Jason Vanisko, 7, a 4-H member from Ellicott City, likes to help his older sister take care of her sheep and looks forward to having a beef steer next year, but he started participating in animal shows with something smaller and perhaps more playful: rabbits.
"The breed we have is hard to do because they have a lot of wool," Jason said. "It gets matted easily. You have to brush them every day. But it is fun because we have a lot of [rabbits], and it's really fun to play with them."
The long-eared animals are growing in popularity as a 4-H project and might soon become the most numerous show animal at the Howard County Fair, which began yesterday and runs through Saturday. In fact, a small barn was built last year to house the growing number of rabbits during the fair.
"I do believe rabbits is one of the biggest departments," said Dr. Wendy Feaga, a veterinarian and leader of the Hare Raisers 4-H rabbit club.
"Rabbits can be raised in a suburban setting, and Howard County has switched from mostly farmland to mostly suburban," Feaga said. "Another thing is, rabbits are quiet, as opposed to crowing cockbirds."
Rabbits also are inexpensive, Feaga said, with an average price around $20. A $100 rabbit is considered expensive
Animal shows have been part of the fair since it began 61 years ago, and active area 4-H Clubs have continued the tradition, even as hundreds of farms have given way to housing developments.
The 4-H animal entries at the fair have held fairly steady in recent years, with many young people choosing to raise pigs and sheep on a few acres. Leasing programs allow youth to care for beef steer and dairy cattle on several remaining farms.
The exact number of contestants will not be known until the animals arrive at the fairgrounds and pass a weigh-in process, but entries have been received this year for 271 pigs, 130 lambs, 87 beef steers and 53 goats.
Rabbit entries were still being counted, but Feaga said past shows have drawn 250 to 300 rabbits owned by about 60 4-H members.
Feaga also expects about 100 birds to be shown in the poultry department, which she is supervising.
While swine competitions draw the largest number of 4-H members -- usually topping 100 -- rabbits and goats are areas that clearly are growing, said Sheryl Burdette, a Cooperative Extension educator for 4-H and youth development.
"They don't take a large area to maintain them," she said.
And newcomers to the activity seem to enjoy the rabbits because "they're social animals and controllable."
Karen Vanisko, 10, started showing rabbits when she was 5 years old and later added sheep and a steer, which live at her aunt and uncle's farm in West Friendship.
Her family has 16 rabbits at their home, with Oreo, Cuddles, Abigail and one unnamed rabbit slated to attend the fair. Along with Jason and help from their sister Allison, 4, Karen said she does a lot of grooming. Plus, "we put ice bottles in their cages so they don't die in this heat."
Caring for several animals is a lot of work, Karen said, but "It's worth it. ... If you think about it, you really don't get their experience anywhere else. It's really fun."
Feaga said the young people in the rabbit club "have learned basics that allow them easily to switch to a new species."
"It is a low-budget way to do the things you would do at a horse show or a dog show," she said.
As with the large livestock, Feaga said, meat rabbits are judged on muscle shape and definition, while nonmeat breeds are judged on their wool, appearance and markings.
There also is a rabbit-judging team that competes in contests in which the participants are ranked on their ability to judge the animals and explain their reasoning.
Unlike the larger animals that are led on a halter and posed by their owners, rabbits are posed on tables by the judges and the owners remain anonymous.
And while a majority of the larger show animals are market projects that are sold at the end of the summer -- often in the annual 4-H livestock auction, which will be held Friday night -- a number of rabbit breeds are not raised for meat, and the animals can be kept through the winter and shown again next year.
Goats are not nearly as numerous as rabbits at the fair, but they have clearly become more popular in recent years. In the past five years, the number of goats entries jumped from 33 to 53.
They are another type of animal that fits well with smaller plots of land, and they are one of the shorter projects, requiring care from April until August while other animal projects begin sooner.
Amanda Arrington, 19, said she has seen a number of 4-H members add the goat project as a new challenge in addition to steers, lambs and hogs.
She has shown those three animals, and two years ago, at a lamb sale, she talked her father into buying a goat, too.
"They all have a personality," she said. "Our goats like to get out a lot. They're very mischievous."
Arrington, a sophomore at Baylor University in Texas, was too attached to her first goat to sell it. Instead, she bred it and will show the only surviving offspring -- Lucky -- this year.
Like other animals, the goats require food, water and exercise. "You have to be around them and let them get used to you," Arrington said.
She added: "Just because it's a small project doesn't mean it's less responsibility."
THE HOWARD COUNTY FAIR
animal shows, rides, contests, demonstrations and entertainment
today through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
2210 Fairground Road, off Route 144, in West Friendship
$4 for those ages 10 and older; $2 for those ages 62 and older; free for children younger than age 10. Free entry Tuesday for senior citizens
free, on site
Monday and Wednesday, "all you can ride" for $18; Tuesday and Thursday, all rides $1 each
410-442-1022, or www.howardcounty fair.com.