Wouldn’t you love some bunny to love

  • A Flemish giant rabbit. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/REPLENISH THE FLEMISH

  • A Rex rabbit. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/REPLENISH THE FLEMISH

  • A Flemish giant rabbit. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/REPLENISH THE FLEMISH

  • A Rex rabbit. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/REPLENISH THE FLEMISH

  • A Flemish giant rabbit. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/REPLENISH THE FLEMISH

  • A Flemish giant rabbit. COURTESY REPLENISH THE FLEMISH

  • A Flemish giant rabbit. COURTESY REPLENISH THE FLEMISH

  • Flemish giant rabbits having a snack. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/REPLENISH THE FLEMISH

  • Flemish giant rabbits. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/REPLENISH THE FLEMISH

  • A Flemish giant rabbit. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/REPLENISH THE FLEMISH

  • A Flemish giant rabbit. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/REPLENISH THE FLEMISH

Staff Writer
Published: 10/3/2020 7:00:43 AM

Rabbits breed like, well, rabbits. Brought to the United States in the early 1890s to help improve the size of meat rabbits during what’s called the great rabbit boom, the Flemish giant breed quickly became one of the most common rabbits for pet ownership and breeding stock in the early 1900s. However, they declined in population when people started preferring smaller bunnies.

With this in mind, lifelong animal lover Rebekah Legassey decided to start a small, family-owned rabbitry in Athol to make more of these “gentle giants.”

Replenish the Flemish (RtF) Rabbitry, as the name implies, breeds Flemish giants and aims to raise awareness of the docile creatures. Legassey started breeding the rabbits three years ago and the rabbitry’s website went up in the spring of 2018.

“I found that I wanted to kind of bring back this amazing breed because they really are just a fantastic breed. They’re really sweet and have such a calm demeanor. They’re really laid back,” she said. “They are the true gentle giant. They’re great with children and other pets.”

RtF concentrates on Flemish giants but also breeds Rex rabbits.

“They’re pretty unique breeds,” Legassey said.

As she explained, she breeds rabbits twice a year, in the spring and the fall. The bunnies live in a barn, known as a rabbitry, and there is a fenced-in area where they can hop around sporadically throughout the day. Legassey says she and her 5-year-old son start each morning by providing the bunnies with food and water and making sure they are healthy. RtF has five Flemish giants and seven Rexes — in addition to two Dutch rabbits the 5-year-old son is raising due to a growing fascination with breeding.

Legassey, 24, said a breeder must be methodical when making decisions. Much of the art of breeding is finding one mate that complements another. For example, if a rabbit has weak hind legs or shorter-than-normal ears, a breeder should find one with attributes that can rectify those shortcomings for the next generation. Legassey said low-quality breeding can be detrimental to a rabbit’s health, and all health and genetic factors should be considered. But, she said, the physical act of breeding isn’t complicated.

“They get put together and they take over on that end,” she said with a laugh. “They’re usually pretty happy to do it themselves.”

Fuzzy friends

Flemish giants are the largest rabbit breed recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association. Legassey said Flemish giants average between 16 and 22 pounds.

“They’re like the size of a small dog. They’re pretty big,” she said. “They’re definitely not tiny rabbits.”

Legassey said the life expectancy for the rabbits is seven to 10 years.

She explained Flemish giants originally come from Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium, and are thought to be one of the founding breeds to all modern-day giant rabbits.

“This breed kind of started it all, they believe,” she said, adding that they are no longer considered much of a meat source due to their strong skeletons, which are not ideal for meat animals. They are now mostly bred for pet ownership and showing. “They’re kind of making a little bit of comeback. They have the best personalities.”

Seven colors of Flemish giants — black, blue, fawn, light gray, sandy, steel gray, white — are recognized by the National Federation of Flemish Giant Rabbit Breeders.

Rexes, Legassey said, are originally from France and were first brought to American shores in the early 1920s and is known as the “King of Rabbits.” She said they are known for their extremely velvety coats and average between 8 and 10 pounds.

“There’s no other rabbit breed that has this coat,” Legassey said. “Their coat is phenomenal.”

She said the animal is the result of a mutation. Sixteen color varieties are recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association.

According to the breeder's association, Rexes were first shown publicly at the Paris International Rabbit Show in 1924.

The pursuit of hoppy-ness

Legassey, a 2014 graduate of Athol High School, said she started showing rabbits when she was 13 or 14 years old, following in the footsteps of her older sister, Alicia Trickett, who now works as a veterinary technician at Family Pet Veterinary Services in Athol. Trickett, Legassey said, has been showing rabbits for more than 30 years.

“We’ve kind of grown up with it,” Legassey said. “I love rabbits. I’ve always had a soft spot for animals.”

Making bunnies, not monies

Legassey, who is married to chain saw woodcarver Michael Legassey, says the rabbit-breeding game is not a lucrative one.

“My bank account can tell you that,” she joked. “I sell them for what it costs me to raise them. You don’t make money selling rabbits. If you want to make money, this is not the profession for you.”

She said she assists Michael with handling the finances of the woodcarving business, Wood Wizard Carvings.

It was Michael Legassey who thought of the rabbitry’s clever name.

“I really wanted to get to show the essence of what we’re doing here,” Rebekah Legassey recalled. “He thought of it and I said, ‘That’s perfect. That’s exactly what we want to do here.’”

Legassey said rabbits are therapeutic animals and are wonderful at giving comfort to anyone, especially people with some type of disability. She said RtF has visited hospitals and nursing homes with rabbits to lift people’s spirits, though lately they have been limited to “window trips” — in which she, her family and the bunnies stay behind a pane of glass — due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Legassey said she sells rabbits to pet homes and other breeders throughout New England and New York. This spring, she even sold one to a woman in Ohio and it was delivered by a hired transporter.

More information is available at replenishtheflemish.com or on RtF’s Facebook page. Notably, the American Rabbit Breeders Association organizes rabbit shows, which can be found at bit.ly/3iM5gV1.

Domenic Poli can be found at acastillo@recorder.com.




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