Betty Chu offers advice from 30 years of Angora Rabbit breeding experience

Betty Chu with MacKenzie, a multiple Best in Show winner.This article is compiled from a transcript of the webinar hosted by the Southern Angora Rabbit Club with Betty Chu, on May 18, 2013. For more information about the Southern Angora Rabbit Club, contact Kelly Flading at kellyflading@gmail.com. The webinar was moderated by SARC president Sasha McPherson. The text is slightly edited for clarity.

ON ANGORA COLORS

Betty: If you’re a show person, color should not be much of a priority, because it is only five points. Over 30 years, I use the analogy (as a college professor) that when I make a test, I have different points assigned to each question and I advise a student to do the questions with the highest points first. Don’t get hung up on the questions with miniscule points until you have the time. And that is the thinking on the colors.

So when you buy your rabbit, don’t tell the seller “I want a five month old fawn doe.” It is very difficult for the seller to be able to come up with something you want exactly in that particular specification. So, when you buy a rabbit, what you need to say is, “I’d like to buy the best rabbit you can afford to sell to me.”

First you have to know which colors are not going to be disqualified. If you are not showing, then that part is not important. If you are showing, you want acceptable colors. So, study the color guide.

Another thing is to look at the winners. A color which is popular in one breed may be a nothing color for another breed. For instance, my breed is English Angora. In English Angora, the biggest winners are tort and ruby eyed white; especially the tort.

But if you look at French Angoras, you have very few torts. If you go to Jersey Woolys, tort is a nothing color. You never see a Jersey Wooly who is a tort win anything.

Ruby eyed white is a wonderful color for English Angora and French Angora. But if you go to, say, French Lop, American Fuzzy Lop, Holland Lop, Mini Lop, and you talk about ruby eyed white, they are going to look at you as if “Why would you want that?” So, a good color for one breed is not necessarily a good color for another breed. So, don’t talk about color as if they are universal. If you are starting a certain breed, observe. If you want to show, observe other winning colors. Because most of the winners have a certain color that means there are one or more serious breeders working on them.

If you breed a blue eyed white to another color rabbit, it doesn’t matter what it is, more than likely your entire litter is unshowable, because they are VM carriers. They will have blazes, they will have spots, and they will have different colors. Are they a bad color, no. But the problem is, they are hard to handle. So you have to have a separate program for blue eyed white. Blue eyed white was a crossbreed between English Angora and a Netherland Dwarf, in the late 1980s. I’ve seen the first generation of the wool rabbit with blue eyed white. If you breed blue eyed white to blue eyed white, you don’t get but white. If you use another color with blue eyed white, you get a bunch of unshowable rabbits. So they are not bad, they are just too difficult to handle. For a show person, it would easier not to touch it. They are difficult to improve because you cannot introduce outside genes.

Another color which is difficult to do is the red. My very best friend Casey Jones is doing it right now. To have red, you have to have the rufus gene. But unlike other genetics, breeding rufus is gradually intensifying the color. With ruby eyed whites, you either have it or you don’t have it. The black gene, you either have it or you don’t have it. If you have a rufus, you may have just a tint of red. The redder the rufus you have, the redder the color.

Now, for Satin Angora it wasn’t difficult. The reason is, Mrs. LP Meyers got her first Satin Angora from red Satin. She visited a friend who had red Satins and they had wool rabbits coming up in their litters and they didn’t want them. So she took them home, and there were her Satin Angoras. I think that was early 1980s and the Satin Angora was accepted in 1987.

To get red in English Angora you’ve got to work in more and more red genes, and that is very difficult. The point again is, it is not a bad color, it is just hard.

So now you have to face a choice. Do you want to breed the best color, or do you want to breed for best in show potential?

Another color that people kind of badmouth is the sable gene. I personally don’t like it in my herd. The reason is, it will give you surprises. I hate surprises. In genetic terms it is called light chin: CHL – L stands for Light. Right now there are a lot of CHL genes in English Angora, but there is little CHD in English Angora.

So in order to have a proper colored sable, you need a little a, or aa (double recessive for Agouti). Then you need a black gene, big B (dominant color). Then you have that c^chl (sable gene). And you also need a (dominant) density gene, the big D. And you also need a big E, (dominant) extension gene. And if you get all those right and your rabbit has got the type, good work! You’ve got the perfect sable rabbit. It’s gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous! However, there are so many variations between how your rabbit’s genes fall.

If you big E is replaced by a little e, you are OK. You’ve got pearl. If the big E is replaced by a little e (recessive), it becomes a nonextension . Everything else stays the same. So basically, with c^chl in order to get showable colors, you can only have two variations, big E or little e. Other than that, everything has to be exact.

If your first A is an agouti gene, then you’ve got sable agouti. If your black gene is replaced by chocolate gene, you’ve got chocolate sable which looks exactly like a chocolate, but is supposedly not showable. Show it as a chocolate. Register it as a chocolate, but it’s actually not a chocolate. It’s a chocolate sable. There are a lot of people who are showing the chocolate sable or lilac sable as chocolate or as lilac, but they are forced with a dilemma at the time of registration. You are to register it, but according to the genetics, you cannot register it. So you pretty much have to lie in order to register it.

My point with this example is showing you that some of the colors are harder to work on and why some of the major breeders do not want to work on them, because if you goal is to breed the best possible rabbit for show, you don’t want to have all those possible distractions. They’re not bad colors. If you are a spinner and all you are wanting is a certain color rabbit for your spinning, that’s fine.

Sasha: When I go to the Convention, there are not a lot of the self-colors.

Betty: I can give you some comments about that. Yes, they are very nice rabbits. In my observation, the reason why these rabbits are less likely on the show table is because it is a grooming issue. I don’t know if you realize it or not, or you observed it or not, but the lighter the color, the easier it is to cover up mistakes. If you have a white rabbit, a Ruby Eyed White and the rabbit chewed, most of the time the judge cannot see it and even the owner cannot see it. If a fawn or tort chews itself, you can see it there more than a ruby-eyed white, but it is not as bad as if you have a black rabbit that has chewed on its shoulder. Most of the black rabbits, most of the self-rabbits tend to have lighter undercoats. And if they chew it, you see it. So there is the reality of trying to minimize the problem on the show table. Also, the first non-molting rabbit was a chocolate tort. The torts most often inherited the gene of non-molting.

If you look at the French Angoras, they have a lot more colors than the English Angoras on the show table. Sometimes if you go look at the French Angoras, it seems that almost anything goes.

Sasha: I understand why that might be, because those French have the thicker hairs. The hair shafts are a little bit bigger, a little bit coarser coat and for whatever reason, it seems to hold the color better. So if you had a French Angora that has chewed on its shoulder a bit, the difference in the color isn’t going to be as dramatic as we find in our English.

Betty: That is probably true, too. Also, there are probably only one or two French Angora breeders that have been there for 20-30 years. Any time a new breeder comes in, they have their own preferences. I can name some names; Charlotte is one of the biggest French Angora breeders. She shows pointed white. There are also issues with the pointed white, which I did as an English Angora breeder back in the 80s. I got out of it, but she likes it. And she likes sables so she shows a lot of sables.

Right now Eric Stewart is coming in. Eric’s preferences are fawn and white. What you have is people coming in every few years and the colors start to change. But English, well obviously I have been around for 31 years. So most of the people who got rabbits from me ended up with about the same kind of genetics. And to still have the kind of rabbits that are winning, well those who bought from me are not going to deviate from it and I’m not going to deviate from it. I’m guilty of making the color of English Angoras so limited. When I started, I had every single color in the world.

 

NESTBOX MANAGEMENT

Betty: I have a breeder friend, who went on a trip. She left the nestbox with the doe. The doe urinated in the nestbox. She lost the litter. I advocate taking the nestbox away from the mother. If I have two does having babies at the same time, I will put babies together that are not the same color. I will put one doe in with them in the morning and the other doe in with the babies at night. That way they get a double dose of nursing.

Sasha: What I had been told to do before was to put a drop of vanilla on the mom’s nose and a little bit of vanilla on the babies so that they will accept the new baby. Do you think that’s necessary?

Betty: No, the rabbits are not that smart. They cannot tell. I used to put kits in with two different does at the same time. When I am talking about is one doe nursing in the morning, and one doe nursing at night; I have the same nestbox with the same babies. The only time my does see the babies, is when they are nursing. That’s 5-10 minutes max. I put them in with the babies; they nurse. I do my chores; I see other rabbits. Then I take the does back to their own cages. I like to put the does in a different cage than the babies. I usually just grab the mom and take her to the babies. I put the mom in the cage and the babies just go and nurse. When they are done, the mom is taken back to her own cage.

Sasha: At what age do you stop putting the babies in with the moms?

Betty: When the moms stop feeling like it. And when the mom doesn’t want to do it, and the babies do not care whether the mom is coming or not, then I usually stop putting the mom into the babies’ cage. They’re usually 6 weeks old or 7 weeks old. So I want to say to you, do not leave the nestbox with the mama rabbit.

 

GROOMING (Betty recommends using the blower on each show rabbit daily.)

Betty: I don’t think there are many secrets, above the blower, on grooming. It is a non-decision making process. When you get up in the morning, you are going to brush your teeth; you are going to comb your hair. You don’t decide whether you are going to do that or not. So every day, you set aside 10 minutes or 20 minutes depending on how many rabbits you have. At 6 O’clock you go out, groom your rabbits, and come back in. It’s a no-brainer, no-decision. You just do it.

SASHA: What is your favorite brushing tool to use? What do you use when you’re grooming behind the ears?

Betty: I would use a comb because if you don’t use a comb, everything stays wrapped at the base. I would use a wide toothed comb with long teeth. I would use something called a poodle comb. You can buy it for 5 or 6 dollars. I would use it all the way down to their cheeks. For the brush I use DoggieMan, which is made in Japan, everyone uses that.

Sasha: Do you trim their claws?

Betty: If they’re long, I use regular toenail clippers, whatever works.

 

NON-MOLTING COATS

When I started in 1982 there was no concept of non-molting rabbits. No one had ever heard of it. I had never heard of it. In 1984 I had one rabbit in my litter, her name was Christina. I couldn’t pluck her coat. Everyone plucked at that time. It was actually painful for me and for her. It would take hours and hours and days and days to get her coat all out. And one day it dawned on me, “This may not be a bad thing.” And instead of plucking I tried to cut it, and it worked. Today, cutting is the normal thing to do, but in 1980 it was not the normal thing to do. I realized this was a good thing. So I started concentrating on breeding her. And then more and more of the babies had the same characteristic.

One more advantage of the non-molting coats is that I can harvest wool on my schedule instead of the rabbits’ schedule. I have housed other breeders’ rabbits off and on to help. Case in point was helping Charlene Duncan when she was presenting broken Satin Angora. I received one doe to keep and groom, and she gave me instructions that if the rabbit started molting, I needed to pluck it right away, or it would die of wool-block. It scared the daylight out of me, I was on my toes during the three months that I had the Satin Angora doe. With my EA I could procrastinate as long as I want, the worst would be that the wool might not be as good for spinning but there would not be any health issues.

 

NEW BREEDER MISTAKES

Sasha: What are some common mistakes that new breeders make in your experience?

Betty: I would say number one, when they are buying, they are too concerned about the color and the gender of the rabbit. When I started, someone would say I want a 5 month old fawn doe. I remember thinking, “oh my.”

Someone would say, “I want a 4 month old chin buck and I want to be sure you can ship it, and I want it to win next week.” Of course, I said no. And then not toO long later, I talked to my friends and every single one of them had gotten this phone call. So your reputation will go around, that there’s a crazy person doing that.

Number two, you need to research more on the breeder’s reputation. I am sure that some of you have made the mistake of buying from someone who turns out to be very, very disreputable. And, there are nice web sites out there. But a nice web site doesn’t necessarily mean a reputable person. Try to look at whether a person is breeding a lot for improvement, or for sale.

I would say there are three different kinds of breeders. One kind breeds very little. One kind breeds a lot and sells a lot. And one kind breeds a lot and eats a lot. I don’t kill my rabbits, but I would rather give more respect to the ones who breed a lot and eat a lot. The reason is that the person assumes responsibility for what they create. If there is a mistake, they take care of it. But if a person just breeds a lot without concern about quality, then that means that if there are any mistakes being made about quality, it has to be pushed onto someone else. I really have a problem with that. So you need to research what kind of breeder a person is.

And another thing is, don’t just look at the price. Sometimes it looks like such a good deal, but you should look to see if the good deal is because the person just has way too many bunnies to sell, or if the person is in a kind of personal issue or health issue, that they have to let some of their good rabbits go.

These are some of the things that I would give to new people: talk to other breeders. Talk to other owners. They are usually going to tell you more about what their feelings are.

Sasha: Do you screen the people you are selling your rabbits to? How would you judge somebody if you’re new to selling rabbits to make sure they go to good homes?

Betty: Oh I screen a lot. I’ve probably turned down 95% of people. I don’t even take any waiting lists or anything because I just basically said well I breed very little, for myself only. The reason is because the English Angora is such a high maintenance animal. It’s not really for everyone. But right now, I’ve just started a couple of French Angora. I think my feelings might be different because French Angoras need a lot less maintenance than English.

I would say trust your gut feeling. I wouldn’t say I am always right, but I am 80% right. Sometimes I make a mistake on that 20% and I hate myself for selling it. I ask a lot of questions. How are you going to house it? What are you going to have the rabbit for? Ask what they do because sometimes if they are a really, really busy person, the English Angora is not for them. And I would recommend for them to start with a lower maintenance breed.

I will also say for the sellers, if you do have a problem rabbit, if you can’t eat it, like me, then you have to take responsibility and you have to keep that rabbit until the end of that rabbit’s life because there is that rabbit out there and people could not kill it, but they perpetuate this problem and it is out there. You have to take responsibility for these issues. If you do place a bunny with issues, you need to have something written down showing that you understand that there are issues.

 

RABBITRY SECURITY

Sasha: How about security for your rabbitry? Do you invite people to your rabbitry? Or do you meet people elsewhere when you are buying and selling?

Betty: In the old days, when I did sell more, people would come to my place. Right now, I sell very, very few rabbits and if they come, they can come. But I just sell very little. I usually do not even sell rabbits at a show. Usually, a person that is going to buy rabbits from me has been corresponding with me for a long, long time before we finally find a way to see each other. I don’t really worry about security that much because I live on an acre of land; I am zoned for animals; we live in a pretty nice neighborhood. I have lived here for 30 something years, actually, before I had rabbits. And knock on wood, we haven’t had any problems.

 

TRAVELING WITH RABBITS

Sasha: Do you have any traveling tips? How do you make sure your rabbits are happy when you go on a plane, or if you just have a very long drive like for Convention or something like that?

Betty: Well, my rabbits travel a lot all the time. Every year they go to Convention. They go into a regular carrier and the regular carrier goes into a dog kennel. They are checked as baggage. I pay $200 one way and then they go to Convention. I usually use Delta. Other airlines, well, I’m not familiar with them and there are not many airlines that will accept rabbits. Delta accepts rabbits. A lot of other airlines require health certificates. Well, if you have 15 rabbits, you have 15 health certificates. That will cost you about $1,000 dollars in my area. Delta does not require health certificates for checked baggage. So a $400 round trip is not too bad.

My rabbits travel very well. They are very easy going. I had one doe that had flown into three places in just one year. She flew to one Convention. Then she flew to New York City for a TV appearance. Then she flew to the next Convention. Within one year, she had flown three round trips and she’s fine.

 

RABBIT SHOW JUDGES

Sasha: You’re Betty Chu! I bet a lot of judges are excited to judge your rabbits.

Betty: Put it this way, not necessarily because I’m Betty Chu, the English Angora breeder. I am one of a very few Asians on the show circuit. So people know that if there is an Asian coming, it must be Betty Chu. I know the gal from Hawaii, Sandra, who writes the recipes for the Domestic Rabbit. She was telling me that as she was walking around people would be saying, “Hey! That’s Betty Chu!” She says, “No, no, no, I’m not Betty Chu!”

I was joking and told her, next time people ask her if she’s Betty Chu, to tell them, “I’m the one who eats rabbit; Betty is the one who doesn’t eat rabbit!”

[Betty Chu’s website is BettyChuEnglishAngora.angorarabbit.com/ – You can follow her blog at http://ncag.blogspot.com/]

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