A spinner and weaver from the Roberts Creek area, Barbara Ferguson has spent 30 years of her life raising Angora rabbits for their soft fur and fertilizing manure, and they became a big part of her life.
“They’re not just rabbits, they’re part of my family,” Ferguson said.
As of June, Ferguson was taking care of about 90 rabbits, until a highly infectious mosquito-borne disease called myxomatosis spread through her animals, killing all but one.
When she looks back, it’s surreal to her that something that’s eaten up the majority of her schedule is now gone.
“Thirty years I’ve devoted to my Angoras, and I sacrificed a lot for them,” Ferguson said. “Now, I’ve got empty cages all over my acre. It’s been hard beyond words.”
During the first part of July, she noticed her top white show doe’s eyes were swollen up. The doe lived three days before the disease took her, then the rabbits close by started showing symptoms.
“It’s been devastating,” Ferguson said. “By the end of July I’d lost three rabbits, and then they started dying everyday.”
She took a couple of the rabbits to Oregon State University’s Veterinary Hospital, where they were examined and confirmed to have myxomatosis. None of the local veterinarians specialize in rabbits, Ferguson said, and there’s no cure or vaccine for the virus.
This deadly disease that causes mucus around the eyes originated in Uruguay and was deliberately introduced into Australia to control the rabbit population.
“If you want something messed up, let man do it,” Ferguson said. The contagious virus lives in cages for up to two months, so Ferguson said she has to burn and bleach all of them.
Using the Angora fiber, Ferguson knits scarves and hats, which she calls her comfort jewelry, and sells her work at events at the Douglas County Fairgrounds and the Glide Fireman fundraiser show.
On full disability, Ferguson works one day per week at Costco, and her spinning and weaving supplements her income.
“If I don’t sell a rug here or there, then I don’t have enough money to even pay my auto insurance, so financially it’s been a real challenge,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson had showed the rabbits, including several grand champions, in American Rabbits Breeder Association shows and the Oregon Rabbits and Cavy convention at the Douglas County Fairgrounds in June.
“My rabbits have been the most important part of Dancing Willow and Friends, which is the name of my land,” she said. There’s a weeping willow tree in front of her cabin, but since weeping is sad and Ferguson loves ballet, she gave it a happier name.
One bunny she particularly misses was named Norman, who she said had the best personality of her herd. Every time she would groom a doe, Norman would “flop down on his side as if to say, ‘oh my gosh you’re so beautiful, you take my breath away.”
“Losing him was really hard because he was like a dog in rabbit’s form, he was just a great rabbit,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson’s herd isn’t the only one in the area to suffer from myxomatosis. It’s been found in her neighbor’s herd and at another farm in Oakland. A family in Riddle lost its herd to the disease twice and decided to stop raising rabbits.
Jeannette Burchell of Roseburg, who attends church with Ferguson, was a fellow spinner and weaver with Ferguson at the Douglas County Fair.
“As of last week, when Barbara and I were both at the fair, she had two from her herd left,” Burchell said. “One of them was sick, and so far none of them had survived.”
The sick rabbit took her last breath on Wednesday, while Ferguson’s friend was driving over to euthanize her.
“She fought long and hard, but she’s not suffering anymore,” Ferguson sniffled.
The remaining rabbit was renamed the Omega Bunny Man, after a movie about the last surviving man.
“These rabbits were her family, they were a part of her living,” Burchell said. “Much of her life was spent taking care of the rabbits, so it’s a big shock.”
“i wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. To say it’s been hard is an understatement,” Ferguson said. Though several friends have offered to give her more rabbits and back her financially, she said she doesn’t plan to raise more rabbits until more is known about myxomatosis or until she can get an air-conditioned hickory shed to keep out the mosquitoes.
“I’ve worked so hard for these rabbits, and it’s just mind boggling that 30 years of work can go away in a heartbeat,” Ferguson said. “I hope that everybody that can reach out and support someone that’s going through a trauma can and does.”
Prayers from her friends and little displays of generosity are what keep her afloat. Anonymous friends have been slipping Dutch Bros. gift cards through her truck’s open window while it’s been parked at church. Another person slipped in enough money to pay for half of her water bill.
“Thank you to all of you anonymous Dutch Bros. donors, I am very grateful,” Ferguson said. “It’s those kinds of things that keep you from completely crashing and burning.”