Laura Blank spends her days working for the Air Force Test Center as a management analyst, but her nights are spent on volunteer work. During the Antelope Valley Fair and Alfalfa Festival last month she served as the manager for the Small Animal Barn logging more than 400 hours of volunteer time.
The Small Animal Barn is a display of animals like rabbits, chickens and guinea pigs. It is also used as an “extravaganza” to educate the general public about the various breeds of small animals and how they are cared for and raised. There are experts in each field on hand to answer questions and the children who raised the animals are often present to show their animal. According to Blank, a topic of particular interest is backyard chickens.
“A lot of the animals are pulled out of their cages and people get a chance to touch them, which is nice because some people have never gotten the chance before,” said Blank.
Part of her job includes managing around 100 volunteers that aid in set-up and tear-down, feeding the animals, talking to guests and cleaning the barn. But the work doesn’t end there. Blank volunteers her time throughout the year as the rabbit advisor to the 4-H clubs in the Antelope Valley.
Her job is to teach children how to raise meat pens and fryer rabbits. The children can then enter their animals in the fair and the animals are ranked by weight and quality of meat. The winners are awarded monetary prizes that are often used towards a college education.
“The kid that won the fryer this year got $700 and that’s just for one rabbit,” said Blank.
Blank competes with her own rabbits as well. In fact, she ranks second in the state for Californian rabbits (a breed of rabbit). Currently, she has around 50 rabbits at her residence and specializes in commercial meat breed rabbits.
After owning a rabbit as a child and finally moving to an area (Pearblossom, Calif.), which allowed Blank to have more than five animals, she began to raise rabbits for American Rabbit Breeders Association shows.
“Since I did so well with my line of commercial rabbits, sometime around 2010 I was asked to help 4H, the Future Farmers of America, Grange, and independent fair exhibitors with raising rabbits for competition. I am an active board member of the Antelope Valley Rabbit club where we work to promote the education of rabbit raising through ARBA events and the Antelope Valley Fair and Alfalfa Festival.”
For children that are in 4-H clubs, Blank will sell her rabbits at a very low cost. They are usually sold in sets of three and she also provides PowerPoint presentations and manuals containing educational materials. Throughout the year, students are encouraged to bring their rabbits to 4-H meetings where Blank will check-in and ensure that the rabbits are maintaining condition or give instruction to correct a problem. She also works with the students to determine the ideal timeframe for breeding.
“Every week the kids bring their meat pens in. I go to different meetings every night all over the Antelope Valley and the kids bring in their rabbits and we discuss how they’re eating and their weight and condition,” said Blank.
She went on to explain that the whole process of preparing for the fair takes about a year.
“The kids have to have a rabbit that’s in age for breed,” said Blank. “They have to breed one litter and then they breed for the fair so it takes about a year.”
During the process, the students learn responsibility, but they also learn “sportsmanship.”
“They have to get along with the other people that are in this process. They have to learn from each other because I will not tell them everything. I will guide other children speak up and teach other children,” said Blank.
She added, that many of the students will volunteer in the barn during the fair which provides an opportunity to learn public speaking skills. She has watched some of the more reserved children “gain confidence” when they chose to present their animals.
Blank believes that this is one area that the whole family can participate. Her husband volunteers to build structures for the animals. Next year, he is planning to create habit trails for the guinea pigs.
According to Blank, rabbits have many benefits like their ability to be raised outdoors. She added that rabbit meat is “even lower in fat than chicken” and high in protein.
“They make wonderful pets,” said Blank. “They’re very calming like a cat. Some of the breeds literally will sit in your lap like a cat and you can pet them.”
The calming quality of the rabbits makes them ideal for children with special needs, such as Down syndrome. She explained that some breeds of rabbits are “very tolerable,” meaning that they can handle a little bit of extra stress.
“We at the fair and with 4-H are trying to encourage people who have handicapped children to get involved with rabbits or poultry,” said Blank.
She warned however, that rabbits should never be kept inside the house because they will chew on wires and furniture.
Blank has shared her rabbits with the children on base too. She has visited the Child Development Center and the School Age Annex where she taught them that there are 47 different breeds of rabbits that can come in different sizes and colors. She also taught them how rabbits keep themselves cool with their ears and why they wiggle their noses.
Her goal for this year is to create a team that will help support her efforts.
“If [volunteers] know about chickens and rabbits they can be demonstrators at the fair. If they don’t know about chickens and rabbits I am willing to teach them,” said Blank.
“The fair is open to everybody at Edwards AFB to get involved and enter their items and to volunteer,” said Blank. “If people are skilled in a particular area, they should consider offering demonstrations at the fair. I volunteer because I absolutely love the kids and I love the animals.”
For more information on how to get involved, call Laura Blank at (909) 636-1276.