Cathy Caracciolo is no amateur rabbit breeder. She got her first bunny at a birthday party when she was five, and fifty years later, she still considers herself a rabbit addict. Cathy brings to mind a fondly recalled kindergarten teacher — she is in her mid-fifties, and her bearing and attire of jeans, sweatshirts, and sneakers suggest comfort. She is also a star in the rabbit world.
Cathy is among the nation's best known breeders of Flemish Giants, a type of rabbit that, as the name implies, are really, really big — often growing to the size of a small dog and weighing as much as eighteen pounds. That she has achieved this status as a woman makes her ascent and position all the more remarkable.
"Once you have a Flemish Giant, you never go back," she says, pausing to smile at her own joke before flipping the latch on her backyard gate. She lives only about an hour from Manhattan with her husband and two daughters, but their yard feels rural with all the gardening supplies and tools scattered around.
"Pardon the mess," she adds, blushing a little, and pointing to the rabbit barn.
A sudden electric feeling hits as you enter the barn. Dozens of creatures turn their heads to stare, and all noise seems to cease. With the exception of a few twitching noses, the animals look frozen. And then a moment later, they lose interest and turn back to their rabbit business — chewing on hay and sprawling on the floor, relaxing.
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Cathy is accustomed to this welcoming. She goes over to one of the three rows of cages to greet her bunnies. She asks how they're doing. She pretends to scold those who have overturned or pooped in their water bowls. She knows which rabbits have picky hay-eating habits, which ones are particularly good mothers, and which ones like to rearrange their cages.
A bunny barn is called a rabbitry, and the smell inside Cathy's is intense, though not unpleasant; the scent of hay mostly masks the astringent odor of urine. The Top-40 countdown plays on the radio, but you can also hear the softer noise of little paw-thuds, the gnawing of chew toys, and the shuffling of plastic bowls being pushed across the metal-wire cage floors. On this March morning, it's just chilly enough in the barn to necessitate the black fleece Cathy's wearing — embroidered with an image of a rabbit — though outside, it's the first warm day of spring.
For Cathy, the changing weather signals the beginning of the rabbit showing season, and she only has a few weeks until the most important show of her year: The National Flemish Giant Show in Taylorsville, North Carolina. Cathy's background is in technical illustration, and her day job is in administrative assistance. But her true passion is breeding show rabbits. And like many of the other 23,000 members of the American Rabbit Breeder's Association (ARBA), Cathy is a regular competitor in the showing circuit. Her ranch-style house overflows with trophies, plaques, and ribbons, a testament to her success. She's famous for her "Blues," one of the seven Flemish Giant fur colors that, in point of fact, isn't really blue, but more of a slate or dark gray.
As a show breeder, Cathy's goal is The Rabbit Standard of Perfection — a set of criteria for a perfect rabbit so specific, it perhaps only exists in the World of Forms. It is no simple task to breed anything close to the standard, and earlier this winter, Cathy was recognized by the National Federation of Flemish Giant Rabbit Breeders for her dedication: The organization awarded her the title of Master Breeder, one of the highest honors in the rabbit world.
There are perhaps 50 rabbits in Cathy's barn — by no means a high number; she's had as many as 150. She is at ease and cheerful in their company, a welcome feeling because, as Cathy knows only too well, bunny land is not a peaceful place these days.
The rabbit world is divided — passionately, vehemently divided. On one side are those who believe rabbits are only meant to be pets. On the other are those who insist that rabbits are "multi-purpose animals," meaning they can be raised for show, or cuddled, or eaten.
The battle is being fought legally — in courtrooms and local governments — and in rabbitries, where in its most extreme moments gun-wielding rabbit breeders threaten to shoot "eco-terrorists," and animal control officers stage large-scale busts. In the past few years, tensions have escalated as so-called "A-R-As" (extreme animal rights activists) target rabbit breeders across the country, vandalizing their barns and stealing their rabbits. In 2011, Debe Bell, a nationally recognized breeder, had her Colorado rabbitry raided by local law enforcement after an anonymous caller reported her for animal cruelty — a crime that in all fifty states, can be a felony. Breeders now refer ominously to this as the "Colorado case."
Opposing them are rabbit advocacy groups and the (mostly non-violent) animal rights activists who fight to stop animal hoarding and abuse, and to curb the domestic rabbit overpopulation problem. Led largely by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the international, non-profit House Rabbit Society, this side campaigns on behalf of the thousands of homeless, abused, and abandoned rabbits in the country, and won't declare a truce until all breeding operations are shut down.
There are radicals on both sides. Then there is Cathy, who just wants to raise and show her Flemish Giants.
There is more to this debate than the fate of those who raise bunnies; we're gambling with the entire genetic diversity of the domestic rabbit. And at its core, the battle over bunnies is about how we think of, and understand the animals themselves: what we do with them, how we treat them, and where they fit in relation to us. Cows, chickens, cats have their places for the most part. Not so the bunny.
For Cathy, and everyone who will be at the National Flemish Giant Show — breeders and rabbits alike — the stakes are high. Losing the bunny battle could mean losing it all.
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Like many rabbit breeders, Cathy once showed dogs, but tired of it, and now likes to playfully rag on dog people — apparently bunny people are friendlier and more laid-back. Yet in a lot of ways, the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) is for rabbits what the American Kennel Club is for dogs: it maintains the national rabbit registry, has an organized system of nationwide sanctioned rabbit shows, and determines the Standard of Perfection for each of the forty-eight breeds it currently recognizes. The specifications for each breed are broken down in such minute detail, that to become a judge at a rabbit show, one must be able to discern whether the eyes of a Flemish Giant "have a reposeful expression."
For one of Cathy's rabbits to be perfect, its "body should gracefully arch from immediately behind the shoulder blades, reaching its highest point directly above the haunches, and gracefully sweep, rounded and full, to the base of the tail." But a few weeks before the National Show, watching her choose which rabbits to bring seems a little less poetic.
"This one is going to North Carolina with me," she says, placing a four-month-old Blue junior buck on a baby-scale. She hasn't come up with a good name for it yet, so it goes it by its ID number, CJ365. "Yeah, I like you," she says to the rabbit, "you're promising — almost eleven pounds — just like your daddy!" Cathy removes CJ365 from the scale and nudges its rear end, while running her other hand over its back to examine the arch and the width of its hips.
Next she looks over a Blue rabbit named Pandora — "she's a box of trouble" — who has a back shape that's about as perfect as they come: round and full like a basketball. Show rabbits are divided into three age categories — juniors, intermediates, and seniors — and even though Cathy doubts Pandora is big enough to compete as a senior, she puts her on the scale anyway just to see. It takes a little while to get the rabbit to sit still, but when she finally does, Cathy inches the smallest weight to the right little-by-little, leaning in close.
"Oh, happy, happy, joy, joy!" she says snapping up. "She made her senior weight." Cathy pumps her hands in the air and lets out a "whoop, whoop!" Pandora, Cathy's most promising rabbit, is fourteen pounds and going to North Carolina. It's hard to win with Blues, but with Pandora, she stands a good chance.
Raising Blues fell out of fashion sometime in the early 1940s, though no one quite knows why. It might, however, have to do with the difficulty of breeding for the proper fur color: "Blue" is actually a diluted "Black" color, and since Black genes are dominant, they can hide undesirable recessive ones for years, secretly "polluting" the genetic line. But Blue breeders need Blacks because maintaining the right color requires mixing in their genes every few generations. And because breeders trade rabbits to prevent inbreeding and to add desirable traits, one or two careless people can ruin years of careful genetic work.
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When people stopped raising Blues, inbreeding caused the whole gene pool to suffer. But in the last decade or so, a small group of breeders have taken on the challenge of bringing them back. Cathy is one of those people. For years she has worked to revive and perfect Blue Flemish Giants — breeding them pure, cleaning the genetic lines of faults, and improving their size, color, and shape. "She's known for developing the Blues into where they are," says fellow Flemish Giant breeder Stephen Trent. "They used to be really small. And now she's worked it, she has them bigger, better. And she usually wins with her Blues."
A lot of Flemish Giant breeders consider Cathy's contribution "invaluable." Not only are her rabbits some of the best in the country, but she was one of the first women to compete and be taken seriously in the Flemish Giant world. It was traditionally, she says, "a good ol' boys club;" because up until the last decade or so, women tended only to compete with the smaller and fancier breeds. But Cathy pushed her way into the club, and put her rabbits up on the table with the men. And now, over a decade later, her name is included on the list of Master Breeders.
Stephen Trent puts it simply, "you mention Blues, and you hear Cathy Caracciolo."
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