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Cakes, shakes -- and livestock

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2002

PLANT CITY -- Kyle Cook's bunny is a giant blob of white fur.

PLANT CITY -- Kyle Cook's bunny is a giant blob of white fur.

It is a New Zealand white, weighs 12 pounds and hopefully will bring Cook a blue ribbon at this year's rabbit competition at the Florida Strawberry Festival.

Cook, 15, is also hoping his three other New Zealand rabbits will win. They are younger, fuzzier and cuter than the big rabbit.

They also have an unfortunate nickname.

"Fryers," Cook said.

Cook is one of dozens of kids who are exhibiting animals at this year's festival, which opens today and runs through March 10. The festival was started 67 years ago by the Lions Club as a way to celebrate the tasty berry. Florida has about 6,000 acres of strawberries, the majority of them in Hillsborough County.

When visitors are done sucking down the festival's famous strawberry shakes, eating the decadent strawberry shortcake and riding the "Berry-Go-Round," they can experience old Florida when they step into the horticulture and livestock tents.

Many of the exhibitors are children participating as part of their schools' 4-H programs. Others live on farms. Nearly all use "ma'am" and "sir" when talking to adults.

On Wednesday, hundreds of children brought their animals to the festival. The pigs rode in crates in the beds of pickup trucks. The bunnies came in cages. The chickens and roosters came in whatever was handy.

George Smelt, 16, brought his Buff Giant rooster in a used deep fryer box.

"I just wanted to show him off," said Smelt, who lives in Valrico.

For some, showing animals is a bittersweet experience. After caring for their animal for several months, they show it at the festival. Then the animal is sold for slaughter.

"You can't get too attached," said Megan Miller, 16, of Tampa. "A lot of times you have to part with them."

Miller and her sister, 13-year-old Sarah, won't have to part with their four bunnies after the festival. Unlike the pigs and cows, bunnies are not sold.

But that doesn't mean the rabbits won't end up on someone's dinner plate. Cook calls his bunnies "working rabbits" because they are raised for their meat.

Michele Curts, 13, knows she will have to say goodbye to her 6-month-old pig.

"I cried last year, and I'll probably cry again this year," said Curts, who is showing her second pig this year.

She's trying to be strong, and even gave the 254-pound pig a name: Barbie-Q.

"It's worth the experience, though," said Curts, of Dover. "You learn new things that not a lot of people learn."

How to wash a pig, for instance.

Getting Barbie-Q ready for show may be challenging this week because of the chilly weather. The pig may have to settle for a thorough brushing.

Several decades ago -- more than he would like to remember -- Joe Newsome entered his Christmas cactus in the horticulture competition. That was before the fair had livestock competitions.

Newsome, who grew up on a strawberry farm and is now one of the directors of the festival, remembers that he won a blue ribbon.

"That was back when $5 would be enough for all day at the festival," he said.

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