Many animal keepers and farmers are “animal raisers”: they buy animals, perhaps breed them for a generation and are happy with it. Not me, because I have an Animal Breeders Soul. I am in love with lineages. Not breeds, but line-bred animals, selected to my own standards. A few brief moments in life, I had a chance to do this …
In principle, breeding animals is simple enough. It all starts with a vision. This can be a vision of how a breed should look, laid down in a breed standard. In my case, it is more a vision how an entire domestic species should look. And it is personal. Probably, that is why I ultimately failed. But let me start at the beginning.
Animal exhibitions are fantastic, but they can ruin animals. This is not because of the exhibitions itself, but because certain animals are chosen as “winners”. Every breeder wants to breed a “winner”. For fame, for social status, and to be proud of. I understand this pride very well. The problem is that to win, an animal has to stand out. In appearance, because that’s all you can see on an exhibition. Be just a little bit more than the others of its breed. A bit bigger, smaller, longer haired, longer eared. Whatever. Do this for many generations and the entire breed will be a little bit more, until the animal’s body has been selected beyond functional. Noses which are too short to breathe normally and too broad heads to be born normally. Legs which are too bent to walk normally. Too typical for the breed.
My vision has always been the opposite. Animals should have a body which is functional. They should breathe, move around and be born normally. This was my first goal. And to do this, I study how the wild ancestral animals look. After all, nature selects only the most functional animals.
A genuine Wild-type Golden Hamster. This lineage was kept at a German research centre. I am not sure how many survive nowadays. In the wild, Golden Hamsters are likely threatened, but we don’t really know. They come from war-torn Syria.
I have been keeping animals as long as I remember, but my first real taste of animal breeding was with Golden Hamsters. These are the common pet shop animals. And those in pet shops are often hardly selected for anything. There are also exhibition lineages, selected for large size and specific coat colours. In the wild, Golden hamsters are endangered. Back when I bred them, I had never seen a real wild-type Golden hamster. Nevertheless, I had a pretty good idea how they should look. I searched everywhere for the hamsters which were close to this ideal and bred those. I also bred wild-colour with melanistic (black) hamsters. The offspring were a tiny bit more intensely coloured than pure wild-colour. I kept crossing Hamsters from various breeders. All went very well and I loved my lineage of Golden Hamsters. I had to give them up when I started travelling around the world. Years later, I had the opportunity to work with real wild-type Golden Hamsters for a few years. Then, I realised that my private breeding program had come pretty far. The Hamsters which I had bred at home, looked and behaved like the wild-type ones.
Around the same time when I had Golden Hamsters, I also started with Guinea Pigs. These are very different from hamsters. They are also much further domesticated: Guinea Pigs are essentially meat-animals. They have twice the weight of their wild ancestors and twice as large litters. Exhibition breeders love round faces and floppy ears: I selected for longer heads and half-standing ears. And health: I managed to breed a line which did very well outdoor in the Dutch climate. Of course, they had shelter for rain, but they did not require heating, even in winter. I loved the ones which were close to wild-coloured: the “agouti-colours”. Nevertheless, one of my main breeder females was a buff (yellow) female.
Then I got the opportunity to obtain real wild-form Guinea Pigs. They are small, have small litters and are prone to stress. It took a while to get going, but I started breeding them rather successfully. At a certain moment, I put a surplus Wild Guinea Pig male in with my breeding group of Domestic Females. Only one, the buff one, conceived and gave birth to a hybrid litter. These had the jumpy character of the wild ones, but much of the size and robust health of my domestic lineage. I selected these for a couple of generations, but never gave any hybrids away. Those which looked like Wild Guinea pigs could “pollute” the small wild lineage. And those which looked like Domestics behaved too wild and were unsuitable as pets. But oh, how did I love my hybrid lineage. This lineage came also to an end when I started travelling …
These are West African Sheep (Cameroun Sheep). They are small and square-built, but look at that fur-coat! They also have decent horns and a lovely colour. Some carry recessive genes for white patches and for an overall black colour, characters which hobbyist-breeders select against. What if someone would crossbreed them with autochtonous Jezerska-Solčava sheep?
Hamsters and Guinea Pigs were a very conscious choice. Quail were not so much. Sure, I had kept a few domestic Japanese Quail years ago and I even bred Wild European Quail once. Therefore, I was familiar with the species and some of the hobbyist’ and farm-bred lineages. At my workplace, we hatched quail to show the chicks to visitors. I firmly distanced myself from breeding ideas. But then we got the idea to keep a breeder flock for egg production. I knew about the variation in the farm-stock which we had. Large, ugly bodied birds as well as better-looking ones. We had an almost unlimited number to choose from. There was a hen which was smaller than usual, with a very good body confirmation. It was not a hybrid. It was too tempting. For several years, I selected a lineage with excellent body shape and somewhat smallish size, even though they were still bigger than the original hen. Eventually, inbreeding started to take its toll, and I considered outcrossing. A colleague calculated that buying eggs is much cheaper than maintaining a breeding flock. The logic was clear. We stopped breeding Quail. And I still feel it as a big loss. I should not breed animals which I do not own.
Animal breeding is a part of me, which I cannot entirely ignore. Neighbours keep cross-bred cattle. A combination of Simmental, (Swiss) Brown and Limousin. They cross with Limousin and in a couple of years, they will have a herd which looks very much like that breed. But, some of those cross-breeds are so much nicer! Better horn-shape, good bodies, and better pigment (Limousin genetically miss black pigment, which is why they are orange-brown). It would be so easy to develop them into a local breed …
Slovenian autochtonous Jezersko-Solčava sheep are wonderfully adapted to the climate and foraging conditions, but they have long wool. This wool isn’t worth so much but they have to be shaved anyway. Some hobbyists keep West African (Cameroun) sheep. These have wonderful short, dense fur coats, a lovely brown colour, decent horns and nice, small ears. What if someone would cross West African with Jezersko-Solčava and select the offspring for a couple of generations? They could look much like the trophy hunting sheep which Texas game-ranchers breed …
And did you also notice that some of the healthiest and strongest dogs are actually cross-breeds?
My neighbours’ cross-bred cow in the evening light. It has much of the body-shape of the Limousin-breed, but retains the possibility to synthesise black pigment in its skin (you can just about see a pure-bred Limousin-bull in the background: he lacks the black colour and is therefore orange-brown). And look at those wide horns!
Animal breeding is not something you can do casually. It is a way of life. It involves daily inspection of all your animals. Each time you see an animal, you think of possibilities. How well is the animal doing, and how well could it do in the future? What does it inherit, what would happen if I combine it with that one? Or, is another animal a better choice as a future breeder? It also means scouting for animals from other breeders, which may contribute something to your lineage. Breeds are no longer independent units, but combinations of characteristics which they may contribute to your lineage. The ears of one breed, the tail length of another. And when you succeed in breeding a better animal, you can rightfully feel very proud. I very much understand the feeling of the owner of a show-winning animal. But I even better understand the pride of a farmer with an overall excellent stock.
The ability to deeply engage with animal breeding resides deep within some of us. I believe that there may even be a genetic basis, which turned some of our ancestors to farming. This led to the domestication of farm-animals, which is the very basis of our culture. When people started to live in cities, it also led to the domestication of many small companion animals. The drive to breed animals may not be something we choose to have, the exact species which we keep is more flexible. This depends on exposure, opportunities and resources. When you grow up on a farm, you may keep sheep or cattle. A city-dweller may well fill his basement with aquaria with guppies. Sheep, cattle, guppies and budgerigars, we have them because some of us have an animal breeders soul.
I am not seriously breeding animals now. I am maintaining a rare fish species (Xenotoca doadrioi) as well as a private collection of plants. Some of these plants are pretty rare as well. They don’t have a financial value, I just have them because I believe that maintaining them is important. However, my Animal Breeders Soul remains part of me. You can find me staring at a herd of cattle, my mind racing about possibilities. Of frantically searching the internet for information about some species which I may never own. My deep interest in animal breeding means that I picked up stories about many animal species. Stories, which I may well tell during our tours. So, if you are, like me, interested in the diversity of the animal world, why not join our tours or come to discuss animals on a one-day trip?
Did anyone else notice that we are losing chickens which are selected as free-rangers? All we have left are intensive-farming chicken breeds and exhibition breeds which are kept in confinement. The fact that some individuals of these breeds are kept free-ranging, doesn’t change the way they are selected. These are called “Turkish” chickens, but appear to be little more than cross-bred bantams. Occasionally you see a few around a Slovenian barn. Will they form the basis for a new free-range breed?