This article originally appeard in the March-April American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s newsletter.
Heritage Rabbits, 101
By Callene Rapp
While I hesitate to say raising rabbits is easy, because raising any livestock – especially rare breeds – comes with specific challenges, there are several advantages to raising rabbits over other species. They are quiet, they do not take up as much room as a herd of cattle, and their manure is like gold for the gardener. They can be prolific, and a few animals can provide a steady supply of healthy, low-fat meat. Rabbits can also provide a fun hobby, activities that can keep children engaged, and learning skills that will last a lifetime. Rabbit shows can be found in nearly every city across the country, and the sky is the limit for the amount of your involvement in the show circuit.
If you have decided to get involved with heritage rabbits, choosing which breed to raise is one of the first steps. If you have not already selected a breed, check out the breed profiles pages on the ALBC website (www.alb-usa.org/cpl/wtchlist.html). There are several rabbit breeds, four of which are unique to North America, that are in need of dedicated conservation stewards.
Do a little bit of thinking about your climate and your goals before picking a breed. Rabbits will generally prefer colder temperatures to hotter ones. If you live in a climate that has extreme summers, it would be well worth the time to obtain your rabbits from a breeder in the same climate. Find out if the breeder you buy from has any tips for helping their animals acclimate to temperature extremes.
If your goal is to provide meat for your family, this will also influence which breed you choose. While all rabbits provide meat, some breeds such as the American or the Silver Fox will supply a greater return on investment in terms of meat when compared to racier type rabbits, such as the Belgian Hare.
After selecting your breed, the first challenge is finding stock. As with any rare breed, you probably will not find them down the street or around the corner. Check out the ALBC Breeders Directory to see if there are any breeders close to your area. Also, the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) has a listing of clubs on their website. Try contacting the club secretary to see if this might lead you to rabbit breeders in your city or state. There is also a listing of shows on the ARBA website; attending a show near you might help in scouting for a particular breed. You may not find your breed of interest at the show, but someone who knows someone who knows someone might put you on the right track.
It is important to keep an open mind; a breed you had not considered might be more readily accessible and might work just as well for your project or needs. There is no one “best” breed of rabbit. If you have not raised rabbits before, there is no harm in starting with a more available breed. Start by “getting your feet wet” and then progressing to a rare breed as the opportunity presents itself.
After you have selected your breed and found a breeder, make sure you can get pedigreed stock. Most breeders keep good records so this is rarely a problem, but it is best to make sure. Pedigrees are essential when dealing with rare breeds in order to trace bloodlines and inbreeding percentages.
If you find you must get rabbits from quite a distance away, there are three possible ways to obtain your stock. The first option (and the most expensive) is to have them shipped. The U.S. Postal Service will not ship rabbits as they do day-old chicks. Unfortunately, when new breeders hear the word “ship” they often have a mental picture of the post-office doing the shipping.
Shipping rabbits involves shipping via the airlines. There are only a few airlines that ship rabbits, with Delta Airlines and American Airlines being the most frequently used. Each airline has their own requirements for shipping and these requirements are quite strict. For example, they will not ship if the temperature is above 85 degrees at any point on the trip. If the temperature is below 45 degrees anywhere on the route, a certificate of acclimation signed by the veterinarian must accompany the animal, or the airline will not accept the shipment. They will not accept the animal if temperatures are below 20 degrees, or the lowest temperature on the acclimation certificate, whichever is lower.
An approved “sky kennel” (dog kennel) that has been modified to have a non-slip floor and mesh over the vent holes to prevent chewing must be used, and bedding is required. Be prepared to include a couple of day’s worth of food (usually taped in a clear bag to the crate) in the event there is a delay as the airline personnel will need to feed the rabbit. A health certificate current within 10 days of the shipping date is also required. Many breeders do not live near major airports, so it is important to calculate their travel time and costs into the total equation. The cost of the flight itself is based on the weight and dimensions of the kennel, and there may be a limit to how many animals can be placed in it. When everything is said and done, it is not unusual for just the shipping to be in the $300.00 range, without even factoring in the cost of the rabbit.
On the plus side, air shipping is no more or less stressful than any of the other methods, and the airlines try to take good care of the animals in their custody. Just do your homework before hand, and know that the airlines are not kidding about any of their requirements. There are a couple of companies that can book the shipment for you, and will handle all the paperwork, but access to a major airport will likely be necessary, and they do charge a fee for their services.
The second option for transporting rabbits from one breeder to another is to have someone else who is travelling across the country pick up and bring the rabbits to your farm. It is possible to contact someone who is driving through your area on the way to a major show and arrange transportation of the rabbits with them. Also, a friend or family member going through a certain area may be able to help. You may have heard of “rabbit runs” or “drifts”’ where a driver, or series of drivers, heads from one coast to the other doling out rabbits along the way. While this can be a way to get rabbits you would not have access to otherwise, there are some caveats. First, you may be getting breeding stock sight unseen. Secondly, pedigree information is sometimes lost and although no one intentionally loses this info, it can make getting replacement papers difficult. Finally, the transportation vehicles are often crowded, and the rabbits you get will be exposed to anything and everything the other rabbits might have. (This is also true of rabbit shows.) Be informed of how the rabbits will be handled on the trip, and be sure to practice biosecurity measures before integrating any new breeding stock to your farm.
The third method of getting your rabbits is to pick them up yourself. This can often involve a long road trip, an investment of time, and lots of fuel, but the potential to spend some time with a Master Breeder picking their brain about the particular breed can be priceless. Breeders who have been involved with rabbits for decades are an invaluable resource of knowledge and breed history. Take advantage of this whenever possible. You will also have more control over how the animals are handled.
Regardless of what transportation method you choose, strike up a good correspondence with the breeder before hand and ask as many questions as possible before starting the process.
Callene Rapp is a Senior Keeper at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, where tends to 27 different breeds listed on the ALBC Conservation Priority List. She has a strong background in agriculture, and operates the Rare Hare Barn, in Leon, KS, with her husband Eric where they raise rare breed rabbits, chickens, cattle, sheep and horses. Callene has served as President of the ALBC Board of Directors.