Hopping hotots: Bunny breeder is best in show
Through decades and generations of hotot breeding, her collection of rabbits now number somewhere in the 90s, but she no longer keeps an exact count. Her rabbit barn stays warm and cozy on even the coldest winter days, stacked-up with cages that house does (female rabbits) with their fuzzy litters all the way up to senior rabbits—who live on average about nine years.
Percy says she first got into rabbits more than 25 years ago when her children were involved in Fond du Lac County 4-H. The first year of showing at the county fair, her daughter Lora entered her mini-lop in the doe class, hopeful for a blue ribbon.
“The judge looked at her with a kind face and said: ‘Sorry honey, but this is a buck.’ Tears came and she was devastated but after that we learned what we were doing,” Percy said.
The beauty of purebred rabbits, their gentle nature and ease of care piqued Percy’s interest. She was thrilled each time her children’s rabbits won a prize—maybe even more so than they were, she said. When the youngest daughter in the family wanted a new breed of her own to show, they chose a hotot, and the exotic, dwarf breed won Percy over.
“The goal in breeding is to keep the best one out of a litter, to always improve the quality. I started to study genetics and it was fun to learn about the science behind striving to reach the ideal (hotot) standard,” Percy said.
Patty Percy has been raising rabbits for 30 years and shows them around the country. Doug Raflik/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
She must have figured out the formula. One of Percy’s rabbits is pictured on the cover of the 2015 book on hotot breed standards as an example of a superior specimen. Judges look for a compact body — which is often compared to the shape of a loaf of bread — short ears, and a well filled-out head. The breed is already mature at less than three pounds.
Contrary to long-held beliefs, rabbits do not “breed like rabbits,” Percy said. Only during certain seasons, like this time of year, are does having litters. Babies stay with their mothers until they are weaned, and her “juniors” are brought out to show when they are between three and five months old.
A top hotot can sell for as high as $450, Percy said, who has sold show rabbits to breeders throughout the U.S. as well as to enthusiasts as far away as Japan, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia.
For years Rose Petrie of Fond du Lac has partnered with Percy in running the county’s 4-H rabbit project for youth. She keeps a few Netherland dwarfs of her own for the grandchildren to enjoy and organizes the rabbit barn each year at the fair.
About 175 rabbits are entered in the summer's 4-H competition, and that includes entries from adults who show rabbits in an open class.
“They are just so cuddly and soft, and it’s an animal easily managed by young children,” Petrie said. “They can raise them from babies on, and it gives kids a sense of responsibility.”
While she names the rabbits she shows, Percy grew up on a farm and is a farmer at heart. The rabbits are still considered livestock, like many of the animals shown at the county fair. She sells rabbits as pets, and some are also sold as a meat product.
“It is depressing to let some go, but you have to be a farmer about it and not get so attached,” she said.
Her husband David Percy, does not share her enthusiasm for showing, she said.
“He used to give me the beans about my hobby and having so many, but since I started doing so well and selling breeding stock, he’s settled down. The money pays for all my trips,” she said.
Petrie said a dream of hers after retirement is to accompany Percy on one of her cross-country jaunts to California, hotots in tow.
“She has worked hard for her prize-winning rabbits and dedicated her life to bringing the joy of rabbits to kids," Petrie said.
When she is not caring for her rabbits, Percy organizes Fond du Lac’s Community Garden that operates through the Fond du Lac County - University of Wisconsin Extension.