Rabbits feed curiosity
ALTAMONT — Visitors come and go at the Altamont Fair’s rabbit shed Tuesday morning, pointing and exclaiming at the wide variety of furry caged creatures.
One group, however, is fixed. Young and old, they cluster around a long wooden table with cubbyholes along its outer edge.
At the center of the other side of the table stands the judge, Ryan Fedele.
A big strong man, he reaches a rabbit out of a cubby and gently holds it in his hands, stroking it with fingers that know what to feel for.
How did he get involved with rabbits in the first place? Well, he says with a rueful smile, he bought his college girlfriend a rabbit and, when they broke up, he got the rabbit.
Fedele was 19 when he went to his first rabbit show, in Cobleskill, where he bought another rabbit and bred them. He then won at a show in Pennsylvania. “It was the greatest thing ever,” he said.
He became a member of the American Rabbit Breeders Association, known as ARBA, and began the long path to becoming a judge. Now a high school guidance counselor, Fedele, 32, talks to the onlookers with an easy assurance.
Riley Carlone, a plump-cheeked 10-year-old from Duanesburg, is pressed tight against the judging table. His mother, Pam, is by his side. Riley has brought his Lionhead rabbit, Snickers, to be judged. Snickers waits his turn in a long, triple-deck row of cages at the back of the shed.
Lionheads were just accepted last year as a breed, says Missy Eck, a knowledgeable breeder. She also explained the Altamont Fair was not an ARBA-sanctioned show, and that there were two classes: open, which anyone can enter, and youth for those under age 18.
Snickers was to be judged in the open class. The Lionhead rabbit, which originated in Belgium, is so named because it has mane-like wool on its head and flanks, looking like a lion.
“He’s friendly and he doesn’t run away,” says, Riley, describing Snickers’s fine qualities. “I feed him every morning,” he said of the pellets he gives the four-month-old rabbit, “and I hold him every day…I think he’ll do well.”
“What kid doesn’t want his bunny to do well?” asks his mother.
“I have a Lionhead, too,” says Thomas Davis, who is pressed against another side of the table. Her name is Angela.
His sister, Hunter Davis, 13, also has a rabbit, named Sun Kiss. She is a Holland lop, a rabbit whose ears flop down instead of pointing up.
“We just got her a boyfriend named Copper,” says Hunter. “I want to breed them.”
How is that done?
“You just put them in a cage together, see what happens, and hope for the best,” answers Hunter.
“Sun Kiss lives in my bedroom,” Hunter goes on. “I play with her, take her out, pet her, give her treats, like carrots….I have to work with Copper. He’s a little shy.”
“We’re going to get a rabbit at the end of the week,” says Riley.
“Possibly,” responds his mother.
“I don’t think it’s ‘possibly,’” returns Riley. “It’s real.”
Copper had his name when Hunter got him; Hunter surmises it is because of his color. “He’s like a penny color,” she says. “I’m keeping the name.”
Hunter also has a dog, a Boston terrier, that lives in her bedroom. She is named Valentine because Hunter got her on Valentine’s Day.
Hunter keeps the rabbit’s cage on top of the dog’s crate.
“One day, Valentine was on my bed and Sun Kiss jumped on the bed. They fell asleep together,” says Hunter. “It was adorable.”
She also says her dog can distinguish between her friend and other rabbits. “She’ll chase a wild rabbit outside,” says Hunter. “She knows Sun Kiss is a pet.”
The conversation around the judging table is interrupted by a cry from the sidelines.
“Bunny escape!” shouts 5-year-old Megan Reese as several children race along the row of cages. “Got it! Got it!” comes the cry as the rabbit is scooped up and safely returned to its cage.
Fedele says that Albany County alone in New York State has a rule that the general public can’t touch rabbits at shows. He says that, while rabbits aren’t known to carry rabies, because there is no rabies vaccination for rabbits, “You can’t pet them.”
So at The Altamont Fair, the rabbits in their cages are cordoned off at a distance where hands of curious onlookers can’t reach them.
Next up on the table are the largest rabbits at the fair.
“Wow, that’s a big bunny,” says 7-year-old Andrew Eck as he looks up at the two Flemish Giants Jan Van Etten of Knox had brought to the fair.
“I have a wonderful rabbit named Spike. He’s 2,” says Andrew.
He also has a rabbit named Rosie. “We thought they were brother and sister, but they’re not. They’re best friends,” he says.
Fedele wears a denim apron emblazoned with the words, “Roger Cota Memorial Show,” above a sketch of Cota judging a show.
“I took my exams and learned to judge under him,” says Fedele. Cota, a minister and teacher, died two years ago at the age of 71. “He did a lot of fairs in New York,” Fedele continues. “He was good with kids.”
Fedele describes the laborious process he went through to become a judge: You have to be a member for five years and then get many signatures on an application to take the registrar’s exam; that allows you to inspect an animal and determine if it is free of disqualifications.
Once you’ve been a registrar for two years and registered 35 rabbits, then you need more signatures to take the judge’s exam. You have to have high scores on both a written exam and an oral exam and work under eight judges at all-breeds shows, six of whom will vouch for your judging.
There are 48 recognized breeds, and each one has a standard. Fedele has a thick black embossed book that he rarely consults, which lists the criteria for each of the breeds and defines the “standard of perfection” for such characteristics as body, head, ears, eyes, and color.
Fedele seems to make near instant decisions as he handles one rabbit after another in each category.
The first thing he does is check for disqualifications, like a broken tooth, toe, or tail, or an open sore.
Much of what he judges on is inherent in the breeding, like color, weight, and shape. But some of it comes from care — points are given for condition, being well fleshed and well muscled.
Picking up what he thinks is a doe, Fedele says, “She’s balanced in the cheeks,” Then, gently flipping her over in one hand, he says, “He’s pretty in the cheeks.” Laughter ripples about the table.
He lets a rabbit from a running breed hop the length of the table as part of his judging. “They’ve got to have attitude or they won’t run,” he says.
He reads the number on the inside of each rabbit’s ear and reports it to volunteer Heather Burns who records the results of the judging.
Many of the rabbits were molting, typical for August when the weather is hot. Burns, who raises Havana rabbits, says, “If you don’t have one molting at the fair, you’re lucky.” She says her barn was full of fur.
“In dog shows, judges just point,” says Fedele. “They don’t tell you why. They don’t answer questions. You don’t know what fault you’ve got.”
While Fedele judged about 125 rabbits at the Altamont Fair, he is used to judging 200 to 250 a day at shows that can have 1,000 or more rabbits.
Richard Nestlen recalled a large rabbit show that was scheduled locally when the remains of Hurricane Irene struck and the Federal Emergency Management Agency needed the building that had been meant for the show; it was held later at the Best Western, said Nestlen.
Fedele lives in Schenectady and currently has no rabbits of his own. He said he’s in the process of switching breeds for a “new challenge.”
“Rabbits make good barn pets,” said Fedele but can be stinky in the house.
“That’s why I’m building a cage in my room,” said Riley.
“In your apartment when you’re older,” said his mother.
Fedele judges about 35 weekends out of the year, spending about two-and-a-half hours a day at the task.
Does he get tired judging so many rabbits?
“Never,” says Fedele.
“Fancy, Food, and Fur”
The motto for the association is “Fancy, Food, and Fur,” said Fedele. Fancying rabbits is what brought the crowd to the Altamont Fair.
Fedele explained that rabbits used to be bred for fur, although that is no longer common in the United States.
One of the breeds he judged at the fair, Havana, was bred in the 1920s and ’30s to resemble mink when costly coats and stoles were popular.
“We support rabbit consumption,” Fedele said of the “food” part of the slogan. Many of the places where ARBA judges are called for — like Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan — are countries where eating rabbits is common.
Fedele has eaten rabbit himself and said, “It tastes like chicken.” He went on, “With urban farming coming back, it’s big.”
Fedele said that raising rabbits is part of a movement away from “factory food” to homegrown food. He named several local restaurants and markets that feature rabbit.
He went on, “Raising rabbits is a really efficient method” to get nutrients; the amount of food it takes to produce one pound of cattle meat will produce 10 pounds of rabbit meat, he said. Countries where people are starving like Haiti and North Korea, he said, are promoting rabbit farms.
“I couldn’t eat a rabbit,” said Hunter.
“No way,” Riley agreed.
“He did,” said his mother. “He didn’t know it.”
“Gross,” pronounced Thomas.
Snickers’s turn on the table finally arrived. The table itself had moved twice since the judging began. As the rain started falling in mid-morning, the group surrounding the table edged it further into the open shed, and then further still as the rain fell harder.
Fedele announced he was judging Number 16, reading the numeral from the inside of Snickers’s ear. Riley was riveted.
The judge stated, “Fair head…nice ears…wish he had a higher head mount…nice roll back.”
As Fedele examined the next Lionhead, Heather Burns said, “Your doe just turned into a buck.”
In the end, Snickers was pronounced best of breed.
“I feel happy,” said Riley, “because it’s my first time and Snickers is a good rabbit.”