When guinea pigs rule

Routt County Fair focuses on smaller animals, too

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— Horses, steers, lambs and pigs are the glamour pusses in the livestock divisions of the Routt County Fair. But away from the commotion of the big show ring is a smaller barn, where roosters, turkeys, mini lop rabbits and even guinea pigs are the stars.

A small crowd gathered in the rabbit and poultry barn at mid-afternoon on Wednesday, with the poultry judging complete and the rabbit judging still to come. Show judge Merritt Esmiol of Kremmling stepped up to an L-shaped table and readied himself. A silver-haired gentleman with enormous hands, Esmiol pulled on a white lab coat. On the back of the coat was a large oval patch signifying his certification by the American Rabbit Breeders Association.

Esmiol began the afternoon with the guinea pig classes. He picked up one long-haired rodent, looked the exhibitor in the eye and asked, "Have you checked your boar's teats?" The young lady looked nonplused and peeled back the animal's gums to reveal its teeth.

"I said 'teats, not teeth,'" the judge patiently corrected.

Esmiol gently turned the guinea pig over and probed its belly solemnly with his thumb. Sure enough, the guinea pig had two sound teats. Its feet were in good condition too.

A guinea pig should have an even, straight conformation on both sides of its body it shouldn't be too plump, Esmiol explained to the contestants. He put the guinea pig back in its temporary cage and moved on to the next animal.

Small animals like guinea pigs and rabbits are ideal for young fair participants just getting started in exhibiting, rabbit show superintendent Patti Muhme said. Even some preschoolers are ready for the responsibility of caring for a rabbit.

"There's a 3-year-old entered in this year's fair," Muhme said. She insisted the tyke takes more responsibility for the care and feeding of the rabbit than do her parents.

"If they know that a bunny is like a baby, then they can understand that it needs food and water," Muhme said. "It teaches responsibility. It teaches about love."

Mandy Lewis entered a rabbit known as a mini lop in this year's fair. The breed is known for its ears, which begin to flop over when they reach maturity.

Some of the critical considerations when showing rabbits at the fair include brushing their coats, clipping their toenails and making sure their teeth and eyes are well cared for.

"You have to make them look pretty," Lewis said.

Muhme said that rabbits definitely have personalities, and in many cases the males are easier to work with than the females.

"Bucks tend to have a more docile personality than does," Muhme said. "The does are really nice until they reach breeding age, when they tend to get ornery."

Turkeys have a reputation for being cranky birds, but Randall Muhme, 14, of Hayden has the big birds figured out. The two hens he entered in the "barbecue special" class won the grand champion banner at the fair this year.

This marks the second time in three years Randall has entered the grand champion birds. Last year he settled for reserve grand champion.

The barbecue class requires each exhibitor to enter a pair of birds, either toms or hens. The goal is to enter perfectly matched turkeys. The destiny of the birds is implicit in the phrase "barbecue special."

"You want them to be clean with no missing tail feathers, no broken toes and no split wings," Muhme said.

The two birds he entered this year were within 8 ounces of each other in weight, tipping the scales right around 25 pounds.

Muhme's success can be attributed in part, he said, to special pens he constructed for the birds. The pens protect the turkeys from the elements and from marauding predators, which range from raccoons to dogs.

Visitors to the fair this weekend will have to search for the rabbit and poultry barn, but it's easy enough to locate if you use your ears just follow the sound of the crowing rooster.

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