Hopping down the bunny trail with Nakol Orler in search of show rabbit success

Jennifer Stultz
Pratt Tribune
Pratt County rabbit breeder and show expert Nakol Orler counts baby Havana bunnies from a fur-lined nest. She added some rare breed specimens to her rabbitry over the Easter weekend.

This past Easter weekend Nakol Orler, rural Pratt show-rabbit breeder and exhibitor, was on the bunny trail again. On Friday, she opened up her special bunny barn and turned on some extra ventilation fans to keep her current 40-plus bunnies cool. Saturday she spent some extra time spring cleaning cages, counting babies in fur-lined nests and fixing transport boxes, and on Sunday she took a road-trip across the state to bring home two Creme d'Argent does and a nest-full of nine babies.

"I'm very excited to be getting these cremes," Orler said. "They are endangered, one of the rarest breeds of rabbits. I have a purebred buck that I got a few months ago, he is going to be so happy that I found some mates for him, and the best part is that there will be nine babies with one of the does."

Nakol Orler, rural Pratt rabbit owner, checks the condition of her rare-breed creme D’Argent buck while admiring his hair color.

Orler is passionate about all of her rabbits, from the Havanas to the mini-lops and now the cremes. Though she has a computerized record-keeping system, she can rattle off the top of her head when and where she got each rabbit, how many off-spring a particular doe might have had the previous season, and what placing at which show each rabbit has earned over its lifetime. She said the rabbits that have kept her going during a very difficult time in her life, and the rabbits are helping her make a comeback after COVID-19 pandemic stress, and after a highly contagious rabbit disease (RHDV2) shut-down nearly all rabbit adventures on the bunny trail this past year.

Orler, who works full-time as a registered nurse at Haviland Care Center, not only had to deal with the stressful work demands and personal restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic this past year, but it was also a very lonely existence for her as she mourned the sudden loss of her husband, Michael Orler, who died 18 months ago.

"When Michael died, I did not think I could go on," Orler said. "I've always had the rabbits, and it was the rabbits that made me get out of bed every day to feed them. They were my therapy - working with the bunnies, and then my rabbit friends too, they were all part of what has kept me going."

Orler said she has raised registered show rabbits, along with her husband and daughters, for more than 20 years, starting out when the older two girls had them as 4-H projects.

"We started out with the Dutch rabbits, and the Jersey woolies," Orler said. "We even had some English Angoras that were Michael's, but when the girls grew into other projects that seemed more important, we sold out."

It wasn't long, however, when the Orler's youngest daughter decided that she had missed something special with rabbits and talked her parents into again getting into raising top quality bunnies.

"We decided if we were going to do it, the best path was to buy the good ones," Orler said. "Most of the time top quality 4-H rabbits sell for $40-$50, sometimes $100 each. The most I ever spent was $250 on a California buck. The most I ever sold one for was $275 for a junior black Havana buck. I hadn't even thought he was for sale, but someone asked me to name my price - and then they paid it."

Investing in quality rabbits is something that has benefitted both Orler and the 4-H community in Pratt County. Even though her own children are grown and have families of their own, Orler continues to serve as a rabbit and goat project leader for 4-H kids in Pratt County, helping many young people get started with rabbits and teaching them the ins and outs of care necessary to keep rabbits healthy for breeding and showing. Her own show-ring successes have also made her rabbits popular.

"I've already had 16 emails this spring from people wanting to buy rabbits for 4-H projects," Orler said. "I just don't have that many available as I am in the process of rebuilding up my own show string."

According to Orler, not only did COVID-19 cause the cancellation of most rabbit shows in the United States in 2020, but a rampant and highly contagious, deadly rabbit disease also ended most county fair shows, state fair shows and regional and national rabbit events this past year.

"RHDV2 is just devastating if it gets into your rabbit herd," Orler said. "It can also be passed by wild rabbits, dogs, even flies, so I am taking all precautions to make sure it can't get in."

The disease has been identified in rabbits from Colorado west (last year), and now from Arkansas east there have been possible cases. Mostly the disease has been a problem in other countries, where, within five days of coming in contact with an RHDV2-diseased animal, rabbits can hemorrhage internally. The result is always fatal, there is no cure. Much like COVID-19, a vaccine has been developed, but it is costly and not yet readily-available.

While many rabbit shows were cancelled this past year, Orler said she and her rabbit friends are still actively planning for the coming show season. Most shows are February-May for the spring season, then September-December with many state fairs in the fall.

Orler was able to show in three shows this year already, where she won best of breed awards with a mini-lop buck at all three shows.

Her chocolate Havanas won first place in nationals last year before everything shut down, and she is hoping to get her blues, broken and black Havanas back out on the show circuit soon.

"I'm planning to go to the Havana National Show in Fond du lac, Wis. this June," she said. "These new babies I have now will be just about the right age."

Rabbits are shown in age divisions broken at six months and then classified by weight. Orler said she would also like to go to Tennessee for October nationals for all breeds.

"It's a lot of work to care for them, but it keeps me going," Orler said. "My end game is to get another nice shed here so I can put my supplies in a separate room and have more room for bunnies. I've never had too many."

Orler said she feeds her rabbits once each day, and that feeding schedule fits around her 12-hour nursing shifts. She saves more intensive maintenance chores for her three-day weekends, and that is when she makes bunnie runs too. She said it is worth all the effort, and there is never a dull moment on the bunny trail for her.

A broken-colored Havana buck peers out of his cage in Nakol Orler's special rabbit barn in rural Pratt County. He has several show wins to his credit.
A mini-lop family group survived the early spring cold-weather snap in fine shape, as did all of Nakol Orler's rabbits in her 40-cage barn north of Pratt.
Nakol Orler considers raising and showing rabbits her "therapy" and especially enjoys checking the multi-colored hairs of her rare-breed buck, a Creme d'Argent.