Charlie Makes News
Charlie Lacey, president of the Northern California Angora Guild and board member of the California Wool and Fiber Festival routinely educates spectators regarding the origin of their fine sweaters during his near-legendary Angora rabbit clipping demonstrations at the Mendocino County Fair.
Lacey has been a resident of Willits for 16 years, beginning as a part-timer when he and his partner David originally purchased their 40-acre rural parcel. When Lacey retired from Wells Fargo Bank at the age of 55 after 33 years of employment, the couple was able to move to the county full-time.
"I started at Wells Fargo in the mail room," explains Lacey. "It seemed like a good foot in the door. An opening came up in the microfilm department. I had previous experience in film processing, so I applied for the position and got it." Back then, banks relied on microfiche for data storage, but gradually the department moved into computer operations. "You were able to get on-the-job training back then. I hit the jackpot. I have been one of the lucky, lucky people in life," Lacey muses.
Prior to his retirement, Lacey visited the Boonville Fair and saw his first Angora rabbit. "Someone was showing a French Angora rabbit. I'd never seen anything so gorgeous in my life," he recalls. David was involved in fiber arts, and Lacey thought raising the rabbits might be a way to supplement his retirement income.
"I took up spinning first," says Lacey. "Then I went on line. I researched everything about rabbits, the wool and the business. I read and read." Lacey was lucky to meet Betty Chu - the foremost breeder of English Angora rabbits worldwide. "I devoured everything on her website," Lacey explains.
After careful consideration, Lacey decided to get a rabbit. "I thought, I'll just get a pet quality rabbit to start. I met Betty at a show and she brought me my first rabbit, which I fell in love with." That rabbit developed an illness and died within about five months. "Betty offered another rabbit at a reduced price, which is what most reputable people would do. I think she also wanted to encourage me to get into this," he smiles.
His second rabbit was named Whitey. "I got a lot of flack for that name. People would say, boy, I bet that took a lot of thought.'" Though he had a rabbit, he didn't have a show-quality animal - yet. "My friends said Charlie, you're the only person who goes to shows and doesn't bring a rabbit with you."
Lacey started out small. Today he has 20 English Angora rabbits - some for showing and others for "wool gathering."
"Like all show animals, rabbits have their standard of perfection that judges are looking for," Lacey explains. "The English Angora is a small rabbit with Dolly Parton hair." At about seven pounds, the compact body is utterly lost in the pouf of long wool which is blown, primped and combed until it achieves a level of fluff well exceeding twice the size of the rabbit's body.
Their temperament is very sweet, says Lacey. "I can't tell you how many times I've been at clipping demos and people have asked, is it tranquilized? Is it alive?'" The rabbits, virtually invisible except for two very round eyes and small, loppy, fur-covered ears, seem unfazed by their extensive, daily grooming sessions - to help display wool density and silky smooth coats.
Their wool is prized by spinners and can be plucked, clipped or combed. "All wool is hair, but not all hair is wool," explains Lacey, who says the rabbit's first coat is their best for showing.
He currently has three generations of rabbits, since rabbits are rabbits and their gestation period is a mere 31 days. Show-quality rabbits cost about $400, and their wool sells for $50 per pound. "It's definitely not a living, but the wool does pay for a few sacks of food," he smiles.
David and Charlie have been building their dream home, which they moved into only a few weeks ago. Coming from the city, Lacey has learned everything about country life - from compost privies to frozen pipes - and he loves it all. Lacey has performed in numerous productions for the Willits Community Theater. As an openly gay couple - one of the first to marry at the county courthouse in 2008, Charlie and David have found a community filled with loving, accepting friends and neighbors.
And as far as the rabbits go, Charlie is impishly philosophical. "They're a little like me. They'd rather be eating right now, but in the big picture, they have a pretty good life."'