FAIRMONT - Many images come to mind when thinking about rabbits: Bugs Bunny, the Easter Bunny, Peter Cottontail ...
But what about pedigree? Fur density and texture? A smooth, round body? Ear shape? Weight? Showmanship?
In the competitive rabbit circuit, judges scrutinize every aspect of a rabbit from head to toe, handling it and looking for specific traits, depending on the breed.
Kelsey Deling and Little Annie, right, sit at the Delings’ kitchen table.
Kelsey Deling and her mother, Carmen, spend two to three weekends a month traveling to competitions in Minnesota and surrounding states during the show seasons. In the fall, Kelsey and Carmen will travel to San Diego for the ARBA (American Rabbit Breeders Association) National Convention.
Kelsey has been showing rabbits for nine years now. She has a couple dozen trophies and awards she keeps on display, but many more are boxed up and put away. The 17-year-old Fairmont teen is likely to be named top Jersey Wooly breeder in the country under age 19 if the year continues as it has. Last year she was No. 6.
"Even No. 6 in the country is pretty good," her mother said.
Among the rabbits Kelsey shows, Little Annie is top of the pack, so to speak. She's also on her way to being No. 1 in the country.
"She's my best one," Deling said, petting a soft, round Siamese-colored rabbit with short ears and a flat pink nose, and no tail to be seen under its fluff of fur. "I've won a lot of things with her. I won at the nationals out of 700."
Little Annie is a Jersey Wooly, a cross between an Angora and Netherland dwarf. It's the only kind of rabbit the Delings breed and show.
"We went out searching for the best-quality bunnies in the business," Carmen said. "... All the bunnies we have today go back to the original bunnies."
Kelsey first saw a Jersey Wooly at the Spencer Fair and ended up bringing one home. She started out with 4-H and then went on to compete in open shows. Each breeder can bring up to 20 rabbits to a competition, so at a national show, there could be 20,000-30,000 rabbits in an arena.
"They're supposed to be very easy-going, easy for kids to handle. And they're very quiet," Carmen said, laughing as a dog barked.
The breed defies many stereotypes of rabbits, especially Little Annie. Flopped over on her side at one point as she looked around the kitchen from her perch atop the table, she looked perfectly at ease.
"They're very intelligent," Carmen said. "It's amazing to watch the personalities."
Altogether, 46 different breeds are recognized in the show circuit.
"I had an Angora," Kelsey added. "That was a bad idea. They have way longer hair."
Longer hair meant more grooming. With a Jersey Wooly, Kelsey only has to brush them every few days.
But rabbits aren't all fluffy fun and games - not even a Jersey Wooly. Besides feeding, they need water constantly. They need climate-controlled housing year round. Their cages have to be cleaned once a week, which takes several hours.
The babies must be socialized. Kelsey takes them out every couple days and interacts with them, letting them run around the house when they're young until they're accustomed to being around people.
"You can handle babies from when they're newborn," Carmen said. "That's an old wives' tale that you can't touch them or their mother will abandon them."
How many rabbits the Delings have on hand at a time changes constantly for a couple of reasons. They sell and trade some at national shows. Other breeders typically sell their rabbits as soon as their best showman days are up, but the Delings aren't as quick to do so.
"A couple here are really old," Carmen said, which means eight to nine years old for a rabbit. "... There's those special bunnies."
And, of course, a plentiful population of rabbits isn't hard to come by. The animals can breed year-round at any time, potentially producing a new litter every 28-30 days.
"It's like blink-of-an-eye-breeding," Carmen said.
Some owners and rabbit farmers who sell the animals for meat will breed their stock even as the does are nursing a litter. The Delings aren't that eager to increase their numbers, however. And besides, a Jersey Wooly can only have 1-4 babies at a time. Little Annie hasn't been bred yet at all, and the Delings are still deciding if and when they should do so if they want a chance of passing along her prized genetics.
After Kelsey turns 19, she must compete with adults - if she continues to show. She expects whether she does or not, her mother probably will take it up.
"We may end up showing together," Carmen said. "A lot of people do."