One of my greatest learning lessons over the past twelve months has been breeding and raising rabbits for food security purposes.
When I arrived in Uganda over a year ago, my first assignment with KIHEFO was to research and write a proposal on the benefits of raising rabbits as a low-cost food security solution, particularly for children suffering from protein deficiency and malnutrition.
On paper, there are plenty of reasons why raising rabbits make sense.
Of course, according to the famous saying – “breeding like rabbits” – rabbits can reproduce litters of anywhere from four to ten babies, four to five times a year. 1 X 6 X 4 = 24 rabbits. Not too shabby of a return on your investment, folks.
Rabbits can be raised in small, elevated cages using local materials, like wood, bamboo and scrap waste parts. In comparison to raising chicks and ducklings for meat, there are no heaters or electricity required for the young.
And while rabbits do eat a lot they can feed on locally available weeds and greens. They don’t require expensive feeds at the market (corn, bran, fishmeal, etc.) and nor is their food preparation extensive. Pick the greens, dry for an hour and feed.
Rabbits are a very low-energy, low-resource, efficient meat source.
So you can imagine, after two months of researching, in theory, the numerous benefits to raising rabbits, I became a real believer. But I also wanted to put the theory to practice.
In April 2013, my carpenter savvy friends built a beautiful rabbit cage, with four separate cages, and wire mesh as the floor to allow the urine and droppings to fall on the ground.
We purchased two does (female rabbits) and one male for 45,000 Ugandan shillings (about $18) and once settled in their new home we bred them – and waited for thirty days.
Admittedly, farming in practice is always different from the textbook examples. Initially, we struggled with our breeding females. They both produced litters of six, or seven young, but (quite tragically) ate their babies. Not once, but twice. People told us that this was a common behavior seen in rabbits and usually indicated some level of stress.
We tweaked our cages, tweaked our feeds, but unfortunately, the ‘bad mama syndrome’ persisted, much to my absolute horror! Eventually, we learned that the best course of action was to “cull” (a more pleasant euphemism for ‘slaughter’) mama rabbit and buy another breeding female.
Right. Then came the “culling” bit. It was time to eat Chocolate, one of the females.
On paper, I would’ve been thrilled with the opportunity to harvest what we had been raising. In practice, I was disgusted. All gag reflexes were on stand-by. No freakin’ way would I eat Chocolate. Not the fluffy kind with two floppy ears, anyways.
“Do you want to be a farmer, or what?” my boyfriend Atayo asked me, with equal parts teasing and seriousness in his voice.
I did want to be a farmer, but I didn’t know if I was ready (or if I’d ever be capable) to eat what I had raised.
I was actually surprised by my own behavior. I grew up as the daughter of a hunter of birds and large game. I knew how deer, elk and moose meat was carved and packaged and prepared. I loved the taste of wild game. And mostly I loved that I knew where my meat came from. My dad had taught me that hunting is both practical and spiritual.
But face-to-face with twitchy-nosed Chocolate, there was no way I could eat her. I had named her, fed her and interacted with her on a daily regime for four months. Chocolate and I had a relationship. I knew her favourite weeds and her behaviors, too (foot stomping usually implied, “leave the food and go, lady!”)
It was inevitable; however, that Chocolate was going to be eaten – with or without me. Atayo prepared the banana leaf, sharpened the knife and I held my breath.
I had to ask myself: “Why am I so upset?”
Was it because I thought she’d die in a cruel way? Or that she hadn’t lived a good life? Or that she deserved to live and go free? Was I committing a violent act by slaughtering and eating her?
These questions forced me to stop and reflect on the best course of action, according to my personal ethics. In the end, I decided that Chocolate hadn’t lived a bad life; she’d been very well fed and cared for (even loved). If she had gone free in Kabale, she wouldn’t have lived for long, I can assure you. And her death was clean and fast – and done by hand.
In the end, I didn’t see any violence in the action. No soil was degraded by her needs. No pesticides sprayed and no contamination seeping into waterways. No machine fed, bred or culled her. Everything that went into her life was done by passionate hands.
Though it wasn’t easy, I did eat Chocolate for dinner. It wasn’t my favourite meal, by any means, but I knew if I didn’t try it once, I would probably never try it again. I wanted to believe in the benefits of raising rabbits – in theory and practice.
Today I’m happy to report that our rabbit population has increased exponentially. Thanks to a fat and fertile female, whom I’ve affectionately named Butterball, we’ve produced two litters of 10 babies, bringing our total to sixteen rabbits. We’ve sold two and eaten many.
Though it wasn’t an easy journey, today I can cuddle the babies, give them names, feed them, watch them grow and develop, and I feel quite confident that I can slaughter and eat them, too.
The truth is that we no longer buy meat from the market or grocery store (though we do enjoy the ‘Pork Joint’ now and then) and we eat primarily vegetarian meals only, with the monthly side of rabbit in rosemary sauce.
I am confident that loving your rabbits, goats, chickens, or cows – and building relationships with them – is the most ethical way we can raise animals for meat. It does require a lot of emotional investment, and sometimes turmoil, too, but truly we should experience the face-to-face emotional challenge of taking another living being’s life and eating it.
Of course, not everyone needs to be a farmer; not everyone needs to rear animals and slaughter them for meat, but I would argue that all meat-eaters, at least once in their lives, should be exposed to what it takes for an animal to get to their plate.
On a closing note, any recipe for stovetop rabbit would be highly welcomed.