Bunny Buffet 

Rabbit is a healthy and sustainable meat, so why are we averse to eating it?

My wife won't let me raise rabbits as food in the back yard. She's of the opinion that it will be traumatic for her and our children to nurture the little fluff balls and then slaughter them for dinner.

She definitely has a point; rabbits are a cultural phenomenon. From the Easter Bunny to Thumper to Peter Rabbit to Bugs Bunny, rabbits are seen as cute and cuddly pets, not supper.

Not that rabbits don't make excellent table fare. They are lean and healthy white meat. According to rabbitbreeders.us, rabbit has 800 calories per pound of meat, less fat than chicken or pork, and about half the cholesterol of chicken or pork. Rabbit is one of the most sustainable and sanitary meats available on the market and is often referred to as "the other, other white meat."

Daren Withers, owner of The Lucky Four Farm in Marsing, is currently raising about 30 adult rabbits and selling them monthly to a company in Washington for high-end pet food. He would prefer his meat go to people, but said he's unable to sell his rabbit meat to consumers.

"Idaho is a really difficult place to process rabbits for human consumption. ... It considers rabbits the same as wild game meat," said Withers. "They won't let me process my rabbits for the same reason that they won't let me shoot a deer and sell it to you."

Withers is referring to the ban on the commercial sale of wild-hunted game meat laid down in the early 20th century. These laws are what protect deer, ducks and other game animals from being shot and sold on the open market. Because domestic rabbits are still classified as a game animal, Withers is unable to sell his meat directly to the public.

"If I had the time and the knowledge, I would like to change that law. Rabbits are a domestic animal," he said.

Withers can, however, sell rabbits "on the hoof" to meat consumers, they just have to do the killing and butchering themselves.

For those whose families don't object, raising rabbits is fairly easy--a small pen, a grow light and some food is about all it takes for a successful operation. Books and other materials are readily available for those who seek them out.

According to Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City and the forthcoming book Gone Feral, "Rabbits are the new chickens" for urban growers. They are quiet, too, which is a bonus.

Chef Kirt Martin, owner of the Snake River Grill in Hagerman, raises rabbits on his property near the Snake River.

"I raise rabbits for the meat," Martin said during a meeting that started with a smoked sturgeon sampling and ended with a home-cured bacon tasting. "They taste like chickens used to when I was a kid."

Martin annually raises a brood of about 24 meat rabbits that he braises down into carnitas and then bags and freezes for his family. He even uses salad scraps from the restaurant as rabbit food.

"We just have a little bucket I take home each day and feed my rabbits with, you know, little lettuce ends and carrot tops," he said. "It's not economical, I just love the taste."

But not all rabbit-raising is cream and butter. My cousin John Smith bought one of his children a breeding pair of Holland Lop rabbits to show at 4-H events. The goal was to sell the young rabbits as pets or food and the money would subsidize the care of the animals.

Unfortunately, his rabbits did do what rabbits do, and made a large number of babies. But the mothers ignored them and then ate them. (This is, apparently, a common occurrence among rabbits.) So the brood that they were hoping to start is now lacking in the baby department. "I'm into this now a couple hundred dollars; ain't no way we are making our money back," Smith said.

But being hopeful with rabbits and breeding is understandable--they really are remarkable meat-makers. According to the website rabbitbreeders.us, a single rabbit doe can produce 300 pounds of meat in a single year.

"The best commercial does can produce 15 or 16 kits per litter, which grow out to five pounds by 10 weeks of age," the website states.

Withers raises and breeds New Zealand white rabbits.

"One of the other cool things is their food-conversion rate: It is only about three pounds of feed per one pound of rabbit," Withers said.

Compare that to beef, which has a conversion ratio of 9-to-1, and you can see the economics of rabbit production. Cheap to feed, low space impact and healthy meat.

Idaho meat rabbit raisers even have their own club, the Idaho Meat Rabbit Growers Association, imrga.org. The club offers online forums that help with growing, breeding and selling rabbits. It also lists contact information for meat rabbit growers.

I'm thinking the best bet for convincing my wife to let me raise rabbits is accurate naming of the creatures. Instead of Fluffy and Thumper, I'll go for more classic French names like Pate and Stew. So, what do you say, hon?

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