Linda Cassella on Breeding for Herd Improvement, and Angora Rabbit Care
This article is compiled from a transcript of a webinar featuring Linda Cassella, which was sponsored by the Southern Angora Rabbit Club and moderated by Kelly Flading, on December 1, 2012, and was first published in the National Angora Rabbit Breeders Club’s Spring 2013 Angora News. A recording of the complete webinar is available for viewing by members of the Southern Angora Rabbit Club. Reprinted here with permission.
My first rabbit was a freebie she was thrown into my arms literally and was a white doe and had a pedigree, and it was literally thrust at me, and I said, “I don’t want a rabbit,” I said that, “I don’t want a rabbit,” three times. And we named her Sophie, and she has been the basis of every white rabbit I’ve ever won anything at convention with. And she was free.
As selection, once you get a buck and two does, you select the traits that you like from those litters, and over the years you will refine your animals to better and better animals. If you are honest with yourself you’ll recognize their faults; don’t overlook something just because it is cute. You have to use your special knowledge that you acquire, to say that, “This one, while it is a pleasant pet, and is my favorite rabbit, it may not be a breeding rabbit.” As you go down to future generations, you will have more quality if you adhere to strict guidelines that you set up for yourself.
How has the English Angora breed improved? The coats stay on the rabbits. Now the English are like the Giant Angoras in that they don’t molt anymore. Obviously there are some lines of English that molt because nobody has worked on them, or required them not to. Most of the east coast rabbits and the very far west coast rabbits do not molt. You can show that first coat until it is 14 or 15 months old, and then I never show the rabbit again; once it finishes its show career, it never leaves the garage again.
One of the things I advocate is, having a mission statement before you buy the first rabbit. Now sometimes that doesn’t work out. At some point in your early breeding experiences, actually writing down a mission statement; where it is you want to go with your rabbits, whether you just want to be producing wool, a few pets, or whether you want to have a show experience. And in that show experience, how far do you think you can get? A mission statement should always be a little out of reach, because you want to strive for things. Statements ought to be amendable because as you learn things about the rabbits, the bloodlines, and breeding, and grooming, then you may have to amend your mission statement to a little higher level.
Always keep in mind where the weaknesses are in the breed, and in your area of the country compared to other areas of the country. In working with what is available then you may have to take an ideal that isn’t available to you readily, and just work at fixing it. And you can fix it, you can fix it within the breed; you don’t need to inject other breeds into English Angoras to fix them, because there are too many good ones, frankly.
The “Unforgivable Fault”
I have a system I use which is, I call it The Unforgiveable Fault. Every rabbit has one. Over the years, the Unforgiveable Faults have gotten to be smaller. Every rabbit has a cage card with its name, its parents, and its Unforgiveable Fault. Back in the old days, we used to get rabbits with feet like this, one straight, one crooked. I would have that written on the back of the cage card, so that rabbit’s progeny that are selected for breeding will never have that same fault. That rabbit may have other faults, it may have two other faults, but that Unforgiveable Fault — you cannot assign too many Unforgiveable Faults or you’ll never keep anything. So take the structural fault that is biggest in your mind, and never accept anything out of that animal (this is principally for does) — never accept anything into your breeding program that exhibits her Unforgiveable Fault. The only exception to that rule may be if she, for some unknown reason, dies and left you only one daughter, and you found that her line was so worthy that you would then assign that Unforgiveable Fault to that rabbit and go forward from her.
The Unforgiveable Fault is so important, that it may become that, after 12 years, some of the Unforgiveable Faults are tiny little things. For example, I don’t like narrow noses. Sometimes you’ll see those English have big broad noses – nice! Or you’ve got one with a nose a little bit narrower, and that might be the Unforgiveable Fault in that particular rabbit. It will never be anything related to wool, because they can’t be there if they have an unforgiveable wool fault.
The value of line breeding.
We make mistakes as breeders; we make them when we’ve been breeding for ten years, but we certainly make a lot more mistakes early on because we don’t have a clear picture. The pedigree handed with the rabbit doesn’t mean anything to us.
You can look at the bloodlines until you turn blue in the face, and unless you’ve seen that rabbit or those grandparent rabbits, the piece of paper will not help you a whole lot. You need to breed rabbits and not pieces of paper. But in order to have a small program you want to have some related animals, so that your animals may be half-blood related to each other, and you really don’t want something that’s a complete outcross, because most of the time you’ll find they are not that compatible to the outcross.
My thoughts have always been that half-blood related animals (line bred animals), produce the best results. If you have one buck (who must be an exceptional animal), and two does who are partially related to him, like 25% or 50% related to him directly, then you’re likely to have good results with small amounts of rabbits.
Your first rabbits might not be that good, like my Sophie. Sophie had a litter; I kept one bunny out of that litter, then that bunny had a daughter that was vastly better than both other animals. When Sophie was surpassed by her granddaughter, Sophie stayed here for the whole of her life as a pet and was never bred again. So, you don’t go back to that generation once you’ve improved on something. You don’t want to use those first animals (you don’t want to get rid of them necessarily; I’m not saying that, because I have had — practically pensioners, staying downstairs forever). Once Sophie was outclassed as a breeding animal, even though she was a granded animal, that was just a piece of paper. So, once she was outclassed in body type and wool type, she was no longer used; but she lived here, she was on top of the stack. She was relegated to watching over everybody else.
What is the minimum number of animals to keep in a herd that will keep you moving ahead in both color and white? Having won one of the biggest rabbit shows ever held in the world twice and having a total of 15 English Angoras this time, and 17 the last time, I can tell you, you don’t need massive quantities to get where you want. You do need to keep younger animals coming up underneath all the time, because rabbits get old. Their breeding life is from 1 year to about 4 years, and if you breed them once a year or twice a year, they quickly get old on you. I keep 50 cages but I only keep half of those occupied. I’ve had as many as 25 permanent residents and then with growing season for the convention, you might grow 12 or 15 so your numbers bloom up a little, and then as some of those animals are rehomed and sold at convention, you are back down again when you come home and you start breeding again.
I really think a good number for English Angoras is 20, and if you have a full time job, or two full time jobs, or a full time job and three children, it might be closer to ten. It just depends on what your other vocations are in addition to your rabbitry.
When you first start you should have way less, and then you bloom up a little as you begin to select those better quality animals, and your knowledge base increases so much that you will be able to then shrink that herd back down. Refine your herd and you can shrink back down as your quality grows.
You just have to keep them a long time. Keep them until they eliminate themselves. If you’ve got several does in there, you’re just going to have to knuckle down and bear with it. Toenails, bad teeth, crooked back legs, those things are a gimme, and you’re not going to keep those. You’re also not going to keep shedders. That’s something you’ll learn as you go along and they meet the criteria written in the Standard of Perfection.
I have 50 cages. I have 15 animals. I only breed for convention. I don’t have rabbits bred for any other time of the year except if we have a national out here. All my animals are coming and being born at the same time. You then have to select breeding stock and your show stock. You can’t select it too early because you don’t know who is going to fail on you. And mostly bucks; bucks will be younger ages, (say four months), and won’t leave here until they’re mature to go to convention.
They can be 6- 9 months old before I consider letting them go, especially if they’re female. If I don’t need a buck, they’re going to go at 14-16 weeks. I want to make sure they’re good enough bucks for somebody else. I’m not going to sell them at 6-12 weeks. You want to be sure you keep bucks long enough to see that they have the type of wool that you really want to pass on to another generation.
You’re always raising a whole rabbit. It is called an “Angora Rabbit,” not a “body rabbit.” But I firmly believe that if you put a wonderful, tight little body under that wool; if you take something flat and put a wig on it, it is going to look flat. You put a nice body under it, and that wool will stand up. You are feeding the whole rabbit and you are striving for the best bunny that you can make.
The Standard, even though it gives more points to wool (because it is a wool rabbit), the Standard does emphasize, in the first sentences, that it should appear to be a “round ball of fluff.” The syntax of that statement isn’t really clear, but the “round ball” IS the body, and the “fluff” is the wool. So, it appears to be a round ball — with fluff. So, you have to do the whole rabbit.
In the Standard the way it is written, there is no preference given to wool length, but remember that density is measured at the skin level and not at the tips of the coat; that’s where you’re going to find your evenness. A well balanced coat will be dense not only at the core of it, but also at the tips, which can’t possibly be the same density, but it will be an even coat.
I think most judges respect a well-kept coat and as a person prejudiced for the extreme coat, I don’t think they’re any more trouble than short coats. You keep those elbows cleaned out, you keep all that stuff cleaned out, and a real rabbit will still have lots of wool. Some of the judges are critical, but not so much anymore as they were in the earlier days. It is called, “show rabbit,” we’re there for a rabbit show. It may not be a practical coat for spinning; it may be that one extreme coat on a rabbit you show with. It may not be a practical coat, but it’s pretty! It shows the wool in general, and it shows the quality of the care that you are giving that animal.
I absolutely do not breed a rabbit until it has grown a second coat. Although I might give this doe this year a little pass on that. The second coat will never come to a 10 inch coat, it is just required to grow out a coat that is maybe 4-5 inches long, and it doesn’t do any nasty little balling up at the elbows and get cottony and wire-like. Sometimes you’ll have a nice first coat and then especially on a buck and then it will come back a nightmare that you can’t sustain for the whole animal’s life. You have to be able to take care of these things and cut their coats off three times a year for the rest of their lives.
You want a coat that is an easy coat. I don’t groom those retired rabbits ever. They just grow a coat out and when I’m ready to take it off, I’ll blow at it, but in between cutting off, I don’t groom them at all, unless somebody gets a messy fanny or something. As far as maintenance, like maintaining a show coat, they’ll grow back a trouble free coat, I’ve had several bucks go through their first big coat nicely, and then the second coat and the third coat (I will even give them three chances) is a nightmare, and so they could not ever join the herd.
You haven’t got the time it takes to keep a healthy animal that has a bad coat. We all have busy lives, mine not so much as yours, you younger people who are raising children, my child is 30, and the only job I’ve got is sitting in my garage six hours a day.
You want to have that beautiful coat come back this long, not that long. You don’t have time for that; nobody has enough time for that. By then, the rabbit would be five years old and you wouldn’t want to breed him anyway. Although most of my rabbits don’t get bred until they’re at least two.
Go slowly, and buy the best stock you can buy. It doesn’t mean it is the most expensive stock in the world; I’m just saying do a lot of research, and read the standard. Visualize in your mind and then paint a picture in your mind of what you want to present to a judge, because ultimately you are the artist who will place that rabbit on the table. It is an art; it is a beautiful thing to have a wonderfully prepared English Angora. Just go slow, and learn as much as you can. With rabbits, I think you look at 10 rabbits and buy maybe one of those.
Don’t do any impulse buying. I have three English Lops. One is from a predominant breeder here in New York whose Lops I like. I then bought a half-brother from California that is half his breeding and half west coast breeding. And I bought one from Georgia that is half his breeding, to complete my little trio that I’ve been plotting for two years.
When you get further into your own breeding program, then you can remember the grandmother and the grandfather and the great grandfather and great grandmother and it’s not just hearsay on a piece of paper that you have to believe. Just go slow, produce very little, breed thoughtfully and breed only when you can handle it, and if you ‘re a show person breed so that your animals mature in the show season you want to show. Don’t breed out of season; count backwards to target national, or convention, or a big show near you. Target that show, and count backwards to see where you should be breeding those animals so that you have the best chance of having a prime animal for it. Instead of saying, “Oh well, she’s just barely a senior.” There are people coming there with full-fledged seniors. That’s one thing that cuts down on your numbers, if you aim for certain breedings for certain shows or show seasons, then you find yourself able to show the kind of animals you want to show, and also develop those coats all the way out.
I wanted to say one thing about the cage cards and assigning faults that is really important for beginning and advanced breeders, and that is to write that fault on the back of cage cards, and it’ll keep you honest. You need to not be kennel blind when you’re looking at your rabbits. By the time I go to convention with my rabbits, I hate all of them because I haven’t seen anybody else. You look at them day after day, and you see every little hair out of place. I become kennel blind in extreme and I am just despondent going to convention, because I’m thinking everyone has something way better, prettier, longer coated, denser. After I get to convention, I look around and see all these glorious rabbits and I think, “Well they fit right in here.”
Keep your mission statement as your Picasso picture in your mind, and don’t lie to yourself and say, “I’ll fix it next time.” Don’t minimize it and say, “Well the judge never said anything about it.” Don’t breed for judges’ opinions, and don’t get rid of a rabbit because of a judges’ opinion. Make up your own mind and keep perspective; you are the expert and they are your rabbits. You care for them and you plan their existence, so you don’t want any judge in particular to influence what you keep and what you don’t keep.
People should absolutely be discouraged from buying or participating in exotic color breeding — they are not programs — there are people who just breed exotic colors just to say they do. They don’t show, they don’t win when they do show, and there’s no point in going to a show unless you really anticipate doing well. I’m not a big advocate of going to the show just to have fun. I do like to have fun, but that’s not why I drive to that show with that rabbit I’ve taken care of. Keep it simple; there are some very good lines of agoutis, there are some very good lines of pointed white. I’ve never really seen too many opals; there are some good ones. The proof is, when you look back through conventions, from when I’m aware of conventions which would be back to about 2002 — I think if you look at the winning rabbits, say the top three placings in every single class, you would find a dominance of black, white, and tort and some fawn and agouti. And there are definitely some nice agoutis up in Canada, and I have no objection to people using recognized colors, but please just shy away from these breeders of unrecognized colors, because they’re just having babies, and they are not trying to improve the breed. All they want to do is have something they can sell. Absolutely shy away from anything like that. The most responsible people I know in rabbits place their rabbits out of harm’s way and don’t sell Easter pets.
I’m hoping that most of us don’t buy herds, we build them, and I’m hoping that we do a lot of research. Right now after studying English Lops for two years, I have now got three, and I am actually going to have a litter of English Lops in two weeks maybe, God willing. But, we don’t buy herds, we build a herd by selecting a few animals, and making sure that you can take care of those animals. You could be in love with an English Angora and six months later you can think to yourself, “What was I thinking? I don’t have the time for this.” Satin Angoras and French Angoras, and very good ones that require just a little less grooming time, might be more suitable for some people. But try to develop a herd and not buy one.
How long do you keep a show coat on a rabbit? Well if you ask the rabbit downstairs she’ll say too long. I cut down the other convention rabbits but I haven’t been able to cut down the winner yet. I just blow her out and look at her and say, “Cute.” I just want to look at her. Most of the time, I’m showing rabbits until they are 14 months old, and they will tell you when it is time. I keep show coats on as long as I’m showing them. Let your rabbit tell you when to cut it down. The coat will tell it you it is done.
Who do you think are some of the top breeders who might be somewhat obscure? Top breeders I know are hardly obscure. On the west coast, there is Betty Chu, a respected and wonderful breeder who has contributed much to this hobby. Up in the Midwest you have Deb Butorac, a long time respected contributor, and Lynn Wilson. There is Dru Shepherd in New Jersey. There are a lot of obscure breeders that I don’t know because even though they’re very good, I don’t see them. Showing rabbits is rather regional. Donna McGraw has a really nice program. We have a recent youth, Ashley Shaw who is now an adult and will certainly make an impact. –Marr up in Canada is doing some nice work, and so is Margaret Bartold in Missouri. There are pockets of excellence all over the country. And there are breeders who are very excellent that I don’t know because I’m here in New York, and I hardly show any more. I know there’s a girl in California, Kasey Jones in California, doing some work with rufus red. She used some Thrianta to try to bring back the rufus red to English Angora, and how beautiful that dark rufus fawn is. People all over the country have advanced the English Angora in many ways in the last 10 or 12 years. Brenda Hunneshagen here in New York is a longtime respected breeder who does a lot of work with Brokens, but has also had the best chocolate doe that ever walked the face of this earth. I saw her when she was about four years old and she was magnificent, and her name was Fontine.
I like to think that at convention, I take a production sale, most of you know that. Those animals that get to convention and sit in a convention cage, those are not “the rest.” Those are just more rabbits than I can use at home. We’re not taking substandard animals and filling cages at convention with sale animals. We’re not breeding for quantity, we’re breeding for quality, and yes, you do want to pass some of your good animals on to other breeding programs, because it is senseless to breed simply for yourself and not fair. There are 100 people in the country who raise really good angoras and can contribute to other breeding programs, and they do.
When we raise rabbits for ourselves and you grow a baby bunny, as hard as it is to rehome sometimes, animals you’ve grown quite fond of, and they are 6 or 8 months old — it does get more difficult to approve of somebody to take over their care. I always say, “No sale is ever final,” because anybody at any time can return to me, one of my rabbits, and it will have a home here. It should never, ever end up in bad circumstance. Or they can call me and we can discuss options on that. But no sale or non-sale is ever final and no person is ever forgotten. I select you, you do not select me. I pick the people that I want to have my rabbits.
Linda Cassella’s tortoiseshell English Angora doe, Silvertone Glorious (in show coat on right, and after shearing on left), who won Best In Show of the 2012 American Rabbit Breeders convention. That was the second time Linda received that award; she is the only Angora rabbit breeder to have won it twice. Other English Angora breeders who have won BIS at the annual ARBA convention are Betty Chu, Colin Burns, and Marcus Rhoden. Margaret Bartold won a Best of Group at the 2006 convention with an English Angora co-bred with Linda Cassella.