RICHLAND — Donald Oser built his red barn in back of his home, beside rolling green farmland in a quiet neighborhood. He would breed hundreds of rabbits there, showing some to schoolchildren who knew him as "the bunny man."
Mr. Oser was considerably less cuddly than his furry friends, most of whom wound up in shows, sold to laboratories or butchered for their meat. He did not feign affection for those he disliked. In social situations, he was content to sit for long stretches unless the conversation turned to rabbits or his grandchildren.
Women didn't ask him how they looked unless they were prepared for a blunt and sometimes unflattering reply.
"I think 'tact' is a word he didn't understand," said Martha Oser, his wife. "Only truth."
Mr. Oser, an award-winning rabbit judge who called it like he saw it, died May 2, at Tampa General Hospital. He was 72.
He poured a concrete floor and built shelves for his barn, designed to store tools and cultivate rabbits. He taught the rabbits to sit still as he placed them on a waist-high counter and ran his big hands over them.
This is what experts call "shaping" — allowing the handler to smooth the fur so it lies down flat, and check for features that might influence American Rabbit Breeders Association judges.
Mr. Oser traveled through Florida, Washington state and California as both breeder and judge at competitions similar to dog shows.
Judges note color and markings of rabbits, the length of their ears, the alignment of their teeth and the shape of their shoulders and hindquarters.
Judges in Tulsa, Okla., voted Mr. Oser the 1993-94 herdsman of the year for his Holland lops, a small breed known for droopy ears and sweet dispositions. He also raised New Zealands and dwarfs, and once owned as many as 500 rabbits.
He made extra money selling to laboratories and other breeders, or letting his rabbits be used for commercials. He did not work full time — the result of a back injury that changed the course of his life.
His wife doesn't remember the year. It was before they met. As a young man, she said, he rolled his Volkswagen and had to crawl out. Before help arrived, the burly 6-foot-6 former Marine righted the car himself — and messed up his back.
Another injury snapped his spine. He lived in pain.
He learned to make braces and other orthotics, but gave that up in the late 1970s. Rabbits gave him an outlet, and he made the most of it.
His wife made rabbit cacciatore with two teaspoons of garlic, dried sage and a little chili powder. "It pretty much tastes like chicken but a touch chewier," she said.
He delighted in showing children how to handle rabbits. After watching him at the Florida State Fair, another breeder who had previously thought him stern approached him.
"I've got your number," she told Mr. Oser. "You're just a crusty, burnt marshmallow."
Rabbit breeding has fallen off in Florida during the past 10 to 15 years, said Marvin Cummings of Lutz, president of the Coastal State Rabbit Breeders Association.
Like Mr. Oser, Cummings has sold to laboratories, especially state universities, which have used rabbits for eye research. At his peak, he owned 125 does producing four or five litters a year and still could not keep up with demand. To help fill orders, he bought rabbits from Mr. Oser.
These days, scientists no longer need anywhere near as many. "They are using more rats and mice than rabbits," said Cummings, 80. "Ophthalmologists know how to do cornea transplants; they've perfected all of those things now."
Lower demand for meat and more stringent slaughterhouse rules have also hurt breeders, he said.
Mr. Oser stopped raising rabbits years ago. Most of the tin roof on the barn has fallen in now. A 2002 calendar is still nailed to the wall above the counter where he once checked the body composition of rabbits.
The month of May hangs in shreds; June looks almost fresh.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.