Zach Sauer distinctly remembers his mother saying he could only have one rabbit.
But mom didn’t go with Sauer and his father to go pick up his “one” rabbit.
They came back with four.
“It was history after that,” the third-year veterinary medicine student said.
And some history Sauer has had since the first four rabbits came to live at his family’s farm in McGregor, Iowa, when he was in the fifth grade. He started showing rabbits at the county fair, 4-H and FFA competitions, and the Iowa State Fair.
“It wasn’t long before I started showing at sanctioned shows,” he said, “and I just became more and more actively involved. I was traveling all over the country attending competitions showing my animals, and meeting so many amazing friends.”
It wasn’t just that he was showing his rabbits, Sauer was winning these competitions as well. He has claimed more “Best of Breed” awards than he can recall including many at the national level of competition. He has raised and owned over 30 different breeds of rabbits, but his favorites are Cinnamon rabbits, a domesticated rabbit known for its russet color fur.
While in high school, his rabbit herd ranged between 100 and 250 animals which were either raised for competitive show purposes or commercial meat production. Upon graduation, his herd was downsized and remained in McGregor while he was an animal science major at Iowa State University. Since enrolling as a DVM student in the College of Veterinary Medicine he has moved his small herd just outside of Ames with a close friend who maintains them. He attempts to visit the rabbits whenever possible.
“I’ve always loved animals and as a kid it was very feasible financially for me personally to buy a rabbit instead of a registered cow,” he said. “I really liked genetics and with rabbits, I could manipulate the genes and witness the differences between generations rather quickly.”
These days, Sauer does more than just show rabbits – he’s been a licensed judge with the American Rabbit Breeder’s Association for the past three years.
He primarily judges on the weekends, especially in the summer months when he isn’t in classes, and selectively judges 15-20 shows each year. Sauer travels throughout the country, and self-limits his judging to one to two shows a month during the school year.
“I get asked to do more shows than I could possibly do,” he said. “It’s crazy, but once you become a licensed judge, shows will book you out years in advance.”
He bemoans the number of cool opportunities he has had to turn down to focus on his studies. Nonetheless, he has found the time to judge many shows, including several spring breed national events which is a special honor for such a young judge. He has been requested to judge at the week-long ARBA national convention held in the fall of each year where 15-25,000 rabbits will compete, but made a personal promise to himself that he would not accept bids for this special annual show until after graduation in 2019. Although his education takes ultimate priority right now, Sauer has booked several national conventions beginning in 2019, with some bookings now extending near 2030.
Logistically, judging rabbits is similar to cat competitions. The animal is placed on a table where the judges will look at such features as color, fur, eyes and ears.
But it’s not all fluff. Many rabbit breeds are judged heavily on structural characteristics that parallel species such as swine and sheep like strength of shoulder, depth of body, loin dimensions, strength of hindquarter, and overall smooth blending transitions throughout. Judging is rather intense as even one wrong colored toenail warrants disqualification.
“I believe I’ve developed a good eye for judging rabbits,” Sauer said. “If you have developed a good eye, making decisions is generally not difficult for most classes, but conveying your reasoning takes some getting used to.
“I’ve improved significantly in my oral comments to the competitors. I’m now better equipped to articulate what I say and carry myself professionally. Being a rabbit ‘nerd,’ I get a rush when a class of beautiful animals challenges me to make difficult decisions and subsequently justify those decisions to the exhibitors.”
After graduation Sauer plans to continue his judging and hopefully get back to showing his own rabbits in competition. He is also preparing for a new judging challenge – guinea pigs. He should be a licensed guinea pig judge by the time he graduates.