Friday, February 10, 2012

Interview With A Rabbit Wrangler

I was asked a few questions, recently, about my personal experiences with raising rabbits, and although I do cover our experience, in a general way in Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs, I thought it might be helpful to answer some of the specific questions.

I've chosen to organize this post in an "interview" format.

So, here goes. The scenario is fiction. The questions - and answers - are real.

By Caria Scat

Several weeks ago, I was invited for a tour of Thrivalist, Wendy Brown's, suburban homestead. We strolled through her gardens, which were alive with colorful edibles, and literally, crawling with pollinators, most of which ignored us - even the hive of busy bees (yes, cliches are often accurate) she showed me in the backyard.

Next to the Top-Bar hive, Wendy and her husband, Deus Ex Machina, had constructed, what they call, the "chicken yard." It's large fenced area that is bookended by two plastic enclosed, wire-covered, wood framed structures that serve as both a coop (to keep the chickens out of the weather, especially in the winter) and a greenhouse.

Also, in the backyard, I noted the bunny hutches, and asked Wendy about her experiences raising rabbits.

And so began the incredibly fascinating tutorial on the life of a Rabbit Wrangler.

Caria: I'm interested in raising rabbits, and I'm curious what a day in the life of Wendy's rabbits is like.

Wendy: (laughs, huskily) How much time do you have? Seriously, let's grab a couple of spruce beers and go take a sit by the fire pit and chat.

Comfortably ensconsed in our sling-back camp chairs, sipping a cold brew, Wendy chatted with a comfortable familiarity about her rabbit companions.

Wendy: I think the biggest misconception is that because we eat our rabbits we don't have feelings about them, and nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I'd bet that I know as much (maybe more) about rabbit behavior and attitudes than some people who've had pet rabbits for years.

Caria: Like?

Wendy: Like, an unneutered male will seriously injure another male, if a female rabbit is nearby. A female mother will attack a much larger animal to protect her babies. In fact, we've been bitten and scratched by bunny mothers, who had previously been completely submissive and docile. I've even seen an unneutered male rabbit attack a male cat. It looks like playing and we all laugh and exclaim how cute, but the reality is that the male rabbit was trying to (and succeeding in, truth be told) assert his dominance. They do have a hierarchy, like most animals, and both male and female rabbits will mount the lesser members of their warrens.

Caria: So, they're not exactly the cute and cuddly creatures people want to believe they are.

Wendy: They are certainly amazing animals, and very worthy of our respect and admiration, but they are not helpless, and they can do a great deal of damage.

Caria: So, how do you keep the peace?

Wendy: We house males and females separately. Same-gender siblings who are housed together won't fight. It's only when the other gender is added to the mix that there's trouble, and if there is more than one male housed with any number of females, there's going to be a fight.

More importantly, once the rabbits reach sexual maturity, there's a strong drive to reproduce. Any available bunny is fine, irrespective of the lineage. Since our goal is not to have a bunny mill, we keep all of the boys separate from the girls, until we're ready for baby bunnies.

Caria: Since we're on the subject, talk to me a little bit about bunny fertility. Like how often do they mate?

Wendy: A doe is fertile almost as soon as she kindles, which means, in reality, a female rabbit could have eleven litters per year, but the survival rate of the babies and the health of the doe would be seriously compromised. I wouldn't recommend breeding more often than four times per year. Gestation is four to six weeks, depending on the breed (about thirty-one days is average), and the kits are weaned at around five weeks, which means there's a ten week turnaround from fertilization to harvest. While the rabbit may not care, I like to give her a rest period when she's doing neither, carrying nor nursing.

Caria: So, what about food? What do you feed your rabbits? What does it cost, and is it cost effective to raise rabbits over some other animals? And do you have to make any special considerations for water, especially during the winter?

Wendy: Okay, well, that's a bunch of different, perhaps, long questions, but to start, we use a commercially available rabbit feed from a local New England company called Poulin. It's not "certified" organic, but reading the ingredients, I feel comfortable that it's not full of crap I would not want my rabbits to eat. We've also used other, similar feeds, and stuff from the pet store, which is incredibly expensive, and not healthy at all (like eating McDonald's every day, essentially), and our rabbits neither enjoyed the food, nor thrived on it.

Rabbit pellet feed comes in two grades: #16 and #18. Sixteen is a general purpose feed and is sufficient for all bunnies. Eighteen is specifically designed for pregnant and nursing female rabbits. It has more calcium in it, and I wouldn't feed it to my male bunnies for fear of causing some urinary tract issues. We feed all of our bunnies #16, and we supplement, especially during the summer, with foraged and cultivated greens. The rabbits especially love comfrey, clover, raspberry leaf, and dandelion greens.

And hay. Hay is a very important part of the rabbit's diet, and so we make sure they always have access to hay.

The price of feed has been fluctuating wildly for the past four years, but on average, we pay $12 per fifty pound bag, and with our breeder pair and the three other does (which are mostly pets), we go through about a bag a month.

Our doe has had as many as eight kits. More often it's five, which means she gives us twenty babies each year. At harvest, they weigh around five pounds, which is three pounds or so of an incredibly lean, incredibly high in protein meat. On the market, rabbit meat is incredibly expensive, selling for as much as $10/pound. As such, if we sold one rabbit from each litter, that would keep us in rabbit feed for a whole year, and we'd still have enough meat to enjoy at least on meal per month. For the record, though, we do not sell our rabbit meat. My daughters will sell live rabbits, as pets or for breeding ;).

There are a lot of options for heated waterers, but we haven't tried any of those. We just make sure they have water every day, and on really cold days, we make sure to thaw out their water a couple of times a day.

Caria: I think the beer is going to my head a little.

Wendy: It's pretty potent stuff.

Caria: You've certainly given me a lot to think about. I guess my only other question is why you don't keep the rabbits inside during the winter. It seems a little ... I don't know ... harsh, to leave them out in the cold.

Wendy: Well, to be quite frank, rabbits fare better in the cold than they do in the heat. A rabbit's only way to cool itself is through its ears. Heat stroke is a real concern for rabbits when the weather gets hot. So, we use a hutch that has a wire area to allow air flow, but it also has an enclosed area that allows the rabbits to get out of the "weather." During the winter, we make sure they have plenty of water and plenty of hay, which they use both for bedding and to eat.

In the summer, their hutches are in the shade, but we also let them out into a tractor so that they can dig down in the dirt a bit and cool themselves against the earth - but we have to keep an eye on them, because they will dig out and under the tractor and be hopping around the yard.

Of course, rabbits are very territorial, and so they don't go very far, and we can usually get them back into the hutch to protect them from predators, which we do have, even here in the suburbs.

In the winter, when the deciduous trees shed their leaves, the hutches are warmed by the sun during the day.

I appreciated Wendy's candor and willingness to talk about a practice that, in this country, isn't very popular and has had some breeders butting heads with animal rights' activists. Wendy even mentioned that she'd been subject to some pretty harsh criticisms based solely on the fact that she raised rabbits for meat, but that the most rabidly outspoken of her opponents had never even bothered to meet with Wendy, or better, to meet Wendy's rabbits, who looked healthy and contented to this interviewer.

In the end, while I'm not, necessarily going to run out and pick up a breeder pair and start the process myself (we didn't talk about what Wendy so gently referred to as the
harvest, but for anyone considering rabbit raising, that must be part of the dialogue, better sooner than later), I was thankful that there are mindful people out in the world who are willing to put their necks on the proverbial chopping block to preserve a practice that might well be what saves our lives in this changing world.

As Wendy expressed, we need to take charge of our own food production. We simply can not depend on a system that is failing. Too much of our world is food insecure, which means there are a significant number of people who don't know where their next meal is coming from ... or even if there will be a next meal.

And worse, many of those people aren't in some Third World country living in a refugee camp. Many of them are our neighbors, who have a nice house and a big backyard and plenty of room to grow something other than annoyed at the system.

Rabbits don't take up a lot of space, don't cost a lot to raise, and provide an incredibly healthy alternative for those who choose to eat meat. For the person who is trying to provide most of his/her calories with a very limited space, rabbits are the best choice for meat production.

But Wendy says she's learned a lot from her rabbits, and they're more than just a meal. They are an integral part of the diverse landscape on which she is raising her family and building her life.

*Thanks to Steve for starting the dialogue. I hope I answered your questions :).


  1. This is all very interesting, Wendy! Thank you for answering my questions! :) I like the idea of producing a healthy meat with a significant percentage of local greens / grasses / hay /etc., and doing it in a small space while still being humane and respectful.

    I'd love to see the slaughter process (with photos!) but after what you said about animal rights activists giving you a hard time that might be too much to ask. I'll search around on the web to see what I can find. While I raise a bunch of meat chickens every summer I have to admit I've had the slaughtering handled by a slaughterhouse. That works when it's a one-time deal -- grow the chickens for 10 weeks, bring them all to slaughter, freeze them for eating all year. If I'm raising rabbits for meat on an on-going basis I'll need to learn to slaughter myself.

    Very interesting. Thanks for covering this in interesting (and fun!) detail.


  2. Not much chance that I'll be posting a "rabbit harvesting" tutorial with pictures. That said, we did do a podcast during which we butchered some rabbits, and we talk through the process.

    It's better to see it, though, and for people who are local to us, Deus Ex Machina and I are willing to and have done skillshares.