Alaska, the "Lethal White" Aussie
by Carie Broecker
Alaska is a two-year-old, friendly, wiggly, happy, intelligent, athletic, well-behaved Australian Shepherd. She lives with her devoted “mom,” Catherine, and her best friend, Tai, the cat. Alaska’s life is good. She lives in a beautiful home with a loving family. Alaska's life didn't start out so good. She has been completely deaf since birth and has some impaired vision, but she is actually one of the lucky “Lethal Whites” that was in the right place at the right time with the right people so that her life was spared.
First, what is a Lethal White Aussie? A Lethal White, also referred to as a Double Merle, can be produced when a Merle Aussie is bred to another Merle Aussie. The term “Merle” refers to the color pattern considered typical for Aussies. Backyard breeders and puppy mill owners breed Merle to Merle in an effort to produce more Merle puppies instead of the solid, bi-color or tri-color puppies without the Merle pattern. They do this knowing that approximately 25 percent of the puppies will be born with two copies of the Merle gene, which causes some or most of the coat to turn white. Along with being white, the pups commonly have hearing deficiencies or complete hearing loss due to lack of pigmentation in the inner ear. They can also have irregularly shaped pupils resulting in mild to severe eye defects, leaving them blind or vision impaired as well as sensitive to light.
Double Merles can go on to have wonderful lives despite their vision and hearing challenges and to be happy members of a loving family, just like Alaska. Sadly, many never get that opportunity. Pups with too much white are routinely killed because they cannot be sold; hence, the name, “Lethal White.” Why would anyone breed Merle to Merle knowing they are most likely going to get a pup or two that they are going to kill? Because they can sell the Merles for quite a bit more than the solids, bi-colors and tri-colors. It is horrendous!
Now, back to Alaska. Alaska was dumped on the side of the road in Tulare County, south of Fresno, California, when she was just eight weeks old. She was picked up by animal control and taken to the Tulare County Shelter. She was at the shelter for three months and was at risk of being euthanized. Growing up in a shelter is hard on a pup, and being deaf and vision-impaired didn’t make it any easier, but Alaska’s generous spirit and good nature saved her life. The shelter staff and volunteers were in love with her and advocated for her survival.
A shelter volunteer contacted Sue Trapp with Animal Friends Rescue Project (AFRP). Sue has rescued and adopted out many Lethal Whites over the years and did not hesitate to drive up to Tulare County to pick up Alaska.
Sue had Alaska at an adoption event at Surf City Coffee in Aptos when AFRP volunteer, Catherine Larrick, met Alaska and fell in love. Catherine’s senior dog had passed away recently and she felt ready to foster. Once she got Alaska (now called Allie) home, it didn’t take long for her to make the commitment to have her as a permanent part of the family. The clincher was Allie’s relationship with Tai, the cat. They quickly became good friends.
Catherine and Allie attended obedience classes and went on to learn agility! Allie was the star pupil in both classes, even with her disabilities. In addition to Allie’s obedience and athletic skills, she is a gorgeous dog. People often stop Catherine and Allie and comment on her beauty. Catherine takes this as an opportunity to educate people about Lethal White Aussies.
Catherine also likes to educate people on caring for a deaf dog. “It is not as big a challenge as some people think,” she says. When people ask how she communicates with Allie, she tells them Allie knows hand signals, but also picks up a lot from Catherine’s body language, reactions, and expressions. Catherine laughs a little when she tells me that so often people with dogs who can hear, call them and they don’t come anyway. Allie is probably better trained and more attentive to Catherine than most dogs!
No matter what species – human, dog, cat or other – no living being should be treated as a throw away. Isn’t our society better than that yet?
For more information about Lethal Whites and to support a wonderful group that does Lethal White Rescue visit www.amazingaussies.com. Another website with very thorough information about the genetics of Lethal Whites is www.lethalwhites.com. For more information about the group that Sue Trapp and Catherine Larrick work with visit www.animalfriendsrescue.org.