by Catherine Petruccione

#45, 13 June 2005

Long Live the Poitou Ass
An Interview with Sharon Vanderlip

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Author Sharon Vanderlip, DVM, lives in San Diego County, California, and has provided care to domestic and exotic animals for more than 25 years. She served as Clinical Veterinarian for the University of California at San Diego, is the former Chief of Veterinary Services for NASA, and has owned her own veterinary practice.

Sharon has authored many books on animals and animal care. Her first book, The Collie - A Veterinary Reference for the Professional Breeder, (Biotechnical Veterinary Consultants, 1984), is both scarce and collectible, and collie fanciers consider it the definitive reference for the breed. A German version, Hundezucht, was published in 1985. A bibliography of her other books appears at the end of this article. All are very detailed and beautifully illustrated with drawings and full-color photographs.

Sharon has been a breeder of beautiful collies for many years, having established Rainshade Collies in 1977.

She is director of International Canine Semen Bank in San Diego and provides services in all aspects of canine reproductive medicine and surgery. She also gives seminars and lectures throughout the U.S. and Europe on a wide range of animal topics, including essential information for dog breeders, reproduction, health, behavior, and genetics. For information on her books, seminars and photography, visit

Sharon is also an avid book collector. BookThink recently talked with her to learn more about her writing, her book collecting, and her life.

BookThink: Tell us a little about your background - where you grew up, how you discovered you wanted to spend your life working with animals.

Vanderlip: I've always been fascinated with animals, and I always loved collies as a kid. I loved the television show, Lassie. I read all the Albert Payson Terhune books as a child. I would go to the library and the bookmobile and request the Terhune books. Now I have the entire collection.

I grew up in the less elite areas of Santa Monica, California on Pico Boulevard. The freeway goes through there now, and the school I went to doesn't exist anymore. I went to high school in southern California, obtained a Bachelor of Sciences degree in Zoology from the University of California at Davis and my veterinary degree in France.

When I attended college, veterinary medicine was not much of a women's field, but today the majority of veterinary medicine students are women. After graduation from veterinary school, I worked for the University of California at San Diego for several years as a clinical veterinarian and did a lot of collaborative research with the Zoological Society of San Diego. I am currently helping on a project involving a baby badger that will be on display at the Wild Animal Park in another month. I also established, owned, and directed my own practice in Oregon for several years.

BookThink: How did you first get involved with collies?

Vanderlip: When I was about seven years old, we had a neighbor that had an enormous sable collie named King, and I just loved him. When he had to move, the neighbor offered me the collie, and I was so excited! I ran home and told my mom. I don't know why, but I thought she would be excited too. But she was not fond of "big, hairy, dogs" and said "absolutely not, out of the question." I was devastated.

I finally got my first collie in 1977 from a breeder in England. Even though I had tried to do everything right - I'd done my research and thought I'd selected a top breeder in England - it was a disaster. He turned out to be a dishonest breeder who sent me a collie with a detached retina and an undescended testicle. I had to start all over again. That's a lesson: the number of trophies on your shelf is not an indicator of your honesty. But I got over it and began again with a new dog.

I currently have six collies, three of them are old-timers. I also have a litter of pups that are spoken for, although I may keep one of them. These are pups from a frozen semen litter, the semen being from one of my dogs that passed away about 14 years ago.

BookThink: What prompted you to write your first book on collies, and did you have any idea it would be such a success?

Vanderlip: It started out as a veterinary doctoral thesis. When I was researching it, I knew the breed had problems, but as my work on this continued, I discovered there were more problems than I thought. I knew most of the problems could be eliminated with conscientious breeding programs.

There were some older books that had been published by people who had been considered gurus on the subject at the time (now deceased). The books contained a lot of old wives' tales and myths and misinformation. They were based supposedly on scientific work, some that was done in 1937. But the 1937 study (and other studies) had many flaws, and the authors were referencing earlier authors who in turn were referencing early studies with incorrect data. It was an interesting experience, tracing all this misinformation back to the original sources.

I knew there was a market for the book because there wasn't a book like it available. If I had any idea that it would be as successful as it was, I would have had more printed. But I didn't have that opportunity, actually. All my information had been researched at libraries and typed on 3 x 5 cards on an old IBM Selectric typewriter. The gentleman who helped with the printing had possession of all my materials - including color plates and separations and negatives - when he decided to become a missionary and left for Peru. I assume that the original material for my book was accidentally shipped to Peru, along with his Bible study material. I don't know if my work went to the missionary or got lost, but instead of receiving my book materials, all I received was a large packet of Bible study fliers in the mail! I tried to get in touch with the printer after he moved to Peru, but I never heard from him again.

BookThink: I understand you have been working on a new book on collies. Can you fill us in?

Vanderlip: Well, I decided against trying to recreate the old book. I thought I should do a new one, because new information was coming out all the time. Now that we have DNA testing for special dog diseases, it's a whole new world. Every year I've thought I'm just a year away from publishing this, the new version, and now I've been saying that for twenty years. But now I really do have to get it out. I've been receiving letters from people who say "we're still waiting."

Now I can say it's 99% done. It's much improved, with better photographs. It has all of the original material plus lots of new information, all presented in a more easy to understand form. I still use libraries for my research. I take things out of the journals and go back and read the original sources. Now, so many people do their research only on the internet, where so many ideas are stolen and people use them as their own. I am taking off this summer to put the finishing touches on my new collie book, and I hope to have it out by early 2006.

I have also just finished The Chinchilla Handbook for Barron's. The manuscript is due at the end of June. Barron's is currently evaluating my proposal for The Pomeranian Handbook. I'm also writing a book that is nearly completed on canine reproductive medicine, and I've been working on a book on skunks.

BookThink: Did you say skunks?

Vanderlip: I had a skunk for years in the early 1970's. Some people won't like this because there's a whole group of people out there who say wild animals belong in the wild, but this was a skunk that came to me from a domestic fur ranch. Of all the pets I've had in my life, it was the most fun, the most affectionate, the most easygoing. Of course, skunks as pets aren't legal in a lot of states. But there are skunk farms, where they've been raising skunks domestically for generations. I advise people interested in having a skunk for a pet to acquire one only from a domestic skunk farm and only after checking state and local ordinances.

One of the stranger highlights of my life was when I was invited to judge a National Skunk Championship Show in Georgia. There must have been 300 skunks there, of all colors. It was so much fun.

I write articles for an annual called Critters Magazine, and they recently asked me to write a skunk article which should be out in the 2006 issue.

BookThink: Can you tell us anything about your experience doing veterinary work at NASA?

Vanderlip: Well, let me just say that NASA is not "Mom and Apple Pie." NASA does a lot of animal experimentation. Many people don't realize that the space shuttle always has life on it. It can be anything from fish, plants, microbes, mammals ... a lot of life in addition to the astronauts. My job was to look out for the animals' well being and make sure they were receiving humane care and that animal welfare guidelines were followed. The problem was that I seriously questioned how the studies were being conducted, their humane aspects, and the animals' care and conditions. NASA, being a Federal Agency, considered itself exempt from following regulations and policies that other organizations and research institutions are obligated to follow.

When it became apparent to me, after discussing my concerns with NASA officials, that conditions were not going to improve for the research animals in spite of my efforts, I did not want to stay at NASA and elected not to renew my contract.

BookThink: Your books on animal care cover a wide range of small pets. I was surprised to read the one about degus, an animal with which I was totally unfamiliar. Can you tell us more about this cute creature?

Vanderlip: Aren't they crazy looking? And they are so smart. If you lived in Chile, you would have heard of them because there are about 150 of them per acre. They are hystricomorph rodents, and that leads to one of my favorite books by the Zoology Society of London, The Biology of Hystricomorph Rodents - not the kind of book many people would be shopping around for - but a rare book that I am delighted to have in my collection. This book has a lot of really fascinating information on degus, theorizing whether or not they really originated in Africa and made it across the Atlantic on little rafts of debris, taking over South America and replacing the little marsupials that once lived there. Degus live a long time, as long as a dog.

BookThink: All your pet handbooks are written in a very caring yet practical way, taking into consideration both pet and pet owner. I was especially impressed with your "Before You Buy" chapters and your excellent information on children and animals. Is there any particular piece of advice you would emphasize to anyone who is about to purchase a pet?

Vanderlip: People must consider their long-term commitment to an animal. It's not very long when they buy something like a hamster or a mouse, but when they adopt a pet with a longer life span, like a degu (5-9 years) or a chinchilla that lives to be twenty, that's longer than most marriages last! People really don't think about that.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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