What We Can Learn From the American Rabbit Breeders Association

We in the dog fancy can learn a lot from the American Rabbit Breeders Association, which celebrates its heritage, protects its interests, and encourages the participation of breeders and exhibitors, both young and young at heart.

One of the greatest threats to the viability of the dog sport in the 21st century is the tendency of its supporters to look within to solve its problems. This myopia prevents some members of the fancy from getting out in front of the issues that threaten the continuation of conformation and performance events as we know them. A penchant to long for things as they used to be frequently hinders our ability to look outside the (whelping) box for inspiration that can lead us to solutions for today’s challenges.

The dilemma of maintaining a time-honored tradition in a fast-paced world is not limited to the dog game, of course. It seems that nearly every profession and pastime has been vastly altered by economic, political and technological forces during the past 20 years, and many venerable pursuits are no longer even a possibility today.

A recent visit to a breeders showcase, however, provided a shining example of how one organization, the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA), celebrates its heritage, protects its interests, and encourages the participation of breeders and exhibitors, both young and young at heart. ARBA (not to be confused with the American Rare Breeds Association) held its 90th annual convention last October at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pa. The expansive facility, a popular site for many local all-breed dog shows, seemed both familiar and novel during my visit. Leporine (Latin for “rabbit”) shows, I can safely say, are at once reminiscent of and vastly different from most contemporary canine exhibitions in the US today.

My expectations, I must admit, were not especially high when I made plans to attend ARBA’s biggest show of the year. Surely the facility’s Main Hall that easily accommodates 2,000-plus dogs and a throng of spectators would be far too large an area for putting on a show for a bunch of rabbits. Boy, was I wrong.


A Room Full of Rabbits

With my assumptions and prejudices to guide me, I arrived at the show site early on the convention’s final day. What I saw before me had me promptly checking my smug attitude at the door.

Inside the unimpressive building, spread out in all directions, were row upon row of rabbits, large and small, stacked three high in cages each identified with a “coop” card. Large placards suspended from the ceiling provided the location of individual breeds, and the whole setup reminded me of the old benching area at Westminster before it was moved from the Garden to the Piers.

And just like that world-famous dog show, the ARBA convention provided a golden opportunity to experience beautiful creatures up close and meet the dedicated breeders and exhibitors who traveled from across the US, Canada and beyond to compete. As I walked up and down the aisles, I was genuinely thrilled by the astonishing array of breeds on display.

The rabbits I saw filled me with a sense of awe, certainly, but even more amazing was the number of young people in attendance at this show. Teens and tweens were everywhere. At first I thought that the hundreds of kids milling about were school students on a field trip or a Sunday school outing. I quickly realized, however, that most of the youngsters were actually exhibitors with their rabbits entered at the show! In fact, it seemed that every rabbit at the convention had been entered by someone under 18 years of age.


Engaging Young People

The participation of young enthusiasts, not coincidentally, is something ARBA strongly encourages. According to the organization’s website, its Youth Department is committed to engaging young rabbit (and cavy, or guinea pig) enthusiasts while helping each boy and girl achieve his or her full potential. The website states, “ARBA youth activities and contests provide a variety of enrichment activities that encourage youth participants to develop knowledge and skill regarding rabbit and cavy husbandry; responsibility, teamwork and leadership. These skills enable youth members to thrive and succeed throughout their lives — within and outside of the hobby.”

ARBA President Mike Avesing of Muscatine, Iowa, reiterates the association’s emphasis on keeping young people engaged in club activities. Avesing, who started showing rabbits in 1969 as a kid, says entries are strong in the youth classes, especially at the state and national levels. “At our national youth banquet, some 500 to 600 kids typically attend,” he notes.

Youth programs are abundant in the rabbit world, and include a scholarship foundation and a “judge based” showmanship competition that tests a child’s knowledge of specific terminology as well as that of correct breed presentation. At the convention, Individual Breed and Team Breed ID contests are held, and a Skill-a-thon takes place with a series of team-building exercises. Other contests include educational, management and achievement competitions that allow participation from youngsters who may be unable to attend the convention.

National Youth Royalty Contests are competitions unique to the convention. As noted on the organization’s website, these events are conducted “to acknowledge excellence among ARBA youth members in attendance at the ARBA National Convention and Show.” Boys and girls are evaluated separately, and applicants are divided into several age groups. The winners of each division are crowned with the title of Lord and Lady; Prince and Princess; Duke and Duchess; and King and Queen, respectively. Applicants are scored on their applications as well as on a written examination, oral interview, breed identification and “age-appropriate individual contests.” Results are announced at the Youth banquet, and the winners have bragging rights until the following year.


For Kids of All Ages

Every kid competing at ARBA events needs a solid foundation in order to succeed, and experienced breed mentors play a critical role in the lives of young rabbit enthusiasts, just as they do in the dog sport. At the convention, a healthy interaction of adults and children was evident throughout the Farm Show Complex.

Paul and Chris Fauser of Manheim, Pa., raise Satin and Mini Satin rabbits, and got their start through their daughter’s 4-H activities. The year was 1964, and raising rabbits has been a family affair ever since. The Fauser household is celebrating its 50th anniversary “in rabbits” this year.
When their daughter married and left home, the older Fausers remained committed to the breeds they love and have been providing guidance for many young people ever since. “Satin breeders help each other, especially the youth,” Chris Fauser says.

Like most organizations, the American Satin Rabbit Breeders Association honors a club member annually for his or her outstanding contributions to the club. In 1992, Chris received the award, and husband Paul was given the distinction in 2009. The couple has also been honored with a Distinguished Service Award from ARBA.

In Harrisburg, nearly every recognized breed and variety was represented with a booth staffed by dedicated enthusiasts doing a meet and greet. In fact, so many booths were installed side-by-side that they made an impression not unlike a Meet the Breeds event. Rabbit clubs, it seems, enjoy promoting their interests to the general public just as dog clubs do.

As I meandered through the vendors area in search of some funnel cake (a regional favorite), I found myself entering the Main Hall where the dog shows are held each spring. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The entire hall was lined wall-to-wall with even more rabbits. As it turns out, the thousands of animals on exhibit in the smaller hall were only those entered in the Youth competition. The animals I now gazed upon were those rabbits entered by exhibitors over the age of 18 — the Open competition.


Rabbits By the Numbers

The process of judging rabbits is both similar to and different from the adjudication of purebred dogs. Both are governed by a national organization, but the numbers tell a tale of two systems separated by a (somewhat) common language.

At American Kennel Club all-breed conformation shows, judges may evaluate up to 175 dogs per day. ARBA judges, on the other hand, are permitted 250 exhibits and dictate their placements to a clerk while providing commentary for the “gallery.” Dog show judges are assisted by a steward and have “full authority” in the ring. Placements at AKC shows are made without explanation.

Purebred dogs are judged, of course, against a breed standard. Animals are compared against each other at rabbit shows. Entries of dogs and rabbits are both divided by sex (dogs and bitches, bucks and does), however, the number of classes offered varies. Four to six classes are provided for both Youth and Open competition at ARBA shows, depending on the type of rabbit. Eight regular classes (including Winners) are offered for all breeds at AKC events.

When compared with the 178 breeds and varieties currently recognized by the AKC, the ARBA’s 48 rabbit and 13 cavy breeds seem rather meager. However by rabbit standards, the entry at even the largest all-breed dog show, AKC/Eukanuba National Championship, pales in comparison to the year’s biggest rabbit show. Although total entries at the 2013 AKC event were an impressive 4,086, entries at the ARBA Convention last year numbered 22,335. According to ARBA’s Avesing, entries at the national convention typically range from 20,000 to 24,000. “Entries are generally increasing,” he says. “Midwest shows see the biggest numbers.”

At the 2013 convention, the single largest rabbit entry, the Mini Rex, numbered 1,726. At the largest dog show of 2013, Golden Retrievers dominated the field with 100 entries.

Unlike the seven AKC Groups which classify purebred dogs based on function, rabbit breeds are randomly categorized into one of four Groups at ARBA conventions, according to the previous year’s entries. As described by Avesing, this is done to help distribute the overall entry and give each breed a fair chance of winning.

Perhaps one of the most telling differences between dog and rabbit exhibitions is found in the selection of judges. According to Avesing, each exhibitor who enters the convention may submit a judge’s name to be considered for Best in Show. “The top five vote-getters are determined, and the individual who receives the most votes is selected to judge Best in Show,” he says. “The four Groups are judged by the remaining top judges.”
Most of the judges I saw in Harrisburg, it should be noted, were men, and many seemed very young. Far younger, to be sure, than the average AKC judge.

Of course, comparing show rabbits to show dogs is really a case of apples and oranges. After all, the typical show dog likely requires a far greater investment of time, money and sweat equity than does an entire pole barn filled with rabbits. Yet it cannot be denied that for the purchase price of $50, an exhibitor can buy a quality animal and, with a $13 entry fee, he or she can enter a rabbit or cavy at the most important event of the year and actually have a shot at winning Best in Show. Impossible, you say? Well, the 2013 Youth BIS was won by a steel junior buck Dutch rabbit, the single entry of a young boy from Minnesota.


Legislative Alert: Power in Numbers

Founded in 1910, ARBA has been dedicated to the promotion, development and improvement of the domestic rabbit and cavy for more than a century. With more than two dozen all-breed and specialty clubs in the US and Canada, the organization, headquartered in Bloomington, Ill., provides a singular voice for those who raise these popular small animals for exhibition, as pets, or commercially for their meat, fur and wool.
Interestingly, the American Rabbit Breeders Association does not perform inspections as does the AKC’s Investigations and Inspections Department. Because rabbits may be bred for the table, as well as for the laboratory, rabbitries have been more subject to animal welfare regulations and USDA/APHIS policies, as well as local zoning restrictions.

In 2013, a Political Action Committee was formed within ARBA to focus on proposed legislation that, according to the organization’s website, “carries the possibility of impacting the American Rabbit Breeders Association, its members, and rabbit/cavy hobby and/or commercial entities.” As an organization with more than 25,000 individual members, ARBA is a powerful voice for those who wish to protect their hobbies and businesses from indiscriminate anti-breeder legislation.

ARBA Legislative Committee Chair Karen Horn traveled with committee members to Washington, D.C. , last fall to meet with key representatives from the USDA and House of Representatives and Senate Agriculture Committees. The meetings were a collective first step to establishing “advisory relationships,” according to organization’s Legislative Alert webpage.

“Our PAC is only a few months old,” Horn notes. “We decided to go [the PAC] route to protect our nonprofit status when we do go in to talk about legislative issues.” According to its website, ARBA plans to publish both a position paper and an official comment regarding the current Pet Retail Sales legislation.

According to President Avesing, ARBA does not currently employ its own attorney. “The PAC is taking a proactive role to combat legislative issues facing hobby and commercial breeders,” he says. ARBA has also reached out to the poultry industry to consider forming an alliance. “They have the money, and we have the members,” notes Avesing.

As seen in the dog fancy, rabbit enthusiasts have started to organize at the grassroots level. In January, breeders and exhibitors got together in Wisconsin to put on a fundraiser show on behalf of the PAC. Avesing estimates that more than 2,000 entries were made, and everyone involved with the event, including the judges, volunteered their time and talent.


It’s the American Rabbit Breeders Association

The ARBA convention in Harrisburg closed with the announcement of the Youth and Open Group Best in Show winners. A raised stage was created in a separate arena where rabbits were judged on a very long table (some breeds are judged “running”), and large television monitors gave every spectator a front-row seat. Judges wore microphones, allowing the audience a genuine educational opportunity. When the time finally arrived to announce the BIS winners, it was just like being at AKC/Eukanuba or Westminster — minus the tuxedo.

I was not entirely surprised, therefore, when I bumped into a professional dog handler who had taken the day off to check in on the rabbit fraternity. “I used to show rabbits as a kid,” he told me, explaining his keen interest in the goings-on.

For a while, we stood together to watch the judging, and our conversation eventually turned to the dog sport and how it is distinguished from ARBA events. “The difference is that these people are actual breeders,” he flatly stated as he pointed to the crowd around us.

I think he was right. Although rabbit exhibitors fall into both a “buyer” and a “breeder” category, according to Avesing, everyone I spoke with at the convention mentioned their breeding program. In fact, ARBA actively encourages the development of entirely new breeds. The Lionhead, a gorgeous little creature with small ears and a lion’s mane, was granted full recognition just this February after decades of hard work by its creators.

The biggest lesson that dedicated purebred dog enthusiasts can learn from organizations such as ARBA is to give more than lip service to dog shows as being a valid platform for evaluating “breeding stock.” At a rabbit show, I’ve come to learn, the emphasis is on rabbits, not showmanship. At ARBA events, it’s the judges who do the handling, not the exhibitors.

Serious dog breeders do exist, of course, but their efforts are generally focused on national and regional specialties. This is a good thing, I think, and as it should be. But if we are to garner and win support in the arena of public opinion, serious purebred dog breeders need to get out in front of the people who are still buying tickets to the all-breed shows. Undoubtedly, it will be John and Jane Q. Public who ultimately decide the future of the dog sport.

One long-time rabbit breeder I spoke with at the convention told me she’d never been to a dog show. “I’ve heard enough about them though,” she said. “Rabbit shows are a lot friendlier.”

We still have a lot to learn.


From the March 2014 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine, or call 1-888-738-2665 to purchase a single copy.

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