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BookThink's Author Profiles
Long Live the Poitou Ass
An Interview with Sharon Vanderlip

by Catherine Petruccione

#45, 13 June 2005

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.

BookThink: Sharon, I know you are a book collector. Share with us some information about your book collection ... your favorite authors and favorite books in your collection.

Vanderlip: I mentioned my Albert Terhune collection. I also have Katharine Bates' book, Sigurd, Our Golden Collie. I think people don't realize she wrote the words to "America the Beautiful." I have all of O.P. Bennett's books on collies, plus his almost impossible to find Famous Collies. I also have many old British books by authors like Packwood, including The Collier Sheepdog by Rawdon Lee. He wrote a lot of other books that are pretty tough to find.

My favorite book - this is not an old book - is Possums of the World by Timothy F. Flannery, the Australian naturalist. I aspire to one day be an author of Tim Flannery's caliber! His Possums book is amazing. The artwork is gorgeous, the research is extensive, and for me, it's the kind of book you can't put down. Tim Flannery has also written The Future Eaters, A Gap in Nature, Mammals of the Southwest Pacific and Moluccan Islands and Mammals of New Guinea. I think he is now a curator of one of the museums in Australia.

Loren Eisley is another of my favorite authors. I was introduced to his writing in college when my zoology class reading assignment was The Immense Journey. I have all of his books in my collection except The Brown Wasps, a scarce work. Some of them are signed.

Edward O. Wilson, another naturalist, is also one of my favorite authors. I also really enjoy David Quammen's books. They are informative and often funny.

BookThink: All of your writing so far has been non-fiction. I'm sure you have many interesting stories to tell about life as a veterinarian. Have you thought about writing a memoir?

Vanderlip: I have thought about it a lot, but I have to get my collie book out first. There have been so many crazy things that have happened in my life, especially in the early days - a woman like me with a veterinary career ... my memoirs would be less like James Herriot and more like an Erma Bombeck gone-wild disaster story!

I do have a whole list of crazy stories that have happened over the years. Some of them are so off the wall. It scares me to tell people because they think I'm making it up. It's the people stories that are funnier than the animal stuff, the things that happen while you are interacting with the people who bring the animal in.

BookThink: Can you share with us one particularly funny or poignant story from your experience with animals?

Vanderlip: As you probably know, dogs, especially Labradors, will eat anything. The kinds of things you remove from a dog's gut are always surprising. After surgery, I like to put whatever object I've retrieved from the animal's gut into a Zip-loc bag to show the client. It always impresses them and reinforces the fact that I saved the dog's life.

Well, one day this couple brought in their sick Lab. I retrieved a woman's thong (the underwear kind, not the shoe!) lodged in the dog's small intestines and put it in a Zip-loc bag. When I showed the contents of the bag to the dog's owners, the woman had a stunned look on her face. Then she glared at her husband and said, "Those aren't mine." I didn't pursue that any further, and I felt terrible to know what might have followed. I'm sure this type of thing happens to many veterinarians. You could probably write a whole book on things removed from dog's guts.

There was also a car mechanic client who called and said his dog had ticks. He brought him in to be examined, and I couldn't find a single tick. I said, "Show me. Where did you see the ticks?" And he starts pointing to the poor dog's nipples, which were all traumatized, because the guy had tried to take them off with pliers! He didn't think male dogs were supposed to have nipples.

BookThink: Tell us about your importation of Poitou asses.

Vanderlip: Back in 1984, I imported some endangered Poitou asses from France and had them displayed in the San Diego Zoo. There were 44 left in the world at that time. They are draft sized asses that have long dreadlock hair that hangs to the ground. I have some old French books and literature on those too.

I learned about them when I was in veterinary school. They presented the subject in class and mentioned they were just about extinct. I remember thinking, "Well, what's anybody going to do about them?" It was just a fleeting thought at the time.

Later, when I returned to France with my husband, we decided to go find the last Poitou Ass breeder. She was a lady in her late eighties. We made videotapes at the farm and formed a friendship. After a few years, she let us purchase some of the animals. We imported them and had them on display at the San Diego Zoo, and from there they went to Tennessee, to a philanthropist who had a preserve for a lot of endangered species, and he took on the project of breeding them.

The interesting story here is that when we imported the first Poitou Ass, the USDA wanted to euthanize her because it said it couldn't run any tests to prove she didn't have a long list of diseases. The USDA was using antiquated testing procedures, not any of the newer tests that were available. They planned to kill the baby donkey two days before Christmas, so it became a big story. We went to a prominent law firm, hired attorneys and obtained help from Senator Pete Wilson, who was then on the Senate Agricultural Committee. Pressure was put on the USDA, and there was quite a shakedown.

As a result of this, USDA regulations were updated, and the baby donkey received full coverage in the Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union Tribune, Paris Match, was featured in National Lampoon; and we were invited to do several television programs. The Poitou Ass was on display at the San Diego Zoo for three months and attracted several thousand additional visitors. The next year, when we imported the males, we put them on display at the zoo again.

The shakedown which occurred from forcing the USDA to update their testing procedures allowed the zoo to import other endangered equines such as Chinese Kiangs. They'd been trying to bring them in for a long time but couldn't get past the testing snafu. Basically, we forced the USDA to change all that.

It also brought a lot of notoriety to the Poitou region of France. The hotel where I had stayed had a picture of me with the Poitou Ass framed above the concierge desk with a "SHE STAYED HERE" sign. Boutiques in the town sold postcards with photos of me and the animals! The photo they had of me was taken in front of the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park by the San Diego Zoo, an incredible looking theatre. All the French people thought this was my house and my yard!

BookThink: Any special dream you'd like to fulfill?

Vanderlip: Something I think about a lot is the mystery of the Thylacine, which is the carnivorous marsupial that lived in Tasmania and was hunted to probable extinction. The last Thylacine in captivity died in a zoo in the 1930's. Now it's the animal they are trying to clone, and this has been in the news a great deal. My hope is that someday they will find a Thylacine alive in the wild, that it's not really extinct (a bit like the recent woodpecker news). The terrain that they lived in is so rugged, so who knows?

The expert author on that subject is Eric Guiler, who is getting on in years. Tim Flannery's book A Gap in Nature has a piece on the Thylacine that will tear your heart out.

It was kind of a big, wolf-size animal with stripes like a tiger, but it was a marsupial. It's the big logo for Tasmania - it's on their beers, their postage stamps, it's on everything there - but unfortunately, it's gone. The Thylacine would have been a very interesting animal to know and study, because there were a lot of things anatomically and behaviorally about it that were amazing.

It will be interesting to see what will be done as far as cloning it. As much as I'd like to be hopeful, I don't know what they would use as a surrogate parent. Thylacines were marsupials, so they have to grow up in pouches. The Tasmanian Devil is their only (and distant) relative, so I don't think it's going to happen. But we can hope.

BookThink: Thank you, Sharon, for taking time out of your busy life for this interview.

I really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.

Brief Market Analysis

Dr. Vanderlip's first book, The Collie - A Veterinary Reference for the Professional Breeder, (Biotechnical Veterinary Consultants, 1984) usually sells for $100 and up, depending on condition. It is very difficult to find. I was able to find one copy available in Denmark at the time of this article (it was reasonably priced at $42.17, but no description of condition was given.)

Most of her animal care handbooks are readily available, and I highly recommend them for their thorough, precise and practical material. All were published by Barron's in softcover format and sell at reasonable prices.


The Collie - A Veterinary Reference for the Professional Breeder. Biotechnical Veterinary Consultants, 1984.

Hundezucht - Therapie Genetik fur Tierärzte und Zuchter am Beispiel Collie. Biotechnical Veterinary Consultants, 1985.

Dwarf Hamsters: Everything about Purchase, Care, Feeding and Housing. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., New York, 1999.

Lhasa Apsos: Everything About Purchase, Care, Nutrition, Behavior, and Training. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., New York, 1990 and 2002.

Degus: Everything About Purchase, Care, Nutrition, Behavior and Housing. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., New York, 2001.

Fox Terriers: Everything About History, Care, Nutrition, Handling, and Behavior. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., New York, 2001.

Scottish Terriers: Everything About History, Care, Nutrition, Handling, and Behavior. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., New York, 2001.

Mice: Everything About History, Care, Nutrition, Handling, and Behavior. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., New York, 2001.

Prairie Dogs: Everything About Purchase, Care, Nutrition, Handling, and Behavior. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., New York, 2002.

The Guinea Pig Handbook. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., New York, 2003.

The Shih Tzu Handbook. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., New York, 2004.

1,000 Dog Names from A to Z. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., New York, 2005.

1,000 Cat Names from A to Z. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., New York, 2005.

The Chinchilla Handbook. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., New York, anticipated release 2006.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Photographs appearing in this article by Jacquelynn Vanderlip.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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