Color Theory

My gorgeous buck's registered name is "Taunton." We thought that was a little ...odd, even for such a fancy bunny. I've been calling him Butch, which suits him well. I came to realize today that his original breeder is from Taunton, Mass, which gives him some history. It's so strange getting to know an animal with only minimal clues to their past. I'm always reluctant to change names of grown critters I adopt, since somehow it doesn't seem respectful of their lives up until then. But I don't think these rabbits knew their names, and I don't think I can actually call him "Taunton." It just doesn't roll off the tongue. Most of my critters end up with nicknames in addition to proper names anyway.

I've been knee-deep in rabbit color genetics, and today I was told that my Butch is not a broken copper, as it says on his pedigree, but a broken (black) tort. Even though copper didn't seem right, I didn't think of tort, and certainly not black tort since I assumed there would mean oh, something like black?! But now I see that black tort and black look completely different and he may in fact be a tort. This isn't my pic - it came from the farm where I got him, but you can see his colors better than in moody bunny portraits I've taken. Can my rabbit friends weigh in on his coloring? I'm fascinated with color genetics, but first it might be helpful to be able to identify colors (especially of my own rabbits, right?)!
It's so interesting that I'm getting to know this bunny, this beautiful creature, a little at a time, but here I am asking you all "what is he"? Strange that someone on the yahoo rabbit genetics listserv is very confidently telling me my rabbit is a broken black tort. I'm looking right at him, but I don't know what he "is," how he fits into existing categories and networks of knowledge. It's also weird to me that the color is never used as an adjective, it is a very strong noun: he is a tort. With dogs, I used to get annoyed by that since it was always wrong ("I have a rednose." No. You. Don't.) But with rabbits, it seems very normal parlance, just like describing a breed or sex. Not sure what to make of that, but it rubs me just a little wrong. We may call a person white or black, but never, ever "a" white or "a" black. I wouldn't say that thinking of color in animals is the same as in people, but still, there's just something a teensy weensy bit objectifying about it.

Is obsession with color always objectifying? I used to feel terrible for all the black dogs at the shelter; being a regular old black dog was usually a death sentence, because there were just so damn many of them that they don't stand out. One theory is that we make sense of the world through some sort of gestalt vision, where certain things must come to the fore and others recede. Otherwise, there is just too much information, we have to sort it somehow. I tended to see and favor the spotted pit bulls, and I felt ok about that since they had been systematically exterminated for so long. Any system of selection, whether it's for one's own pets or for culling, is based on some system of priorities and preferences. That's not inherently wrong - it produced all the wonderful variety of animal breeds we have today that still serve endless purposes. After working in a shelter though, I'm hypersensitive to the fact that it can have bad consequences for animals who are out of favor or discarded for whatever reason.

So why do I care whether my bunny is a broken tort or a copper or a chestnut, and what colors he could produce mated to an ermine doe versus a copper? Doesn't this type of thing always lend itself to devaluation of certain of the bunnies, usually the more common colors? Those bunnies are just as valuable, lovable, and amazing. But there's no doubt that bunnies are culled based on color or more often, quality of fiber, regardless of their value as living creatures. Taken to the extreme, it's downright fascist.

I'm not sure I'm fully grasping yet the system of value that's informing these color choices when it comes to rabbits, but I get the impression that the further away we get from wild rabbit coloring (known as chestnut agouti with dominant genes AA BB CC DD EE), the better. Not only must we have rabbits so fluffy (and in the case of English and German angoras, "furnished," which is another interesting choice of word) that they barely resemble rabbits, they should also be in solid, dense and subtle colors. They actually look like a cross between a real rabbit and a stuffed one, a Real velveteen rabbit. I could be wrong, since I'm new to this and I'm sure there are a lot of individual preferences. I personally love the wild rabbit colors, but I'm also excited at the possibility of all these soft shades of brown, grey and cream. After all, the idea here is that someone will ultimately be wearing this fiber.

The folks on the listserv kindly pointed out that Butch could not be chestnut (AA BB CC DD EE) or copper (a_ B_ C_ D_ E_+ rufus) since he is supposedly out of a blue tort and an ermine - both ee recessive colors, so they could not have produced an E dominant color. So he must be a tort (aa B_ C_ D_ ee)! The recessive genes would have significant consequences were he to be bred to a certain little ermine doe who I may happen to bring home from the rabbit show this weekend. There seems to be much confusion about ermine or frosted pearl (the discussion is still taking place on the listserv), but rather than just producing copper or broken copper (or chestnut) babies due to the dominant genes, they are likely to be tort, orange, ermine, or pearl. Also, if the ermine carries the recessive d gene for diluted colors, there could be blue tort, cream (dilute fawn/orange) blue frosted pearl, and blue pearl babies. And half of any litter is likely to be broken, or part white.

How could I not immerse myself in learning about these scrumptious colors, and get swept up in the excitement of producing unusual colors in already hard-to-find bunnies? The combination of these mathematical puzzles and the extreme adorableness of baby bunnies with such soft colors and fur just packs overwhelming appeal. Am I going to be able to sit with the tension between a breeder mentality and a rescue mentality without driving myself crazy with overanalysis? I doubt it, but I'm pretty sure that I'll spend the rest of my life happily taking care of rabbits.


  1. It's all very confusing, isn't it? I'm in the same boat, with seven bunnies of unknown ancestry. I've been told that I should breed my Ruby-Eyed white does to my colored (chinchilla and black) bucks because those white does can carry exactly the recessive color genes that I so adore, but I don't know. I'll be breeding for temperament and color, and I don't really care what color I get - they're all good as far as I'm concerned, and I'm sure I can find them good homes with spinners.

    One thing that does surprise me about rabbit breeding is that many people recommend just breeding them and seeing what happens in a few generations. Wow. That seems pretty irresponsible unless you're willing to eat your "culls," and I'm not sure I'm ready to do that.

    This year I'll breed my two favorite does and see what happens. They're not young (none of them are, by rabbit standards) so they likely won't have large litters and I can decide what to do after that. Don't want to say I didn't try ;-)

    Your boy is very handsome, no matter his color classification!

  2. Thanks for complimenting my boy! I'm glad to know that older does have smaller litters - I had no idea. It would be great to be able to find good homes with spinners, and it seems likely since satins (or any angoras) are not easy to find around here. I'm just so used to rescue dogs that are hard to place, but hopefully it's a whole different thing with bunnies. For now, I think I just won't breed more than I'm prepared to keep, just in case.