Rabbits have big following at Junior Fair

By Dean Shipley

July 8, 2014

They’re cute, cuddly and have long ears.

Rabbits have bred a large following among youngsters at the Madison County Fair. The fair’s rabbit show was held Tuesday morning and with the threat of rain, Pat Gallimore, rabbit key leader, said organizers were expediting the show as much as possible.

The show featured 34 classes of rabbits. The classes represent a number of criteria, said Nathan Barnhart, 19, the 2013 Rabbit Showman of Showmen.

They are judged based on:

• the age of the rabbit

• the age of the contestant

• the gender of the rabbit

• in some cases, the breed of the rabbit, of which there are many.

Whether buck or doe, 4-class or 6-class, older exhibitor or younger, they all fall under the critical eye of judge Kevin Hooper. The Leesburg resident travels throughout Ohio, and beyond, to judge not only 4-H shows such as Madison County’s, but also open shows throughout the country. He has been judging for 30 years.

He grew up on a farm and wanted in the worst way to exhibit animals at the fair. His first choice was hogs. But Dad said no to Kevin’s desire for makin’ bacon at the county fair.

Not enough room for hogs on the family farmstead, Dad said.

“Raise rabbits, Dad said,” Hooper said.

Dad apparently didn’t factor in the fact that rabbits breed like, well, you know.

As the rabbit raising grew, so did the need for more pens. Hooper said he would see ads for rabbit pens for free, but they came with a catch.

“We had to take the rabbits, too,” Hooper said in between judging the classes. Eventually, the space gobbled up by rabbit cages exceeded the space he would have used to raise hogs.

At age 18, he became a judge for the first time. He said it felt a little unusual to be judging some contestants who were his own age, but he pressed on.

He became licensed and has been happily doing it ever since. He has judged rabbit shows in Wisconsin, Texas and Pennsylvania.

As he goes through the classes of rabbits, he handles each rabbit individually. He closely examines each part of the body, running his hand over the rabbits rounded body. Then clutching its ears, he rolls the animal on its back and examines the underside.

As he announces the top five places, he speaks to each animal’s pluses and minuses. All of the above come down to the genetics of the animal. So his advice to would-be rabbit exhibitors is to buy their baby bunnies from the top breeders in the field.

For Barnhart, at age 19, it will be his last year of eligibility to show in 4-H competition. His first show was at age 11 when he asked his parents if he could have a rabbit. Since that time he has raised many and currently has more than 150 in his warren.

Barnhart plans to work and save his money so he can afford to attend a culinary arts school in Pittsburgh. He’ll have to work and save because dollars don’t breed like, well, you know.

Dean Shipley can be reached at (740) 852-1616, ext. 1617 or via Twitter @DeanAShipley.