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There are three “Chinchilla” breeds of rabbit recognized by ARBA: Standard, American, and Giant.
The Standard Chinchilla (then called simply the “Chinchilla” rabbit) was developed in France from wild-colored agouti rabbits, Beverens, and Himalayans, and were first shown in Paris in 1913. It immediately became immensely popular, because its rich, beautiful fur so closely resembled that of the South American rodent by the same name. In fact, they were nearly indistinguishable, once sewn into garments. The popularity of chinchilla coats among wealthy folks turned these rabbits into an overnight success.
In 1919, a shipment of Standard Chinchillas were brought to New York’s State Fair. They were sold to two Americans, and from there, several breeders began to work at producing larger rabbits with the same fabulous pelt, but one that was better suited for meat production as well. The same methods as breeders have used to create miniature horses, something called “selective breeding” was used, where the largest animals from various litters of young were retained and bred, slowly progressing in size until reaching a goal standard. They also selectively bred for a lighter bone structure, and a better type: one where more meat would be carried in the hindquarters, which would give the rabbits a better dress-out percentage. This new rabbit was accepted as a breed in 1924. Originally called the “Heavyweight Chinchilla,” the name was soon changed to “American Chinchilla.”
These two breeds have made a huge impact on rabbit breeders in America. In 1929, at least 17,000 of them were registered with ARBA (the American Rabbit Breeders Association), a record that hasn’t been broken to this day.
Contributions to Rabbitdom
No breed has made anywhere near as great a contribution to the world of rabbits as the Chinchilla. More breeds have been developed from the Chinchilla than any other breed of rabbit. All breeds that exhibit a chinchilla variety, such as the Satin, Rex, or Dutch, have used (or through their background via another breed have used) the Chinchilla to develop that variety. The Californian and the Cinnamon were developed directly by crossing Chinchillas, as were the Silver Marten and American Sable. The Silver Marten was actually developed from an occasional abnormality in the coloration genes of the Chinchillas which created “strange little black rabbits.”
No other rabbit breed has as great a claim to fame as the Chinchilla rabbit.
From Fame to Obscurity
From the 1920’s through the late 1940’s, the American Chinchilla was the most popular breed in the United States. They were kept in the back yards of a great number of homes, especially during the Great Depression and subsequent World War II. During the war, meat was rationed, if it was available at all, to be sent overseas to the troops. Rabbits provided even the most poverty-stricken with meat at quite literally no cost at all. People would grow vegetables in their family gardens, and feed the inedible parts to the rabbits.
After the war ended, meat became available in stores again, and backyard rabbits dwindled in popularity. Soon, most rabbit meat and furs were solely produced by commercial rabbitries. Then came the fatal blow: the demand for wearable rabbit fur plummeted. Commercial rabbitries began switching to white-colored rabbits for meat production, as the fur may be dyed any color and sold to a greater number of industries. The American Chinchilla was doomed.
It’s perhaps a cruel irony that many wild animals become extinct when too many people want to eat them, while domestic livestock animals can go extinct when people don’t want to eat them anymore.
Two solitary breeders, the only known keepers of American Chinchillas in the world at one point, kept the breed from extinction.
The Challenges of Raising a Rare Breed
When any species or breed of animal goes nearly extinct, you end up with a very small genepool to rebuild from. This was the case for the American Chinchilla.
Rabbits do have the advantage of being very nearly immune to the same dangers of inbreeding that exist for other species: genetic mutations do not occur with anywhere near the same frequency for rabbits, as they have evolved to naturally thrive in communities that may contain related individuals. Rabbits are not selective nor monogamous in their breeding habits.
Even with this fascinating and almost entirely unique strength, American Chinchillas have had the cards stacked against them.
Luckily, their incredible assets as a meat production breed, and their temperament, ease of care, and gorgeous color, have brought them back from the brink. Not to mention the challenge involved in “re-developing” them, and for some, the patriotism of working with what’s known as a Heritage breed. Having been developed in the United States, they are one of our National treasures.
So why American Chinchillas?
Why do I raise them, you ask? What made me choose them, over all of the other breeds?
Partly for their beauty. Partly because of their incredible efficiency. Partly for their hardiness and stoicism. Partly because of their gentle, social personalities and lovely temperament. But also, because I do enjoy the challenge. I feel a sense of accomplishment as I watch this breed improve, as I selectively breed the very best animals I can, and do my best to produce ever-improving American Chinchillas. Someday, perhaps, this beautiful animal will be returned to its rightful, and well-deserved, height of fame and popularity.
Until then, those of us who have chosen this adventure will continue to work with them, and promote them. Getting the word out to other breeders, and championing the cause of bringing this Heritage breed to others, so the bloodlines have a chance to diversify further, greater numbers are produced, and more breeders are working to improve them, is the best chance we have for saving this wonderful breed of rabbit.