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Saving rare and living history

Phil Sponenberg, professor of pathology and genetics in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, has spent more than 30 years working to make sure certain living pieces of history — some dating to the 15th century — don’t become extinct.

Sponenberg's brand of living history comes in the form of various rare strains of livestock, which were involved in events like Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Caribbean Islands and the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

Historical animals

   

Sponenberg (right) examining a Choctaw horse Sponenberg demonstrates some of the examination techniques involved with identifying Choctaw horses.

Sponenberg’s involvement began with Choctaw horses when he was a college student, and has spread to other kinds of animals through the years.

   

Sponenberg displays a hair sample from a Choctaw horse. Sponenberg displays a hair sample from a Choctaw horse.

Ancestors of Choctaw horses, Colonial Spanish horses were brought to the Caribbean Islands by Columbus and to Mexico by Hernándo Cortés. The horses were stolen from Mexico and rapidly traded north by Pueblo Indians.

These horses were noted by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during their expedition to explore the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the Spanish influence extended up to the Carolinas, across the Gulf Coast, and throughout the West.

“The Choctaws were one of the tribes displaced from Mississippi, and they took their livestock with them,” Sponenberg says.

Sponenberg has also identified another group of the Spanish horses still in the South — “Marsh Tacky” horses, which were used to manage cattle and to chase wild hogs across swampy terrain.

    Above: Sponenberg standing behind a bull Below: A group of cotton patch geese
Another Spanish livestock breed Sponenberg has run across in his travels is South Pineywoods cattle — also known as Florida Cracker Cattle. Small, rugged, horned, heat-tolerant, and disease-resistant, “these cattle are exquisitely adapted to this environment,” Sponenberg says. They are also long-lived and productive.

Through the years, Sponenberg has also found more Spanish horses, cotton patch geese, old Spanish goats, and some locally adapted Spanish sheep.

In fact, Sponenberg himself is the owner of a Choctaw horse, and he raises Tennessee myotonic (fainting) goats. The goats are from two old lines from New Braunfels, Texas.

The science of saving rare breeds

Sponenberg says he loves field work — discovering a new pocket of preserved livestock, making friends, and working with the people who manage the animals. His success, he says, is a result of the friendships and interest he has created — but also because of the strategies he has developed through scientific research.

Along the way, Sponenberg has done work and published strategies specific to rare breeds conservation, documentation, and genetic management.

Now, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is providing technical support for recapturing certain animals for pure breeding. The Bureau of Land Management contacts him to identify Spanish-type horses in wild herds to help the bureau conserve the horses.

Sponenberg stays connected with conservation efforts and affiliations and works to establish new relationships. He has collaborated with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy since 1978, and with Iberian researchers since the early 1990s.

As a result of his work, several new strains of horses have been added and excluded through detailed blood typing or DNA typing.

International connections

    A Choctaw mare and foal

Sponenberg has become a popular academic speaker in Latin America, Portugal, and Spain. The Ibero/Latin American group called "Red Iberoaméricano de Razas Criollas y Autóctonas" (which translates to Latin American network of Native and Indigenous Races) has made an exception to their usual membership restrictions, and has identified Sponenberg as a member and participant. His involvement has allowed him to help shape conservation programs more broadly than in North America alone.

He is also involved with ongoing multinational research projects and is helping and international group of researchers locate and assess livestock that remain from the Iberian colonial connections, such as the Florida Cracker/Pineywoods cattle and Gulf Coast sheep.

“These have long been used in the Deep South for local production of meat, milk, wool, and oxen that were useful in the early lumber industry," Sponenberg says. "They are all in danger of extinction."

  • For more information on this topic, contact Susan Trulove at strulove@vt.edu, or call (540) 231-5646.

Animal info and characteristics

    Phil Sponenberg with Boer goats

These rare breeds aren't just "genetically interesting, they are a record of human accomplishments," says Sponenberg.

Pineywoods cattle

  • Remain from the earliest days of Spanish control of what is now the southeastern United States
  • Usefulness to local populations as sources of meat, milk, hides, and oxen persists today

Cotton patch geese

  • Used extensively to weed cotton fields in the early 1900s
  • Avidly consume grassy weeds and leave alone broad-leaved plants like cotton

Pine Tacky saddle horses

  • Local Spanish-type horses, found in the deep South
  • Only three have been discovered and identified to date

Gulf Coast or Native sheep

  • Adapted descendents of old family flocks from the coastal deep South
  • Trace back to an Iberian origin and are now being registered by the Gulf Coast Native Sheep Alliance
   

A Boer goat A Boer goat descendant

Local goats

  • Nearly extinct, largely due to crossbreeding to the imported Boer goat
  • Identified strains are exquisitely adapted to the local area

Swine

  • Remnants of an old Iberian type, usually black or grey in color, and poorly muscled
  • Historically desired as a source of lard and cured meat
  • Often earnotched, several have fused toes (mulefoot) and wattles (fleshy appendages) on the neck

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