The Birth Of A Fact

Sharp's interest in the genetic basis of eye disorders dates to 1975, when her first bitch was still a puppy. She went to an All Breed Fun Match near Paso Robles, which turned out to have an eye clinic. Sharp asked what it was about and had her dog checked. "I just got interested and started educating myself."23 She made it a point afterward to get her dogs' eyes checked, which meant going annually to clinics at the local cocker spaniel club or else hauling dogs a few hours away to Stanford to a veterinary ophthalmologist. She started reading in genetics, guided by an Aussie person named Phil Wildhagen, "who is quite literally a rocket scientist, by the way," Sharp laughed gleefully. About 1983, the Genetics Committee of ASCA put out a call for people to assist it in gathering data. "One thing led to another, and I was on the committee."

This was the period when the Genetics Committee was shifting its attention from coat color, which had been of particular interest during the 1970s when what counted as an Aussie was codified in the written standard, to the more controversial topic of genetic disease. A breeder gave the Genetics Committee two puppies affected with collie eye anomaly, a condition Aussies were not supposed to have. This breeder also went public with the fact of CEA in her dogs and was vilified for her disclosure by Aussie people terrified of this kind of bad news in the breed. Sharp began writing a regular column in the Aussie Times for the Genetics Committee.24

Starting with the original donated pair, the committee conducted a series of test matings to determine the mode of inheritance. Involving a couple dozen dogs and their pups, these crosses were conducted in the kennels of two committee members, including Sharp, at their own expense, which amounted to several thousand dollars. Most of the affected test puppies were placed in pet homes, with advice to spay or neuter. Some were placed in a university for further research work. The committee collected pedigree data and CERF (Canine Eye Registry Foundation) exam sheets on their test matings and on dogs brought to their attention by a growing number of interested Aussie breeders touched by the Times column and word of mouth. The pattern of inheritance indicated an autosomal recessive gene. It was now technically possible to take action to reduce the incidence of the condition.25 But real possibility remained another matter.

First, it was more than Aussie breeders who denied the existence of CEA in these dogs. Simply put, Sharp explained, "collie eye anomaly in Aussies wasn't 'real' when we started working with it." For example, Sharp brought a couple of puppies from test matings to an eye clinic at a show in Fresno only to be told by the ophthalmologist that Aussies did not have the condition. Sharp obtained the exam by mobilizing her technical vocabulary—a familiar move for lay activists in health and genetics advocacy. ""Their mother has an optic discoloboma; [another relative] has choroidal hyperplasia; please check these dogs. . . . Grumble, grumble, then he checked the puppies." Sharp recalled breeders around the country telling her about attempting to get genetic advice from vets who told them to relax—Aussies don't have CEA; it's not in the literature. Finally, armed with ""nearly forty pedigrees with varying degrees of relationships, plus the test-mating data, I went in search of an American College of Veterinary Ophthalmology vet who might be interested in what I had."

A natural to what took science studies scholars a palace coup to establish, Sharp emphasized that she could not make CEA ""real" on her own—"certainly not with a BA in radio, television, and cinema." The data had to be published in the right place by the right person. "It's not recessive until someone out there says it is; then it's recessive." "Out there" meant inside institutionalized science. No science studies scholar is surprised now by this social history of truth or by the recognition of it by a savvy ""lay" knowledge producer working within a "clerical" culture.

The popular but controversial ASCA Genetics Committee had ceased to be, so Sharp began looking for a collaborator to legitimate the data and analysis she already had. She talked to several likely scientists, but they had other priorities. Frustrated, Sharp recalled insisting, ""Look, until one of you people writes it up, it isn't real." Effective corrective action depended on the reality of the fact. The chain finally led to Dr. Lionel Rubin, at the University of Pennsylvania, who was in the process of publishing his book on inherited eye disease in dogs.26 The book was already in galleys, so the Aussie story did not make that publication. Sharp assembled the data and did the genealogy charts from the committee's crosses and turned that over to Rubin, who hired a professional pedigree analyst for the final charts. From the time Rubin began working with Sharp, publication took two years.27 With a proper pedigree at last, CEA in Aussies as an autosomal recessive condition was on its way to becoming a fact.

But the reality of the fact remained tenuous. In our 1999 interview, Sharp noted that the demand for independently replicated experiments seems to have kept the "fact" out of the Aussie section of the handbook of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmology that came out after 1991. She emphasized that such expensive, ethically fraught research on a large companion animal is unlikely to be replicated. "It wouldn't have happened the first time if those of us out here in the trenches had not been interested enough to gather the data." But she argued, "Why couldn't the ACVO say it's probably recessive?" She added, "At least when someone out there asks me now, I can send them a copy of the paper." Finally, George Padgett's bible of inherited dog problems included the fact Sharp's network made real.28 Sharp had consulted George Padgett, of Michigan State University, an important institution in the apparatus of dog genetics natureculture, when she designed her pedigree analysis service and data system for Aussie breeders once the first phase of the research indicated the mode of inheritance. Padgett confirmed that her approach was scientifically sound, and Sharp put the service in place a year or so before she started the Double Helix Network News in 1993.

Sharp related with pride that the veterinary ophthalmologist Greg Acland, at Cornell, told her that the Aussie CEA study provided one of the most impressive data sets on the mode of inheritance of a single-gene trait anywhere in the dog literature. The CEA recessive gene fact became stronger in a robust network that included Rubin, Padgett, Acland, and Sharp's expert lay practices. This is the stuff of objectivity as a precious, situated achievement.29 This is also the stuff of'science for the people"— and for the dogs. Mendelian genetics is hardly a new science in the late twentieth century, but sustaining and extending its knowledge-production apparatus still take work.

But making the fact hold "inside" official science was not enough. Inside the Aussie breed communities is just as crucial a location for this fact to get real and, thus, potentially effective. Denial here takes a different form from that in the scientific communities, and so the material-semi-otic rhetorics for persuading the fact into hard reality have to be different. While Sharp set up her pedigree analysis service, a group of committed breeders in Northern California took an extraordinary step. They developed a test-breeding program and forms to document the breedings. Most important, they went public with their results. "As a group, they purchased a full-page ad in the breed magazine admitting they had produced CEA and listing the names of their carrier dogs. In a subsequent ad they told about the test-breeding they had done to clear their related stock."30 Their group action forestalled the kind of attack that had been made on the donor of the first pair of affected puppies given to the genetics committee. This time, the Incorrigibles were relegated to the underground, and the test breeders reshaped the explicit community standard of practice. The standard might not always be followed, but the reversal of what is secret and what is public in principle was achieved.

One final bit has helped stabilize CEA as a fact in the Aussie world: emotional support for people who find the disease in their lines. Dog people tend to see any"defect" in their dogs as a defect in themselves. Sharp could not be the emotional support person in the Aussie genetic disease world. "When people call me about genetic problems in their Aussies, I'm the 'expert,' not a kindred spirit." Thus, Sharp asked the Northern Californians who went public with their dogs' and their own names to function as a support group to which she referred quite literally grieving breeders.31 Biosociality is everywhere.32

By the time of our first formal interview in 1999, Sharp received far fewer reports of CEA in Aussies than she had seven to eight years before. Getting puppies checked through CERF had become standard ethical practice, and serious breeders did not breed affected dogs. Puppy buyers from such breeders receive a copy of the CERF report right along with their new dog, as well as strict instructions about checking eyes of breeding stock annually if the new pup does not come with a spay/neuter contract. Facts matter.33

By late 2005, the date of our second formal conversation, using data mostly gathered from border collies and with the bulk of the money for research raised by the working border collie club, Cornell's Gregory Acland had found the gene for CEA and marketed a gene test through his company, OptiGen.34 Despite Sharp's urging in the DHNN and in her frequent presentations at Aussie shows around the country,35 Australian shepherd people failed to participate in significant numbers in the Cornell study. However, one progressive Aussie breeder, Cully Ray, gave Acland a substantial donation, and a few determined souls maneuvered CEA-affected Aussies into the research that allowed Acland to determine that Aussies and border collies (as well as collies) share the same gene for CEA and so can use the same DNA test. Sharp told me that one gutsy Aussie owner offered Acland a CEA-affected puppy in the face of her breeder's negative reaction that approached stalking. Incorrigibles are not, well, corrigible.

Nonetheless, by 2006, CEA was no longer the significant genetic problem in Aussies that it once was, because effective detection of affected dogs and carriers, followed by action, became common as a result of the work of committed health activists. The DNA test is nice to have, but more traditional methods of detection (an eye exam) and using pedigree analysis to reduce the chance of mating carriers to each other had managed the crisis fairly well. The condition had become common because of the overuse in the 1980s of a few popular sires, who happened to be carriers for the recessive gene. The problem could become common again if a single undetected popular sire cavorts in the gene pool. The knowledge and technology exist now, but genetic health, as well as other kinds of dog-human coflourishing, requires the ongoing work of examined lives.36

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