Rabbits in Berkeley? 4-h kids raising brood

By Erika Kelly Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday August 11, 2001

Pudge, Izzy, Echo and Paris are ready for their close-ups. The feisty, furry rabbits are the pride and joy of the new Berkeley 4-H Club’s four charter members. Accompanied by their human handlers, on Thursday, the rabbits were getting ready to strut their stuff at the Monterey County fair today and the San Mateo County Fair on Saturday.  

Brandon Williams, 11, Meg Veitch, 10, Julia Larson, 10, and Joshua Dietel, 8, joined 4-H after participating in the rabbit club launched last school year by Betsy Sako, a farm and garden and science teacher at Le Conte Elementary School. The students met once a week after school to learn how to care for the growing group of rabbits housed in cages in the school’s garden. 

4-H, which stands for Hands, Heart, Head and Health, has its roots in agriculture, but sponsors a variety of youth development programs all across the country. 

In June, all four students experienced their first 4-H rabbit show at the Alameda County Fair. Meg Veitch tied for first in the first-year showmanship competition and ultimately took home the third place ribbon. “She put Berkeley on the map,” said Sako proudly. 

The students gathered at Le Conte School on Thursday to show off their rabbit-handling skills and help Sako prepare for their trips. They were dressed in the requisite 4-H uniform – all white clothing with green belts, ties and felt hats decorated with the 4-H four leaf clover. 

The students demonstrated how successful rabbits are not only beautiful, but healthy as well. The judges must see that the rabbits are neither too fat nor too thin, and that they are free from illness. 

Paris, a four-month Himalayan rabbit with white fur and brown ears and legs, has been dining on a fortified diet of oatmeal and rabbit pellets to get him into shape for this week’s county fairs. Unlike beauty contestants, Paris needs a little more meat on his bones to impress the judges. 

Joshua Dutiel, the proud owner of Paris, demonstrated how to tell if a rabbit is carrying too much or too little weight. He ran his hand down his back, feeling for the spinal cord. “You want to feel it, but not too much,” he instructed. 

Duchess, the oldest rabbit in the bunch, has developed that dreaded middle-aged spread, but Sako and the kids have her on a diet to get her back to a healthy weight. She won’t be shown this weekend, but Julia Larson, 10, used the rabbit to demonstrate her showmanship skills. She checked for ear mites, cuts, and other imperfections, but when she tried to check the rabbit’s teeth, Duchess pulled away. “She’s too ticklish in the teeth,” Larson said.  

“Make sure you pull her whiskers out of the way,” instructed Sako. “There, the second time is the charm,” Sako told her as the rabbit relaxed and bared her teeth. 

Showmanship ends with questions designed to test the kids’ knowledge about rabbit care. They vied for the chance to play judge for one another, asking questions such as “Why do you check their paws?” and “What causes snuffles?” 

“They’re really hard on each other,” said Sako, noting that they ask tougher questions than the real judges. “But once they are at the fair, they are all in it together, cheering one another on.” 

Fun with furry animals is obviously the big draw for these students. They cradled their small bundles gently and tried to keep up with the rabbits as they hopped around the garden on leashes. They also proudly displayed their ease with the other animals on the school farm – goats, chickens and ducks. Veitch and Larson emerged from the hen house with a brown egg, fresh and warm from Athena, a red and black hen. 

Mixed in with all the fun, Sako hopes the students will learn lasting lessons. Most important, caring for the animals teaches them responsibility and empathy for others, she said. It also helps kids overcome shyness, said Sako, who has noticed many students emerge from their shells as they care for the animals. Veitch and Larson are even starting their own “rabbit tree,” or breeding line. They plan to buy three Mini-Rex rabbits, known for their beautiful, soft fur, and begin their own business. 

Although the club originated at Le Conte School, all Berkeley children are welcome to join. All members must own their own rabbits. “It’s a real commitment,” said Sako. “We’re looking for kids who love rabbits and are willing to make a commitment to them.” 

Contact Betsy Sako at 644-6290 for more information.