Farm Show Complex Hosts Large National Rabbit Convention

11/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Michelle Kunjappu Reporter

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg is often full of livestock, and the third week in October was no different. But, the sheer number of animals exhibited — 22,000 — was an impressive statistic, even for the Farm Show Complex.

From October 19 to 23, Harrisburg played host to an annual convention conducted by the largest rabbit organization in the world, The American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA), marking the first time the convention has been hosted here in Pennsylvania since 1976, in York, Pa., and drawing enthusiastic participants from not only the Mid-Atlantic region but also across the nation and internationally.

Back to Pennsylvania

ARBA boasts 23,000 members. ARBA’s district nine, which includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington D.C., has the second-largest concentration of ARBA members in the world, according to Eric Stewart, ARBA executive director. This year marked ARBA’s 90th annual national convention.

The convention at the Pennsylvania Farm Show was “wonderful,” Stewart said. Though Stewart is based in Emlenton, Pa., the organization itself is based in Bloomington, Ill.

The sprawling Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex provided plenty of space for the animals and the site of the venue proved to be a drawing card for exhibitors.

“Because it hasn’t been in this area for a long time, people wanted to see the area,” said Stewart, noting that Gettysburg and Washington D.C. were some top picks for convention exhibitors, who came from not only the U.S. but also Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and England.

Stewart also noted the support of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture in not only welcoming the convention and ARBA members to Harrisburg, but in its work for rabbit breeders’ rights, he said. Additionally, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a resolution marking Oct. 20-26 as Pennsylvania Rabbit and Cavy Week in honor of the nationwide convention in Harrisburg.

Stewart estimates the economic impact of the convention to be “generally two million (dollars) at whatever location we’re at each year,” he said.

Veterinary Care

During the five days of the convention, veterinarian Wendy Feaga, of Twin Oaks Veterinary Practice, in Ellicott City, Md., oversaw the health of the high-end rabbits, whose price tags ran anywhere from $100-$300 and up.

Feaga, a veterinarian for 33 years, did not learn about rabbits in the vet school curriculum, but through raising her own rabbits, which she has done for more than 40 years. During the convention, Feaga, who volunteered her time for the event, worked to keep her small charges healthy in two rooms of a “sick bay” area in the second floor of the Farm Show building.

Since she sees mostly dogs and cats in her practice, Feaga does not give herself the “rabbit specialist” title since veterinarians need a special certification for that. However, over the 40 years she has raised rabbits as a hobby and volunteered as a 4-H rabbit club leader, she has become well versed on the typical ailments that she saw during the convention.

Armed with medicines she brought from her own practice, Feaga treated anything from serious problems such as a common chronic upper respiratory infection — called “snuffles” in rabbits — to wool block or ear mites.

Feaga did not look over the rabbits as they arrived — the massive volume of rabbits prevented that — but instead said, “We trust the exhibitors to bring healthy rabbits.” Also, she said, each breed chairman may spot problems and bring sick rabbits up to her.

Record-Breaking Youth Participation

This year the convention broke ARBA’s all-time record of youth contest participants, according to executive director Stewart.

The contests include, for example, a royalty contest, plus breed identification or management contests — in all, 22 different contests for youth. Stewart attributes the higher-than-normal participation to strong leadership in the area.

Elizabeth Gallagher, 15, Lititz, Pa., has participated in the youth contests at ARBA’s national convention for the past four years. Her mother, Luann, is the 4-H rabbit club leader for Lancaster County, Pa.

“The youth contests had an overwhelming rise in participants,” said Elizabeth Gallagher about this year’s convention. She said there were more than 800 youths that entered the educational events.

This year she ran for ARBA queen and competed in achievement, breed identification and judging. She also competed as part of a team for a breed identification contest.

Competing on the national level takes commitment, and “it seems like I never stop preparing for convention,” Gallagher said, “whether it’s my rabbits, my knowledge, or just raising the money needed to get me there.”

Between studying, making breeding decisions, and caring for her rabbits, her animals are an important part of her life. Admittedly, “long car rides and dinnertime talk usually turns into conversations about rabbits, much to my family’s annoyance,” said Gallagher, who, because of her experiences with animals, has set her sights on becoming a large animal veterinarian.

The ARBA convention finally allows Gallagher to talk about rabbits to her heart’s content.

“I love being able to discuss pressing topics with rabbit breeders my age and share my knowledge with them,” she said. “Whenever we meet up with the state youth teams, I have a feeling of belonging ... I’m able to teach younger kids and help them become knowledgeable rabbit breeders.”

“I can relate to kids from all over the nation through my rabbits,” said Gallagher, who attends the Commonwealth Connections Academy cyber school. “I learn a lot about responsibility, teamwork and good sportsmanship.”

Meat Rabbits

Jules Kerdeman, Manheim, Pa., spent several years going to rabbit shows with his wife and grandson before he decided, “If I’m going, I’m going with something of mine to show,” he said.

Consequently, three years ago he chose the Californian breed and purchased a buck from friends in New York and later followed that up with some does from Michigan. His show herd, now numbering roughly 25, has been to ARBA-sanctioned shows in Lebanon, Pa., State College, Pa., West Virginia, Maryland and New York.

Kerdeman works with his grandson, Bryan, who does the showing, and the pair took nine Californians to Harrisburg, coming home with a first-place junior doe that went on to win the best opposite of breed title (similar to reserve champion of the breed).

“In perspective, it (showing at the ARBA convention) would be almost like the Westminster Kennel Club — it’s the premier thing,” Kerdeman said. “This is the national show — when you go there, everything has to be just so. Winning is really an accomplishment. They’re all good ones there. It comes down to the personal preference of the judge.”

Since Californians are a meat breed, the Kerdemans don’t have to go to quite the extent of preparation needed for the fiber breeds. However, two or three weeks prior to the convention there is a daily regimen of spraying a specially formulated mixture on the rabbits and wiping them down to get all the dead hair out.

“What you do want is you want them to look as good as possible for the condition of coat they’re in,” Kerdeman said. “You can’t stop or delay molting or anything like that, but you want to work the coat and make it a look as good as you can make it look. When they molt, the old hair is going to be brittle and dead-looking, and won’t have a shine to it.”

Outside of raising Californians for show, however, there is a market for meat rabbits, since the meat is purported to be high in protein and iron, and several small animal markets in the area provide an outlet for meat rabbit growers.

One of the best parts, though, about exhibiting rabbits, Kerdeman said, is the people he talks to during each show.

He said the camaraderie with other rabbit exhibitors helps to make the work of exhibiting rabbits more worthwhile.

“I get to meet and talk with a lot of people,” said Kerdeman. “We basically have the same hobby.”

Rabbit Fiber a Winner for Hats, Scarves

Christine Oliver, Oakham, Mass., has been coming to the ARBA convention since 1991 and enjoys seeing some of the same exhibitors every year.

“It’s an old home’ week. It’s a yearly get-together for crazy rabbit people,” she laughed.

Oliver, who owns a herd of more than 20 English Angora rabbits, hand dyes and spins the wool for her knitted gloves and scarves.

A typical English Angora, she said, can produce a few pounds of fiber a year.

It’s this exceptionally soft fiber that led Oliver to own rabbits, even after a “no-livestock” dictate from her husband. A friend of hers heard of the rule and promptly purchased an English Angora rabbit for Oliver for Christmas. Her husband eventually capitulated on his “no-livestock” edict and allowed her to keep the rabbit, plus add to the herd over the years.

“There’s a huge yield with rabbits,” she said, explaining that one 6-1/2-pound rabbit can yield one to two pounds of fiber each year. The rabbits are shorn with fine scissors or clippers with a special blade every three to four months unless they are growing out a show coat.

“I can do that every three to four months and still get several inches of fiber,” she said, “which is very spinnable.”

Next year ARBA plans to hold its convention in Fort Worth, Texas.

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