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Getting to know more about rabbits

Rabbits were everywhere on Saturday at Northwest Nature Shop in Ashland. Kids and parents got the chance to hold small, soft, wiggly animals, watch rabbit hopping contests and learn about raising rabbits for meat or fun and showing them at the Jackson County Fair.

Mike and Kathy Uhtoff started Northwest Nature Shop’s annual rabbit event more than 20 years ago because they saw so many bunnies abandoned after the Easter holiday. “It’s quite a lot of work to raise rabbits so you don’t want to buy them on impulse,” explains Marie Uhtoff, who continues her parents’ rabbit education tradition every spring.

Here in Southern Oregon, there are two 4-H rabbit clubs that provide the kid power, rabbits and expertise for the Northwest Nature Shop events, Jackson County Critters and Hop To It Gems. These 4-H’ers know about rabbits. They’ve raised rabbits before and want to talk with other kids about how to raise them.

Isabel D’Acquisto of Central Point and Allie Allison of Medford have been best friends since fifth grade when they met at a 4-H rabbit club. Rabbits were the first animal they started raising, and now Isabelle has goats and lambs too and Allie has 10 rabbits. “When you’re little if you don’t know what you’re doing yet, it’s an easy start,” Isabel says.

These 4-H kids are composed, friendly and articulate, and passionate about their animals. “I don’t think a lot of kids know much about rabbits and it’s good to share information,” explains Allie. “I know a lot more about rabbits than I thought.”

Deb Brown is 4-H rabbit superintendent and handles show entries at the county fair. She’s been Marie Uhtoff’s 4-H contact for many years and helps organize the annual event.

Brown has always raised rabbits for their meat and their manure. “I like the manure for gardening, honestly, and I’m very popular because of it,” she says, laughing. “My daughter put herself through college by selling rabbit manure.”

“Most of the (4-H) kids have smaller, fancy breed rabbits like Mini-Lops, raised as pets, not for meat production,” Brown notes, “but some do both.” New Zealand white rabbits (white with red eyes) and Californians (white with black nose, ears and feet) are commonly raised for meat production while Lops (big, floppy ears) are often raised as pets and for show.

Rabbits were big business in the 1920s with breeder associations springing up in Klamath Falls, Talent, Medford and other towns. After all, a 10-month-old rabbit offered 2-3 pounds of meat and a fine fur to sell. Flemish Giants, New Zealand Reds, French Silvers and other Belgian varieties were the standard at the time.

As early as 1920, local rabbit societies exhibited at county fairs, organized supper dances and held a rabbit sandwich picnic in Lithia Park during Chautauqua week. Hundreds attended rabbit fancier conventions in Talent where the Talent Campfire Girls served fried rabbit, Spanish rabbit, stewed rabbit with dumplings, roast rabbit and rabbit sausages along with watermelon and strawberry shortcake. In 1927, the Mutual Rabbit Breeders Association of Southern Oregon planned to open a rabbit cannery in Medford, the Mail Tribune reporting “It should not be long before canned rabbit is in popular demand throughout the United States.” The cannery never materialized.

Today, Ashland’s Land Use Ordinance considers rabbits to be micro-livestock along with chickens, domestic fowl, turkeys and miniature goats and may be kept in residential neighborhoods. Specific provisions and requirements must be met. Medford’s Municipal Code does not address rabbits and Central Point does not permit animals raised for commercial purposes within city limits and is not specific to rabbits.

For more information about raising rabbits as pets, for show or meat, visit the American Rabbit Breeders Association website at www.ARBA.net. Kids can join a 4-H club for hands-on rabbit projects by contacting the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Service at 541-776-7371.

— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is an architect of the Stories of Southern Oregon project at Southern Oregon University, a digital archive that documents Southern Oregon’s agricultural and work life heritage. She can be reached at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.