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Stamps Bring Attention to Rare Livestock Breeds

By Sarah Boudreau 

In a collaboration with the Livestock Conservancy, the U.S. Postal Service released a series of Heritage Breed Forever Stamps this past May. The stamps feature images chosen by Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s own Phillip Sponenberg, professor of pathology and genetics.

Sponenberg has been involved with the Livestock Conservancy, an organization dedicated to the preservation of rare livestock breeds, since its infancy, and he has served as its technical advisor since 1978. An influential voice in the genetics and conservation fields, Sponenberg has worked closely with livestock conservationists in the United States, Spain, Portugal, and Latin America.

Sponenberg contributed to the stamp project by assessing the images of the animals, determining which photographs tell the story of the individual breeds the best.

Ten different breeds are featured on the stamps, each a part of the country’s history. These heritage breeds were bred for local, specialized use but are now outnumbered by more commercial breeds — many of the breeds featured are considered critically endangered.

“We have had a very wide diversity of breeds historically, and that diversity is rapidly declining as we choose fewer and fewer breeds for more and more production. The concept of a local breed adapted to a local situation for a local purpose is really missing, and some of that is going to be really, really difficult to regain,” said Sponenberg.

Sponenberg stressed that we need a variety of genetic options to ensure a healthy future. Some rarer breeds have unique genetic characteristics, like Jacob sheep, studied by researchers because they are the only spontaneous animal model of Tay-Sachs disease, a fatal genetic condition that affects young children.

Heritage breeds also hold great cultural value. Featured on the stamps is the mammoth jack, a breed of horse-sized donkey. The mammoth jack is a breed shaped by George Washington himself, who maintained a breeding program and stud service in the years following the Revolutionary War. The mulefoot hog, also featured, is known for its distinctive, non-cloven, “mule” hooves and are likely descended from Iberian stock brought to North America as part of Spanish colonization in the 16th century.

Sponenberg hopes that the stamps can bring awareness to the breeds represented here.

“They show a broader audience the beauty and utility of what’s going on [with heritage breeds.] It will resonate with people who are attracted to the beauty, but hopefully a few will go beyond that and investigate the stories behind it, a compelling historical and social interaction with something that’s disappearing.”

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