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by Cathy Shufro
It's a safe bet that Yale University geneticist Shirleen Roeder is the only one on her block with a backyard Zinger Winger—a giant slingshot for hurling dead ducks.
Possession of a Zinger Winger explains why Roeder generally keeps a couple of dead ducks in her refrigerator, and why she stacks frozen pheasants, pigeons, and ducks alongside the pizza in her freezer. The slingshot, the dead birds, and a canine agility course with hurdles, ramps, and tunnels are all accessories for a serious hobby: training Flat-Coated Retrievers.
This way of life originated in 1995, when Roeder's pet black Labrador was growing old. Roeder decided against replacing the “irreplaceable” Jenny with another Lab. Searching the Internet for a different breed, she discovered Flat-Coated Retrievers. They're handsome dogs, akin to Golden Retrievers, only black.
Flat-Coat owners tried to dissuade her. They warned that a Flat-Coat would be “in your face, all the time,” recalls Roeder, an exuberant HHMI investigator who studies the genetics of yeast meiosis. One owner allowed all eight of his dogs to greet her, their muddy paws on her pink dry-clean-only coat. Roeder didn't mind. But convincing a breeder that she could handle a Flat-Coat was “like being put through the Spanish Inquisition,” she recalls.
Mainly to save face with the breeder, Roeder took the dog, Toby, to agility classes. There, she heard about the arcane world of trials for obedience, agility, and hunting, but she had no intention of joining in. Eventually, she decided to take Toby to a trial, but just one. He excelled. Roeder's competitive drive kicked in.
Illustration: Peter Arkle