April 12, 2012 - Of all the livestock that might be shown at a youth fair or livestock show, the rabbit is the most democratic. Rabbits are not big, smelly, loud or too ill-tempered to handle.
At the Texas Rabbit Breeders Association (TRBA) annual show in Belton recently, dozens of breeds of rabbit and varieties within those breeds were on display. The people showing rabbits were a diverse lot as well, including young people who raise bunnies for 4-H projects to people who raise rabbits for the meat market. Some exhibitors were from the country and some were from the city, but all were bound by a common interest in rabbits.
Don Mersiovsky, president of the TRBA, began raising rabbits when he was a 9-year-old 4-H student in Belton. Living in the city, rabbits were the easiest animal for him to raise. He's been raising them ever since. Where rabbits rank on the list of most popular animals for 4-H students to raise depends on the part of the state, Mersiovsky said.
"In areas that are more urban, where there are a lot of subdivisions and neighborhoods, you're usually going to see more rabbits," he said. "They're not as big as other livestock, but you can learn the same life skills and the same sense of responsibility that you get with any other animal. You have to take care of it and make sure it's healthy and well-fed. You have to learn the right way to do things.
"We have a lot of physically-disadvantaged kids who show rabbits. You don't have to be physically fit. Some of the special needs kids find rabbits a lot easier to handle, and they're not as scared. We've had kids with cerebral palsy and one with muscular dystrophy. It's a good way for them to learn the same life skills as anybody else."
The TRBA recognizes some 50 breeds of rabbit, including Californian, New Zealand, Angora, Mini-Rex, Satin, Mini Lop and Palomino. At the annual show, each breed is judged on its own merit by licensed judges and the top representatives of each breed are rewarded with ribbons and trophies. Mersiovsky compared the annual rabbit show with the way the Westminster dog show is run.
"There's an open component because we have a lot of adult breeders, but we're very youth oriented," he said. "Rabbits are something anybody in the family can do, or they can do it together."
That has been the case of Karen Morgan and her family. She said she had a couple of rabbits for the 4-H shows in Bell County, but didn't become deeply involved with rabbits until she married her husband, Loyd, who is vice-president of the TRBA. Loyd is a coach and science teacher at Rogers High School and had to miss the annual show because his girls track team had a meet. The rest of the family, including his and Karen's parents, their children, sisters, nieces and nephews were all there.
"Loyd and his dad started raising rabbits and they never stopped," Karen said, taking a break from her duties with the youth division of the show. "We planned our wedding at rabbit shows, and we've traveled all over the state really all over country to rabbit shows ever since.
Their oldest daughter Jessica raised her first rabbit when she was 5 years old and continued raising them through high school. Younger sister Kaitlin followed suit, along with a host of nephews and nieces. The Morgans keep about 100 rabbits. They show some, sell some to 4-H students and send the others to a meat processor.
Mersiovsky said most domestic rabbits end up as food for one kind of carnivore or another. Some are sold to pet stores and others go to meat markets and zoos.
"Several breeders have contracts with zoos," he said. "The same things that make rabbits good for people make them good for animals, too. They're high in protein, have zero fat and are low in cholesterol."
The Morgans make more than a few meals a year on rabbits.
"You can substitute rabbit for chicken in just about any recipe, and you can barbecue them or grill them."
That's not the only reason the Morgans love rabbits.
"I like to say that rabbits paid for the kids' college," Karen said. "There was a little bit of prize money, but once you fill out an application for a 4-H scholarship the other applications are more like cut and paste. The lessons you learn about maturity and responsibility are taken into account with other scholarships, too. Our kids didn't just learn a lot about rabbits but they learned a lot about life, too."