Thank Goodness for Rabbits - How I paid for college and funded my business.
Updated: Mar 9, 2022
Originally Posted to www.elliesrabbitry.com on May 6th, 2019.
I’ve gotten so many puzzled looks and questions over the last few years about my rabbits that I thought it would be a good time to try to explain, in a nutshell, how it started, how it works and what I plan to do next with these little velvety lagomorphs.
Life during my college years revolved around being creative – and in more ways than one. In school studying digital media and design, being creative was a constant theme of every school day because every assignment I was given required me to work my imagination muscles to produce projects and art that were original, unique and ingenuitive. The University of Kentucky not only gave me assignments that required my full creative capacity, it also sent me astronomical tuition bills twice a year that forced me to be creative in a completely different yet very homogeneous way.
Growing up in Moses Lake Washington, I could care less about sports and dance teams. All I was interested in from the time I was 8 years old was showing rabbits in 4-H and drawing. I had a really successful 4-H career which included winning Grand Champion in fit and show and having a mini rex rabbit I bred win Best of Breed at a state rabbit show which was quite a feat for a youth shower and breeder. As my senior year of high school approached, I sold my herd of mini lops and mini rex because I found I just didn't have enough time for them as school became more difficult and time consuming.
Fast forward a few years and I find myself in Kentucky trying to figure out how in debt I’m going to be after college if I have to take out loans. The thought was sickening. I had never needed a loan for anything, and I truly felt like the best thing for me to do was to take college slow and take classes when I had the funds to pay for them. I had a job, but it barely covered basic expenses let alone college. After working there over a year and saving $100 a paycheck which was HARD I had just enough money to pay for one semester of college at the community college in Winchester, Kentucky. Close to the end of my first semester, I decided I wanted a pet rabbit. I missed having them and I knew they would be less expensive than a dog. I did a lot of googling without much luck finding a local breeder. One thing I learned in 4-H was not to buy pet store bunnies, and after having such fancy rabbits growing up, I really wanted something with papers even though I didn’t have intentions of breeding anything at the time.
I was amazed how few rabbit breeders were in the Lexington area. Back at home it would have been easy to find some nice Holland lops or mini rex. I finally stumbled upon kind of an odd website that advertised having a “new and very rare breed.” It claimed to have something that mixed the traits of a Holland lop and a mini rex having floppy ears but a velvety coat. I was immediately intrigued because Hollands and mini rex were my two favorite breeds. I called the breeder up and after hearing how much she was charging for these rabbits I started to do some thinking. First of all, if these rabbits were legit, they would be huge sellers because of their size, fur quality and floppy ears – breeds with floppy ears tend to be the most popular types of rabbits for circuit show breeders and simple pet rabbit buyers alike. Plus, this lady says she’s one of only 3 other breeders that have them. They were created by a rabbit breeder in Ohio over a long period of time, using a strict breeding program and incorporating 4 breeds of rabbits. She had been diagnosed with cancer and died a few years before. Just before she died, she dispersed her heard to only a few people and this lady I was talking on the phone with was one of them.
I met her within a week, and she claimed she wasn’t going to breed them anymore, so she was only letting them go in package deals. Just like that, I had spent $1,500 on 3 mini plush lop rabbits that supposedly were some of her last ones. I was a little disappointed in their quality, they were bigger than I thought they would be and the three she had available didn’t share really distinct characteristics like I thought a specialized breed should have. It was the craziest, most stupid, best decision I’ve ever made when I bought those first rabbits.
My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, just about lost his mind. I remember begging him to trust me, this is going to work! The begging and pleading didn’t help much, and it got worse when I tried to breed these rabbits and nothing happened. I know what you’re thinking…. don't rabbits breed like….rabbits? Just trust me and believe me when I say, domestic rabbits do not breed like their wild relatives. Was I surprised they didn’t produce successful litters? Yes. Was I shocked? No. I contacted the breeder I got the rabbits from and she was no help on the issue, but she did hook me up with a lady up north that also had purchased some of the original heard when it was dispersed. She was having health problems, so I purchased as far as I know, all the mini plush rabbits she had with the help of the lady I got my first three from.
When I got this next round of mini plush lops one of them was pregnant and did have a beautiful litter of babies a few weeks later. One of these babies became one of my most important herd sires. I was relieved but knew this is when the real work begins. I need to figure out how to sell these now. And I absolutely have to be successful in doing this because I need to prove to my boyfriend it was a good idea and even more so, I had spent all my tuition money on these rabbits. You have to take risks and spend money to make, money, right?
I made a little Instagram page and called it Ellie’s Rabbitry, it is now @miniplushlops. Within a week I was shipping one of these babies to New York. I was secretly in disbelief that I not only sold one for a good price, but I was putting it on a plane to New York. I of course played it cool with my boyfriend and acted like “I told you so!” But really, I was in just as much shock as he was.
This was all fine and dandy, but I did not have a good consistent group of rabbits. There was huge diversity in size, confirmation and fur quality. I knew if I was going to go all the way with this, I needed to have a better, more consistent product and what I had at that moment was lacking. Over a few years time, I carefully bred rabbits to others whose faults complimented their mate. I have brought the overall size of my mini plush lops down and made size consistency stable. I have locked in excellent fur quality in my last 3 generations of rabbits making fur quality unvarying in litters today. Crown width does not constantly fluctuate anymore meaning now the mini plush lops are almost always loppy, and body confirmation is now uniform from litter to litter. The original creator of the mini plush lop, Devie D’Anibelle gave me good foundation rabbits to work with. The mini plush lop breed has come a long way in my barn, and people around the country have noticed thanks to the internet.
I have a website, Facebook and Instagram pages which has made selling my mini plush lops regularly and all over the country realistic and getting inquiries as far away as Greece and the UK a reality. Unfortunately, I do not ship outside of the county, but that’s ok because there are plenty of people here in the states that love them! I have to work off waiting lists that can stretch as much as 5 months out. I ship rabbits around the country regularly from California and Washington to Florida and New York. If I was really diligent, I could spend hours a day responding to every comment and message on my Facebook page and writing back to every email I get and calling back every person who leaves a voicemail. Unfortunately, being in school full time made this not realistic. But I’ve done the best I can to respond to excited inquirers as quickly as possible.
I was really lucky, and the timing was just right to acquire this rare, little, dwindling in numbers breed to make it what it is today. To keep the quality of the breed exclusive to my rabbitry, all mini plush lops require a spay/neuter contract. Unfortunately, there are lots of “backyard” breeders that are seeing the popularity of mini plush lops rising so they are attempting to make spin off plush lops that are basically a cross between two breeds and don’t have the fur, size or confirmation a real mini plush lop has. This is why the spay/neuter contracts are so invaluable in keeping real mini plush lops that are direct descendants to the originals separate from the fake ones and keeping the breed alive and continually improving.
As you can see, being creative in college wasn’t over when I went home for the day. It also meant finding a creative way to pay for college. I am not going to go into numbers, but it satisfies me to share that breeding these rabbits allowed me to graduate college debt free and provide me with the funds I needed for my next post college venture – a women's southern and outdoor clothing brand. Today I have over 40 breeding doe's and Ellie's Rabbitry now also breeds fully pedigreed Holland Lops from show quality lines. Some see how much a mini plush lop costs compared to a pet store rabbit and feel that they are too expensive. But no one really knows how many hours are spent cleaning, breeding, feeding and even bottle feeding this rare specialty breed except for me...and it's a lot! It has the hours of a full-time job with no vacation. Plus, you have to buy the rabbit food, cover vet bills and pay the expensive electric to heat and cool the barn. Breeding rabbits on this scale is no joke and the quality care and the quality of the animal is in the price.
Now, I want to make it very clear, that my wonderful husband Wade has been extremely supportive and key to all of this. He built me a rabbit house so the rabbitry could expand, and it’s hard to get a chunk of money every couple of months and have to spend it on tuition or other basic things one needs to buy to get by. He has invested a lot of time and money into the rabbits from buying propane tanks to keep babies warm in the winter to covering the crazy electric bill when I have the rabbit house air conditioner on full blast in the summer to keep all my mamas comfortable. Despite all the smelly cage cleaning days and startup costs, I think both Wade and I would say it was all worth it.
The rabbits have become a really fun and a big part of my life. It’s hard to not get to take vacations spontaneously because you need a rabbit sitter, and I still don’t like cleaning day. But I love update videos and pictures from people that didn’t think they could have a pet because they are allergic to cats and dogs. Then they found the mini plush lop and they now have a little friend to love. I also enjoy the baby rabbits and the exciting surprise it is to see how many kits are laying in a nesting box waiting for me to find them. I’ve worked hard and dedicated just about every second of spare time I had aside from school and homework to work on this amazing breed and promoting them, so I definitely want to continue doing that now that I have more time to dedicate to my Rabbitry. I owe a lot to these little rabbits including college!! So, I can’t let them down now! I hope this is just the beginning and the mini plush lop continues to grow and bring happiness to everyone that meets one!