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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 2, 2010
With Flemish rabbits
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
KNOX Janice Van Etten is first in the nation for showing Flemish rabbits. She has amassed 6,702 points in 19 shows over the last year, but it’s about more than numbers for Van Etten. At age 76, it’s part of her identity.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian because I love animals,” she said. “I couldn’t be one. The next thing was to marry a farmer. Then we had animals, but they weren’t mine. I was somebody’s wife or mother, not me.
“These are Jan’s rabbits; they’re mine.”
Although Van Etten has about 75 rabbits on her Knox farm and raises Dutch, lops, and lionhead rabbits among others, she is partial to Flemish rabbits.
“I call them the ‘wow’ rabbit,” she says. “Everybody that seems them says, ‘Wow.’
“Flemish rabbits are the biggest kind there is….I’ve developed a way to carry them,” says Van Etten, as she hefts one of her 20-pound prizewinners from its cage.
She grips its seven-inch ears firmly in her left hand and places her right arm under its belly, so its powerful legs can’t scratch her.
“When my granddaughter was 8 or 9, she would ride a horse many times her size; she could manage him because she had control of his head,” says Van Etten.
Size doesn’t faze Van Etten. “I raised a 6 foot, 3 inch farm boy who was a gentle giant,” she said. “Bullies are cowards.”
She and her husband, George, raised five children, now grown Jeff, the “gentle giant,” who lives in Virginia and consults on space work; Judy, a nurse in Connecticut; Sue, who stayed in Knox and runs a ponies-for-hire business; Nancy, who has done missionary work abroad and now lives in Denver; and Andy, an inch shorter than his older brother, who lives in Virginia and works with computers.
Her husband died a year ago, and Van Etten talks about him frequently and with fondness.
Van Etten’s life story involves her quest for independent success through raising rabbits. She grew up in suburban New Jersey, graduating from high school in Voorheesville after her family moved there. “I went to Cornell to be a veterinarian but I didn’t have the grades, so I said, ‘I’ll marry a farmer,’” she recalled.
She was paired as a lab partner in a “Feed and Feeding” class with George Van Etten. “He was handsome with pretty good muscles,” said Van Etten. “He wanted to be a chicken farmer.”
After two years at Cornell, Mr. Van Etten joined the Army and served a two-year hitch. He got out in December and the couple married in April.
The Van Ettens purchased their farm in Knox in 1959. Although her husband had initially wanted to be a chicken farmer, feed was too expensive, Mrs. Van Etten said, so they raised beef cattle instead. The cattle could eat for free in the summer and, in the winter, they ate hay the Van Ettens bailed.
“George told me, ‘Women can’t drive tractors,’ so I was on the wagon, dragging the hay from front to back and stacking it….Then I saw Pauline Gaige driving a tractor. I told George, ‘Get in the car.’”
Mrs. Van Etten took Mr. Van Etten to see a woman driving a tractor. “I said, ‘I’m going to ask her husband, who is also George, if he’s lost his penis the most important thing to a man,’” recalled Van Etten. She told her husband, “George, you have to use your muscles to the best advantage.”
After that, Jan Van Etten drove the tractor while her husband hauled and stacked the bales.
Her next task, after the Van Ettens’ children had grown some, was to convince her husband that she could use her education to go to work. “I wanted to work at the school to get enough money to feed rabbits,” Mrs. Van Etten recalled.
So, when her husband came home from work one day, expecting, as usual, to find a hearty dinner cooking on the stove, he instead found his wife seated at the head of the kitchen table with the remains of a dead mole spread out on the table, preparing to stuff it for mounting.
“There was no smell of dinner when he got home and he said, ‘What are you doing?’” I said, ‘Today, I got to use my college education.’ He was a hard-headed Dutchman,” she said with a laugh.
So, after that, Mrs. Van Etten worked a least one day a week for $45 as a substitute teacher at Berne-Knox while still tending to her children and farm duties.
“I taught whatever they needed,’ said Van Etten. She had no trouble controlling the students. “I was there enough, I got to know the families,” she said.
One day, a boy brought in a nicely wrapped birthday gift for a girl in Van Etten’s class. “The girl opened it up and out came a snake,” she recalled. “The class was in disarray. I said, ‘What brave young boy knows how to pick up a snake?’ There were lots of volunteers. We put it outside.”
Breeding and raising rabbits
Van Etten’s common sense and direct approach prevails, too, in her raising of rabbits.
To make breeding successful, the doe has to be in heat. “You examine the rabbit. If her back end is swollen, and you part the lips and they’re purple inside, she’s in heat,” Van Etten says, explaining that a lot of people with rabbits don’t know this. “If she’s not in heat, you can’t breed. It’s a miss. You goofed.”
The gestation period is 31 days, sometimes 32 for a Flemish rabbit if she has a big litter, said Van Etten.
“You want no more than eight,” she said of the litter. “If there’s more than eight, I kill the smallest ones. They’ll always be a couple of runts. They don’t need to take the milk. The others will be stronger and bigger,” she said. “They’re not your children. It’s survival of the fittest. It’s God’s way of keeping the best around…
“If they’re not good for show, they’re just good for soup,” she said. That, she went on, is a last resort. “By the time I get rid of them, they’re really tough; they’re crock-pot material.”
She doesn’t eat rabbits herself.
Mostly, Van Etteen sells rabbits for $20 as babies that are used for breeding or pets.
“I figure, if something is worth something, they’ll take care of it, and that’s what I want them to do,” she said.
Cards are clipped to the wire on the front of the hutches that Van Etten has built.
Last week, one mother rabbit with three babies had a card on her cage, noting that two of them were already spoken for.
Van Etten feeds her rabbits a diet made up of 16 percent protein. “If they get too much protein, the babies die,” she said.
When Van Etten sells rabbits, she hands out typewritten instructions that stress two fatal problems diarrhea and pneumonia, and goes over both the causes an the cures. She advises giving Kaopectate if a rabbit has been overfed and has diarrhea, and she advises shots of penicillin for rabbits that have been in a draft and catch pneumonia.
Another common problem is coccidiosis; coccidia are microscopic parasites that infect the intestine. “Birds have it,” says Van Etten, describing the source of the disease. “They fly over fields, crap in mid-air, and the farmer bales it.” The disease causes leaks of blood into the intestine, she said, making the rabbit’s feces dark. She treats the rabbit’s water for eight to 10 days with di-methox and can tell when a rabbit is better because its feces lightens and the rabbit “jumps around the cage because he feels good,” she said.
Coccidiosis is something few rabbit owners are aware of, she said. “The older does will die just before having babies or when they’re nursing, from the stress. That’s the one and only symptom death. People are so used to seeing the dark feces, they don’t know it’s a symptom, a sign of blood.”
Another thing a lot of rabbit owners don’t know, she said, is that a doe shouldn’t be bred just after giving birth. “She’s as good as dead,” said Van Etten. She went on to say that, not only will the mother die, but her offspring will, too. “It’s not possible to raise a bunny without a mother. There’s no substitute for the mother’s milk. It’s very rich.”
Van Etten told the story of a lionhead doe so named because it has a fluffy collar of fur like a mane that came into heat the day after she delivered and was kept with a buck. “She fought him off as long as she could,” said Van Etten. The owner of the lionhead called Van Etten and said, “We’re bringing the whole mess to you.”
The mother had pneumonia, which Van Etten diagnosed by listening to the rattling, watery sound in her lungs. Van Etten treated her with penicillin, noting, “In the wild, there’s no one to give her a shot of penicillin.” The doe lived and raised her babies.
Van Etten has faced a number of challenges in raising her rabbits. Rabbits die in the heat, and, if the temperature is higher than 90 degrees for three days running, bucks can become sterile, she said. For this reason, she cools the rabbits in her barn with a fan and has her outdoor hutches in the shade.
But she needs to be careful about too much breeze because rabbits can easily catch pneumonia. “I know when they’ve got pneumonia by the rattle when they breathe,” she said. She then administers antibiotics and also gives the rabbits crushed up yogurt pills to set their digestive tract aright, so they don’t die of diarrhea.
“It’s taken me 30 years to learn this,” she said. “Most people don’t know what they’re doing.”
She thumbs through pages that list diseases to which rabbits are prone ranging from pasteurellosis, which involves a nasal discharge, to wry neck.
“That’s a nervous problem, where the rabbit can’t walk,” explained Van Etten. “I inject antibiotics.”
She has a rabbit that she saved from death that way, but half of his ear died. “It was hard as a board and, when he shook his head, half of his ear came off,” she said.
The Flemish rabbit, a white senior buck, looked content in his cage this week, not bothered by his missing ear. Van Etten uses him for breeding.
She has had to contend with a local dog killing her rabbits and, in February, two rabbits were stolen from her best litter. “I had just weaned them and hadn’t tattooed them,” said Van Etten. Each of her rabbits has a number tattooed on its ear.
Because of the theft, Van Etten has installed floodlights and a motion detector near her hutches in Knox, and she now tattoos her rabbits while they’re still with their mother. The two stolen rabbits were in a litter of five, which included a Best of Show buck.
The stolen rabbits probably would have sold for $100 to $150, she said, but Van Etten wasn’t planning on selling them; their worth for her was in breeding them.
Van Etten’s farmhouse is lined with trophies she’s won over the years. “I’m recycling them, giving them to kids at the Altamont Fair,” she said.
She displayed a card used by the judges at the fair to determine the winners, which has a grid so they can check off “very good,” “good,” “fair,” and “poor.” The 26 categories include obvious parts like head, ears, crown, shoulders, and hindquarters as well as sheen, density, texture, and color of the fur, and such specific markings for certain breeds as butterfly, eye circles, and cheek spots.
“I teach the kids how to show rabbits,” said Van Etten. “I tell my granddaughter, ‘If what you have to say is important, you better speak up.’”
That granddaughter, 10-year-old Stephanie Mason, one of Van Etten’s 13 grandchildren, was named Grand Champion in showmanship at the fair this August.
Mason showed her lionshead rabbit named Ricochet. “He’s named that because he darts all over,” said Van Etten.”
When judging a Flemish rabbit, the judge looks to see, when it sits flat, that its hind end is almost as high as its head.
“There should not be a dip,” said Van Etten, “although we all sag when we get older.”
In the 19 shows where Van Etten’s rabbits competed, between July 1, 2009 and June 20, 2010, she earned 6,702 points. Last year, she was in second place. This year, she is 362 points ahead of the second-place winners, who come from Texas. Third place is held by a competitor from Missouri. Other entrants are from across the United States and Canada.
The National Federation of Flemish Giant Rabbit Breeders, Inc., which tracks the points, is one of the oldest rabbit clubs, founded in Denver in 1915.
In seven shows this past year, Van Etten won Best of Breed; in nine, she won Best Opposite Sex of Breed (meaning a doe if the buck is first, or a buck if the doe is first), and in 12 shows she garnered the most points to win Best Display.
Van Etten has, in the past, traveled as far as Columbus, Ohio to compete in shows. “But I can’t stay awake for 10 hours,” she said of the drive, so she sticks now to shows in New York State where she doesn’t have to stay overnight, to avoid the expense of a motel.
Van Etten enjoys the shows and the other competitors.
“That’s what I like about the Flemish,” she said. “We’re not cutthroat. We’re not nasty if someone wins.”
In fact, in a recent association booklet, Van Etten wrote a tribute to the late Mabe Tobias, a long-time competitor.
As Van Etten walked along the line of her rabbit hutches this week, she checked each for feed, and commented that she allows the spiders to spin their webs because they keep away the bees.
She doesn’t name her rabbits, but knows them each by their numbers, which are tattooed on their ears and used when they are in shows. “This is 316; this is 872; this is 501,” she says. “The name doesn’t mean anything to the judge. The number does. Why muddle up my mind with useless information?”
She counts the tiny babies in one of the hutches, barely visible in the nest of fur fluff that the mother rabbit has constructed.
From another hutch, Van Etten gently but firmly pulls out a Giant Flemish, gripping it by the ears and under the belly. She sits with the rabbit in her lap for a while, while a visitor takes pictures.
When the rabbit nips her, she calmly gets up and puts it back in its cage. Van Etten doesn’t fault the rabbit. When visitors at a rabbit show or fair poke at a rabbit enough, it will bite, she says.
“They think, because a rabbit bites, it’s rabid,” she says with a shake of her head. “How else can the rabbit tell you he wants to go back in his cage?
“I understand what the rabbit is saying,” states Van Etten, as she places the Giant Flemish back in its hutch and shuts the door. “Enough is enough.”