History of the Rhinelander

by Joanne Purpus

Reprinted with permission from the September/October 2006 issue of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy newsletter.

Breed History

The Rhinelander rabbit, as the name implies, hails from Germany, having made its appearance in the rabbit world at a show in 1902. The breed was developed by postman and rabbit fancier, Josef Heintz of Grevenbroich in North Rhine-Westphalia, which would explain Heintz’s choice for the breed’s name. The new breed was an instant success. In 1905, the Rhinelander was recognized and given a standard in Germany under the name of “Rheinische Schecke.” In 1908, at the West German Rabbit Association Exposition, seventeen Rheinische Schecken were exhibited. In 1924, the first pair arrived in Holland and then England. At this time, one won the Grand Prize at Germany’s famous Drachenfels Exhibition and within the next few years the Rheinische Schecke reached its heyday.

The sensation of the breed, however, soon died. Color markings and fur varied greatly in these rabbits. Changes to the standard resulted in a large drop in membership because the breed now required more selection and breeding skill than most breeders possessed. Also, in 1930, breeds of rabbits were separated into classes of fancy, hobby, and economy. The Rheinische Schecke, being slim and athletic, like all rabbits of the racy group, did not exhibit a meat rabbit body conformation and thus few breeders remained. After World War II, breeders immediately began to rebuild the Rheinische Schecke population, and in 1978 it became the most popular spotted breed in Germany.

Rheinische Schecke rabbits were brought to the United States from Germany in 1923, and were accepted by the National Breeders and Fanciers Association of America in 1924. They were first imported by E.W.C. Arnold of Long Island, New York. By the time the 1930 Book of Standards was published, the breed was being known as the Rhinelander, but the breed would vanish from American soil by 1932. It is not known whether the standard set for the breed was too difficult to achieve or if there was a lack of interest by the fanciers of the day, who were much more interested in the popular Checkered Giant.

In February of 1975, Robert “Bob” Herschbach of Watsonville, California, was in Germany attending a national show. There, he saw the beautiful Rhinelanders and purchased four of the prize-winning animals to bring back to his rabbitry in California. Bob Whitman coined the slogan “The Calico of the Fancy” and called interested breeders together to form the Rhinelander Rabbit Club of America in 1974. The breed was, once again, given recognition by the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) and was accepted into the Book of Standards in 1975, after a 44-year absence. Ten animals were shown in the 1975 National Convention. Old-time breeders were again involved with the breed, but many were limited by time and travel distance to national conventions. (ARBA conventions are held each year in a different part of the country) Numbers of Rhinelanders continued to slowly rise. Carrol Clements was a strong breeder in Kentucky, while George Sutherland pursued the breed in southern California.

George Sutherland was an old time judge and rabbit breeder and Rhinelanders were one of his five breeds. He was my mentor in the mid-80’s when I started showing. At that time breeders were few and far between and many judges were unfamiliar with the breed. With such a small gene pool on the West Coast, line breeding was producing smaller animals, lacking vigor, and increasing malocclusion (improper meeting of the upper and lower teeth). George felt the breed was struggling to survive again. A veterinary friend and I imported two does from Holland to add new blood. My doe died while kindling (giving birth), but the remaining doe was placed in George’s rabbitry where she produced three small litters.

Meanwhile, many breeders were going in other directions to add vigor and new blood to their stock using Checkered Giants or Harlequins. While the Holland blood was slowly spreading on the West Coast, Lisa Saunders of North Carolina had gone to Germany and brought back a trio. These animals expanded the gene pool and were generously shared throughout the country. Within a few years the breed had expanded and the quality of the animals was showing remarkable improvement.

In 1994, Terry Carter and judge Joey Shults helped rewrite the breed Standard, to clarify judging, thus enabling judges to pick the correct animal. More and more judges were seeing the breed in various parts of the country and interest was growing.

Showing the Breed

Of the 45 breeds of rabbits listed in the American Rabbit Breeders Standard of Perfection, the Rhinelander is one of the five “running breeds,” and the only tri-colored breed.

The animals are judged on a basis of three qualities: Type, color, and markings. Senior weights are 6 ½ to 9 ½ pounds for bucks, with does weighing 7 to 10 pounds. The type must be muscular without heaviness and well arched, showing daylight underneath. The does may have a small dewlap, which usually gets larger with age – thus limiting show life. The color is a white ground with black and bright golden/orange markings carried to the skin. The markings are to be clear and distinct and in a very strict marking pattern. Colors range from “show marked” to “charlies” (mostly white) and “sports” (no white, brindled brown/orange). The “charlies” are usually inferior, being less robust, so are sometimes discarded from the breeding program. The “sports” tend to offer good size and body type and can be carefully used with animals needing more color.

Kits are usually put up on the show table at about 12 weeks of age, but have a short “show life” as the does tend to be non-receptive to breeding if left idle too long and break down once in the breeding program, losing their robust muscling and conditioning. Bucks continue to be shown successfully. Thus, one is faced with the decision to keep a doe “on the table” past a year and risking no litters, or to put her into production and discontinue showing her.

As a “running breed,” Rhinelanders are shown by moving up and down a carpeted show table. This shows body and tracking movement, as well as stretching out flank markings. As they are an “arched” breed, meaning they are slim, athletic, and well up on their front legs, daylight must show when looking at the animal from side profile while in its pose. The ideal show animal moves well down the table, stops, turns, poses, and moves back, allowing the judge to observe it from the side, front, and rear – all of this without assistance from the owner or judge.