Phillip Sponenberg, Virginia Tech – Domestic Extinction

Dr. Phillip Sponenberg

Dr. Phillip Sponenberg

Extinction is a very real threat for all species, not just the exotic creatures we’re accustomed to picturing.

Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, professor of pathology and genetics at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, profiles the issue of domestic extinction.

Dr. Phillip Sponenberg is a professor of pathology and genetics in the Department of Biomedical Sciences & Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. Sponenberg received his DVM from Texas A&M University and his Ph.D. in veterinary medicine from Cornell University in 1979. He joined the faculty of the college in 1981. Sponenberg’s research interests are genetics of domesticated animals, coat color genetics, conservation of rare breeds of livestock, diagnostic pathology, and reproductive pathology. Sponenberg is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association. Sponenberg also serves as the technical programs director of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Domestic Extinction


Wildlife are not the only animals that have become endangered. Most people are unaware that many breeds of domesticated animals also face the threat of extinction. Each breed of animals is a unique genetic package, just like wild species are. The difference is that the breeds of domesticated animals reflect their history of partnership with human owners for specific purposes, whether wool from sheep, milk from cows, companionship from dogs, or a host of other uses over millennia that have stood between humans and starvation. As breeds become extinct, so too does that rich history and relationship.

The situation in the United States is monitored by the Livestock Conservancy, which has a long track record of successfully standing between endangered breeds and extinction. One great example is Randall Lineback cattle. This is an old local breed from New England, with a distinctive white stripe down the back. Descriptions of cattle of this sort go back to early colonial times, and oxen marked like this were essential in getting cannons to Fort Ticonderoga to help win our War of Independence. Randall Cattle were locally essential for milk, meat, and powerful oxen in rocky New England pastures and hillsides.

The breed declined through the 1900s, and Everett Randall became the last known herdsman with the old Lineback breed. Upon his death the cattle were slated for slaughter because family members were no longer interested in keeping this relic going. Fortunately a dozen or so were saved, right from the slaughterhouse door. These few were carefully tended by dedicated conservation-minded farmers, so that today the breed is much more secure with several breeders and a headcount of 500 or more. They are now valued more highly for the high quality of their beef that for their ability to get cannons to Fort Ticonderoga, but they remain living connections to that rich past.

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