by Kate Tvelia Athearn
Nestled in a sunny corner of Sean and Rachel Rooney’s yard, protected from wind and predators, a complex of homemade hutches houses nine purebred rabbits. They are all well cared for, with trimmed nails and shiny coats, but only one is truly a pet—a fluffy white Angora given to their 13-year-old daughter, Charlotte, last spring. The remaining eight are livestock- breeding pairs, whose offspring will be raised and butchered for meat.
The Rooneys live on a quarter-acre lot in a cozy residential neighborhood in West Tisbury. They both have full-time, non-farming jobs, and their daughter has the average teenager’s schedule of school, sports and social obligations, but they all share a desire to produce as much of their own food as possible. They have a small but efficient garden where they grow as many veggies as they can eat and preserve for the winter, and they keep their own laying hens and meat birds. They would love to raise larger animals, but are confined by their space, and are sensitive to the proximity of their neighbors, who may be less fond of farm-y smells and sounds.
Rabbits don’t take up much space, don’t make noise and produce very little odor; the meat is higher in protein and lower in fat than just about any other meat around. Plus, their quick breeding cycles make it possible, even preferable, to breed them many times in a year, as often as every nine weeks. Multiply that by the five to eight kits each doe has per litter and, well—that’s a lot of Hasenpfeffer.
The Rooneys used to keep rabbits as pets, and were familiar enough with their behavior that they felt confident in fixing minor issues before they became full-blown bunny catastrophes. So they did some research and invested in a few breeding pairs, just to try it out, figuring they could at least sell the babies as pets or show rabbits if things didn’t work out.
As it turns out, Rachel and Sean have both found that raising rabbits has been much easier than any other animal they have raised (even the ever popular backyard meat chicken). Aside from daily feeding and watering, and the occasional nail trimming, they require very little care. When pregnant does are close to their due date, they need to be checked on often to make sure their babies get into the nesting box once they’re born, but they rarely have problems giving birth, and are usually excellent mothers.
And the Rooneys find the slaughter much easier than they expected. Together, Sean and Rachel could only process six to eight chickens per day, even after a few seasons of practice, but the first time they slaughtered rabbits they were able to process twice that amount in one day.
Compared with the labor intensive plucking of chickens, Rachel delights in the ease of skinning a rabbit: “Their pajamas come right off!”
Rachel and Charlotte have learned how to preserve and tan the pelts so the fur can be used in Rachel’s sewing projects, and they take pride in knowing that no part of their animal is going to waste.
Other farm animals may start out adorable, but they quickly grow up big and smelly, and the promise of bacon and lamb chops become infinitely preferable to the daily care of the livestock itself. But bunnies never outgrow their cuteness. Rachel admits the rabbits are sweet, but that ultimately doesn’t matter to the family: they honor and respect every animal they eat, whether they raised it or they caught it swimming in the sea or bounding through the forest. They believe in a humane life and death, and they give all that and more to their rabbits.