Seeing Effects of 'Selective' Breeding
Marty McGee

Reprinted in NPGA MEMO from Llama Life II, Summer 1997, Issue 42 with the author's permission

Marty McGee, writing for Llamas Magazine's 10th Anniversary issue in the spring of 1989, gave breeders an insightful essay warning about the downside of breeding for specific characteristics. Today we see many of these effects, and it is appropriate to reprint the portions of her article that pertain to Pygmy goats. A number of animal breeds have fallen victim to the ignorance of some people who breed them. This reprise is an acknowldgement of Marty's perspicacity, and a reminder of how devastating the results can be. (Time spans have been updated from the original piece.) For the complete story, write Llamas magazine for its back issue, Llamas, 46 Main Street, Jackson, CA 95642, 800-401-LAMA.

Cattlemen, horsemen, shepherds, and dog enthusiasts can all point to instances of breeders "improving" the breed only to find that they lost much more than they gained for their efforts.

Llama breeders have always had to fill the gap of conventional wisdom about llamas by extrapolating from the advice of other species and breeders. Perhaps we can learn more from other species than what kinds of medications and supplements to give, how to train or how to get ready for a show. Perhaps we can learn how not to breed ourselves out of the business.

In researching this article I spoke with breeders of half a dozen different species, as well as veterinarians. They were all concerned to some degree about selective breeding for characteristics that are not normally selected for by Mother Nature. It is noteworthy that many breeders referred, most of the time wistfully, to the way the breed 'used to look'; the old style versus the new style.

Lynn Gattari is a lama breeder but she was in the business of breeding pygmy goats for much longer. When I asked Lynn if she thought that llama breeders could learn from the breeders of other species, I got a resounding YES!

Lynn began breeding pygmy goats about 20 years ago and was there when that business got off the ground. She served as a director of the National Pygmy Goat Association (NPGA) for six years, attended judge's training conferences and had shown her goats for 10 years.

I asked Lynn if pygmy goats looked different now than they did when she started breeding them. She said, "Pygmy goat originated in Africa and they foraged in part by jumping up into the lower branches of trees. They were long bodied agile goats. I can remember when I began, I was amazed at how they would just sail around the barn as if they had springs on their feet. That was a big part of their attraction for me.

"The NPGA breed standard describes the goat as a small cobby compact animal (cobby is defined as short-legged and thick set). So what has happened is judges started picking shorter and smaller goats. Today there is an 'old style' and a 'new style' of goat.

"The new style is much smaller. The breed standard calls for not more than 22" at the shoulder for does. When I first started showing, most of my does were 20" to 21" and now they are 17" to 18" and sometimes I worry if I am going to make the minimum of 16". The sad part about this new body type is that they lost their athletic ability. They are now short, fat and lethargic.

"California is 'well ahead' of the East Coast in their breeding. The goats out there that are winning, particularly the bucks, are so short, overly muscled and fat that they cannot pick their heads up. They are so thick through the neck that they roll their eyes from side to side to be able to see around them because their necks won't move properly."

The major problem, according to Lynn, and the most emotionally devastating is that many pygmy does can no longer reproduce without trouble. The pygmy goat has gone from an animal that used to pop kids out so easily that the kid would literally go flying. Now, sadly, it is a different story.

"I have grown to hate kidding time. I have had over 100 kids in the years I have been raising goats, and I used to have very few problems. Of the 10 breeding does I have, three can no longer have kids and of those three, two are grand champions. I have one doe out there who looks just perfect, just what the judges are looking for. She lost her first set of kids because it took too long to get them out, and the second set had to be cut out of her. I have never lost a goat to old age; all of my losses have been to kidding problems."

These problems didn't just happen overnight. The process was a gradual change and we are just now starting to realize that many shorter, smaller goats in show condition simply cannot have kids without problems.

I asked Lynn if the breed standard had some basis in performance, and she told me, "The breed standard was originally based on function and it called for a goat deep through the barrel. Unfortunately, you can make a shallow goat look deep by overfeeding, so the incentive is to overfeed, and to breed for a smaller and smaller goat.

"If there is one thing I would like to see learned from the pygmy goat experience, it is the danger of overfeeding. It is true that we have shortened the legs, the barrel and overall size of the goat, but overfeeding is still one of the biggest reasons for kidding trouble, and it is so unncessary."

In the pygmy goat world this state of affairs is not a secret. There have been numerous articles written in the breed publications by both judges and veterinarians damning these breeding and feeding practices, but judges are still pinning this type of goat. I asked Lynn if she knew why these goats are still winning. She said, "The goat we have today looks like what we all wanted, but it is not performing like the goat we wanted, and it is very hard to let go of 10 years of selecting for body conformation even though we are finding out now that it simply won't work."

Reprinted from Llama Life II, Summer 1997, Issue 42

An addendum on 6-29-97 from Maxine Kinne, who at the time was NPGA's Health, Education & Research Committee (HER) Chairperson and oversaw the reprint of Marty McGee's article above:

The original article in Llamas magazine portrayed examples of a variety of horse, cattle and dog breeds and how they had been selectively bred for traits and conformation styles that were extremely detrimental to their reproductive viability, increased susceptibility to physical problems and reduced longevity.

The vast bulk of HER's work in the past four years has been aimed at reducing the problem of dystocia and subfertility for which pygmy goats have become 'famous' beyond our own organization. Identifying the problems were not as simple as condemning overfeeding and phenotype, although they play a very large part. It's a complicated issue for which judges, breeders and NPGA bear responsibility. Judges and breeders anxiously point fingers at each other to avoid taking responsibility of getting us where we are today, featured as a bad example.

NPGA sat idly by for too many years and allowed it all to happen. Judges award honors to some poorly reproductive does and bucks whose offspring also have reproductive problems. Judges have no way of knowing the animals' breeding history. On the other hand, breeders show this type of animal in their eagerness to win.

Breeders have routinely violated NPGA's Code of Ethics: to realize my moral responsibility to the animals in my care, to be truthful in advertising and accurate in record keeping, to endeavor at all times to improve the breed and help create a favorable public image of the Pygmy goat, to use good judgement and ethical behavior.

And NPGA has not emphasized the worth of good reproductive qualities as defined in one of its founding objectives - to encourage the BREEDING of characteristic Pygmy Goats.

If judges placed more emphasis on traits more highly correlated with reproductive ability (intermediate body condition, structual correctness of the pelvis, body length, and fewer extremes in phenotype), if they continued to educate themselves about all the structural implications involved in poor performance, if they applied these principles to the animals they judge, and if they did this in a unified effort, the change in body type of our highly-publicized winners would be extremely rapid. On the other hand, if breeders showed only this type of animal, judges would have to award them championships and the change would also be dramatic.

It is human nature to point the finger at someone else for our own foibles. Judges and breeders and NPGA's directors and some committee chairs are all to blame. As breeders, each and every one of us must take personal responsibility for the kind of animals we produce and to represent them honestly. As elected, appointed or licensed representatives of NPGA, we must accept group responsibility for the vitality of our assocation and the viability of the animals that bring us together. - Maxine Kinne, HER Chairperson


Related Reading

Old vs. New: Comparisons of Pygmy Goat Style


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