Hare-raising: One in thousands

For five days, you don’t have to explain to anyone why you raise rabbits.

This promise draws thousands of exhibitors every year from all over the United States, Canada and beyond to the American Rabbit Breeders Association Convention and Show. The annual competition and exhibition showcases the nation’s top rabbits and cavies (guinea pigs) in one whirlwind week.

Out of more than 22,000 animals entered this year, four were mine.

The “rabbit bug” started for me more than 12 years ago with one pet rabbit and quickly escalated into a breeding project within the Mifflin County 4-H Bunnies R Us Club. Over the years, the project evolved into a more serious exhibition hobby, and my interest continued beyond 4-H into open competition.

My story is the same many rabbit fanciers share; a beloved family pet turned into a lifetime hobby. And now here I was, standing in the doorway of the most prestigious rabbit show in the country. I was feeling on top of the world the only thing bringing me back to reality was the parking attendant urging, “You have 20 minutes to unload.”

I hurriedly made my way into the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, with a cart stacked with rabbit transport carriers trailing behind me. This is the first year the national convention has been held in Pennsylvania since the 1970s, and I was ready to take it all in.

Rows and rows of cages lined the inside of the Open Show room. Among them, breeders and exhibitors hustled to feed and water their animals before rushing off for a hearty meal and good night’s sleep before show day.

Attending a show like this gives perspective to the hobby as a whole. While I worked quickly with one eye on the clock, hundreds of other exhibitors buzzed around me. Rabbits are a common, but sometimes overlooked, group of livestock. They’re known as a multi-purpose animal that yields high quality wool and fur, healthy meat and triples as a fantastic pet or exhibition animal. Raising them also is more common than one may think – one look around the showroom on Saturday verified that for me.

There is no doubt that rabbit fanciers are serious about their hobby. Proof was in the 7 a.m. wake-up call Sunday morning for the start of all-breed judging.

Watching the breed judging was an incredible experience. Holland Lops are a breed that often has one of the largest entries in any show, and local shows typically draw 30 or more rabbits per age and color. Not at convention. This time, more than 100 rabbits sat on the table as judges sifted through each and every one. They looked for conformational traits specific to the breed – wide heads, short lopped ears, short bodies and heavy bone.

All of the characteristics considered in each standard are evaluated while the rabbit sits in a designated breed pose or runs freely on a table.

Each of the more than 40 rabbit breeds recognized by the ARBA have their own Standard of Perfection which schedules points for each characteristic of the rabbit, from body to fur and overall condition. Sometimes the difference between rabbits on the table is within a point or two on any given day, it could be anyone’s win.

Hour by hour, more rabbits moved back into their coops and less remained on the table. The low buzz of friendly conversations in the show room was occasionally interrupted by heavy applause and cheering as judges announced Best of Breed winners.

Watching those folks win was one of the most incredible experiences of the entire weekend. It’s difficult to explain the investment the rabbit community has in their hobby (you know, beyond telling you that more than 22,000 animals were exhibited), but it’s so clearly displayed on the faces of those who fall excitedly into the arms of friends or family when their rabbit is called as a breed winner.

Tuesday brought Best in Show judging – in other words, “the best rabbit in the country.” With no other rabbits of the same breed to compare, each rabbit is individually held to its own breed standard. The rabbit that most closely mirrors the standard for their breed takes home the trophy.

There is only one catch – groups. Best of Breed winners are shuffled into four final groups before BIS judging begins. The four rabbits who win their small groups are those considered for the final trophy.

After climbing their way togroup wins and careful deliberation by a number of judges, exhibitor Macallister Bengtson earned Youth (exhibitors ages 18 and under) Best in Show with his Dutch rabbit, selected by ARBA Judge Johnny Haussener. Doug Harrah earned Open Best in Show with his Florida White rabbit, selected by ARBA Judge Eric Stewart. From what I hear, Bengston’s rabbit was the only one he entered, proving the long-time saying that “it only takes one to win.”

I had some respectable placings myself, but “didn’t do anything big,” as the saying goes. My excitement was shared, though, with those who won their classes, breeds and went on to earn Best in Show. And if bragging rights weren’t enough, group winners will return home with $500 and BIS winners will return with $1,000 to celebrate their wins.

Aside from the show, the convention hosted breed meetings and banquets, new breed presentations, rabbit hopping practice and exhibition, breed club auctions, vendors and more. From pets to 4-H to a national show, rabbits are enjoyed by an expansive community throughout the United States and beyond.

For more information about the 90th ARBA Convention and show, hosted by Mid-Atlantic Rabbit and Cavy Shows, visit www.marcsconvention.com. Visit the American Rabbit Breeders’ Association website at ww.arba.net for general information.

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Julianne Cahill is The Sentinel’s religion and education editor.