story of how a fact is brought into robust being and changes its people, a favorite topic for science studies scholars. Sharp's participation in the Canine Genetics Discussion Group Listserv, CANGEN-L, in the late 1990s and early 2000s maps a change in her intellectual and moral field, with a mutated emphasis from disease-linked genes to genetic diversity in the context of widespread turn-of-the millennium attention to evolution, ecology, biodiversity, and conservation. Finally, her work to make the ASHGI a reality illustrates the power of digital media coupled with old-fashioned, mostly women's networking to build effective, and affective, technocultural communities.

Sharp began breeding Australian shepherds in the late 1970s, and she served on ASCA's genetics committee from the early 1980s until 1986, when the board eliminated the committee in a controversial and poorly explained move. In the winter of 1993, she began writing and distributing the Double Helix Network News. The first issue of the DHNN described itself as a "kitchen-table" enterprise. By 1999, about 150 people—mostly breeders, a few dog research professionals, and one or two ringers like me—subscribed.22 Learning desktop publishing, Sharp emphasized networking, sharing information, educating one another, dealing with the Ostrich Syndrome among breeders about genetic disease, and practicing love of the breed through responsible genetics.

With a BA in radio, TV, and cinema from California State University at Fresno and a job as an accountant, Sharp has never claimed scientific insider status. However, she properly claims expert status of a rich kind, and she is regarded as an expert in both the breeder and professional scientific communities. She coauthored a paper in the early 1990s with the veterinary ophthalmologist L. F. Rubin on the mode of inheritance of an eye defect (CEA) in Aussies, engaged in collaborative research on the relation of longevity to coefficients of inbreeding in Aussies with Dr. John Armstrong of the University of Ottawa in the 1990s, and co-authored a paper in 2003 with Sheila Schmutz, of the University of Saskatchewan, that mapped a coat-pattern candidate gene (KTLG) to dog chromosome 15 and excluded it as the merle gene. She has functioned as a clearinghouse for genetic data in her breed; performed pedigree analyses for specific conditions; taught breeders the rudiments of Mendelian, molecular, and population genetics and the practical steps that both conformation and working-dog breeders can and should take to detect and reduce genetic disease in their lines; and linked researchers with the lay dog community to advance the ends of both. Sharp occupies a mediating position among communities of practice from her location as a self-educated, practically experienced, savvy activist who is willing and able to express controversial opinions within cross-linked social worlds.

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