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Harrisburg - At 18 years old, Richard Vaerewyck knows more about rabbits and guinea pigs, or cavies, than most teenagers can imagine. As a recent National Rabbit King and current Pennsylvania Rabbit King, Vaerewyck has been showing and breeding rabbits and cavies for the past 10 years. As he nears the end of his reign, he will move on to the next level, becoming an official rabbit and cavy judge.

A freshman at Duquesne University studying biology, Vaerewyck grew up in West Deer, Allegheny County. He bought his first cavy from the pet store when he was eight years old and found out soon thereafter she was pregnant.

"I thought the babies were cute," Vaerewyck said. "I decided to begin breeding cavies and rabbits."

Vaerewyck joined the Butler Bunny Bunch 4-H club, of which he is still a member, and began showing and breeding cavies. At 10, he bought his first rabbit.

In 2007, Vaerewyck became the Pennsylvania and National Rabbit King, titles he has held for the last three years, and the National Cavy King, which he held for two consecutive years. In fact, Vaerewyck was the first person to win both national contests in consecutive years, a competition that is no easy feat.

While the state and national competitions are completely exclusive of each other, they have similar requirements.

At the state competition, held in February at the Lebanon Expo Center, contestants must submit an essay application of up to five pages long. They also prepare a presentation on the rabbit industry, interview with a panel of judges, judge classes of rabbits, complete a 200-question test and identify several rabbits by breed and variety. Vaerewyck had one of two winning presentations in the 2007 contest, allowing him to share his presentation at the state awards banquet.

At the national contest held in late fall, contestants do not prepare a presentation, but the other requirements are the same as the Pennsylvania contest. The national contest generally attracts between 10 and 20 contestants in the King contest and between 50 and 100 contestants in the Queen contest.

Vaerewyck traveled to the 2007, 2008 and 2009 national conventions, held in various locations across the country. For the 2009 convention in San Diego, he fundraised for the event by creating a Bunny Bus. Vaerewyck drove more than 200 rabbits in a 26-foot car hauler from Pennsylvania to San Diego.

As the state rabbit king, Vaerewyck represents the Pennsylvania State Rabbit Breeders Association at the Pennsylvania Farm Show reception and opening ceremonies and gives presentations on caring for rabbits. He also passes out awards at the state convention and judges shows at county fairs.

On the national level, Vaerewyck is charged with getting more people interested and involved in the American Rabbit Breeders Association, so that more members will become rabbit judges.

As his reign comes to a close, Vaerewyck looks ahead to the next level of becoming a certified rabbit judge, a process he has already begun.

To become certified, Vaerewyck had to first apply to get into the registrar. He found 20 members of the American Rabbit Breeders Association to sign their support, took written and oral tests, worked with three rabbit judges and registered several rabbits over the past two years.

Next, Vaerewyck will need to take another round of written and oral tests. When he passes those tests, he will need to work with eight certified rabbit judges before he can become certified.

"I'm hoping to take the tests at the state convention in February," Vaerewyck said. "Then I'll begin to work with other judges over the next year."

Vaerewyck recognized that serving as the rabbit king has helped his personal communication skills.

"People come and talk to me all the time about rabbits," he said. "It's helpful to be able to answer them easily."

He has also been able to use his experiences in recent interviews. Vaerewyck was selected to serve as a community member on the local animal research board and has applied to become a resident assistant at Duquesne University. He is also a member of the Tri Beta Biological Honors Society and plans to join the Duquesne Ecology Club.

After graduating from Duquesne, Vaerewyck plans to attend vet school, either at Purdue University or the University of Pennsylvania.

Now that he's busy in college, Vaerewyck has passed most of his rabbits down to his younger brothers. However, Nemo, a Flemish Giant, will always be his.

"He's my buddy," said Vaerewyck. "He's so friendly and great with school kids."

The Pennsylvania Farm Show is the largest indoor agricultural event in the nation, featuring nearly 6,000 animals, 10,000 competitive exhibits and 290 commercial exhibitors. The show runs Jan. 8-15 at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center in Harrisburg. Admission is free and parking is $10.

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