Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bob Bennett: How Many Different Kinds of Rabbits Have You Seen?

Bob Bennett, author of books such as Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits and Rabbit Housing, makes a compelling case for rabbit raisers to introduce their animals to the broader public. That means taking them out of the show and backyard, highlighting rabbits’ versatility in new ways. George and Gwen Larue are doing just that.

Pudge, a Lionhead, is a therapy rabbit and "just a character," according to George Larue. "We keep him in the house and he has the run of the place. He frolics in the living room and jumps up and down on the couch and from lap to lap."
At the nation’s biggest rabbit show, the recent American Rabbit Breeders Association Convention in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 3,000 members put 22,000 rabbits on the judging tables. With 50 different breeds and more than 100 varieties, you could admire rabbits that ranged from two to twenty pounds, wore coats short and plush or long and glistening, or tufts of fluffy wool in seemingly endless patterns and colors. You could look at long, short, and lop ears. You could see the best meat, laboratory, wool and pet breeds.

You could — except you probably weren’t there.

Rabbit shows are not like dog or cat or horse shows, where hundreds or even thousands of spectators view the judging. It’s not because of a high cost of admission (there is no charge). It’s because the only people who know about the shows are rabbit raisers. They get notified by the various local, regional, or breed associations to which they belong. That’s the way it’s been for a hundred years or more.

I went to my first rabbit show in 1947.  I can’t begin to remember all the shows I have been to since then, but they really haven't changed much in all that time. They take place in a barn or convention hall. The rabbits sit in carrying cages on the floor in the middle. The judging tables line the walls. Exhibitors mill around the tables to see breed class winners get a spot in a holding cage behind the judge and then come back for a process of elimination right down to the top pair. Once the Best in Show and Best Reserve are determined, all the rabbits go home. Few members of the general public ever see them, with the exception of the county or state fair show, where the rabbits are cooped for a week or so.

Poppy, a Netherland Dwarf and therapy rabbit, is "just a laid back little girl. We use hats to sit her in and for people to hold her. She loves the attention," says George Larue, "but is a bit quiet and always sits still."

There is one other place prospective prizewinners spend their time: a fenced-in backyard or closed shed or barn. With the possible exception of family and friends and a few fellow rabbit raisers, nobody else can tell they are there (rabbits don't make a sound, of course).

There are people who don’t like the idea of backyard rabbits at all: close neighbors who imagine odors, speculate about diseases, and perhaps even worry about real estate values; mischievous local kids, town zoning officials, and the vandals and terrorists who call themselves animal rescue activists come to mind. When I profiled rabbit raisers for the book Rabbit Housing, some were afraid even to reveal their locations.

These are real concerns that put many rabbit raisers in a defensive posture. But a good offense can be a good defense. And showing off the rabbits can be a good offense.

Accomplished rabbit raisers keep sparkling clean rabbitries lined with self-cleaning wire cages, self-feeders, and automatic watering. The ventilation is great and the manure goes promptly to the compost bin. Raisers of show rabbits have the best facilities, so they shouldn’t be shy about having people in to see them.

Rabbits can also go to farmers’ markets and feed stores on exhibit days and bring sales, but also create a constituency in the community that will help protect them from various adversaries.

How they do that can is ably portrayed by a couple from Lynchburg,Virginia: George and Gwen Larue. George is an ARBA registrar and soon to be a rabbit judge. He has been raising and exhibiting rabbits for a long time. Gwen is an active partner in the rabbit enterprise.

The Therapy Rabbit

Pep, one of the Larue’s therapy rabbits, is an English lop. George Larue says she is "the rambunctious type, and a hoot to play with — a very friendly bunny who loves attention and being held and petted."

The Larues demonstrate on a regular basis specific, concrete examples of rabbit therapy. Therapy dogs are well known. Rabbits are not to be outdone. It's another dimension of this remarkably versatile animal.

George and Gwen operate a group home for troubled teenage girls and have involved them in rabbit breeding and showing. The couple spends 15 hours a day with the girls and live on campus, so the job is really 24–7. These girls, who may have been abandoned or neglected, walk down to the rabbit barn every day to help feed and care for them. Most of the girls have become quite attached to the rabbits. Apart from rabbit care, the girls head to the barn for a quick bunny fix when they’re feeling blue.

“Within minutes of picking up a bunny, the stress leaves them and they feel so much better,” Gwen said of the rabbits' calming effect. After all, what's softer and warmer than a fluffy bunny?

That’s just one variety of rabbit therapy.

The Larues invite youth groups, such as Girl and Boy Scouts and 4-H clubs, to visit the rabbits. They also take the rabbits on therapy trips to nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, daycare centers, children’s camps, and schools. Well-documented outcomes from these trips are quantitative and heartwarming for both the people at the facilities and the Larues as well. Young children’s reading comprehension has actually gone up. Elderly patients’ blood pressures have actually gone down. The Larues get a lot of satisfaction. Even the most misguided vandals who would put the Larues out of business would have to contend with a large list of rabbit-loving constituents.

If you would like to learn a lot more about the Larues and their rabbit activities, and the marvelous results of rabbit therapy, visit their website for the complete story. You may not get to a rabbit show—you may not even care to go—but a therapy rabbit just might show up in your vicinity. They come in all varieties, sizes and colors, furry and fluffy. While they are not a new breed, they are doing really new and wonderful work.

Photos courtesy of George and Gwen Larue.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Bob Bennett is the author of seven books on rabbit raising, including Rabbit Housing and Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits, as well as numerous magazine and newspaper articles. He has served as the editor of Rabbits magazine, a contributing editor to Countryside magazine, and the founder of Domestic Rabbit magazine and is a past director of the American Rabbit Breeders' Association. He lives in Vermont, where he has raised rabbits for more than 50 years.

No comments: