The start

We started raising rabbits in early July, by buying two girls and a boy from a specialist farm in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture. They are of the Japanese White variety, so they’re albinos, complete with the scary pink eyes. Our main reasons for keeping them are to get meat (not from them, but from future generations) and to give the farm some herbivores. The meat thing is obvious, but the point of having herbivores is that we have land that grows huge amounts of vegetation of all kinds. Some of that vegetation is directly useful, but a lot of it isn’t. If we have something that will munch on that all day, they will convert the weeds into higher-value compost that will improve our land all over the farm. Also, the pattern of herbivores grazing on the land and being followed by birds mimics a real pattern in nature. Other options are goats and sheep, but rabbits are smaller and easier. Another advantage of these particular rabbits is that they’re mainly bred for use in medical experiments, so the more we can redeem from that and provide with good lives, the better.

Practices

We keep them outside in fenced areas of our fields, with a couple of simple tents for shelter. Other than what they can eat from the land in each enclosure, we watch to see what they like and feed them more of that from other fields, or from nearby wild areas. Favourites include kudzu vine, mugwort, and goldenrod. They also get pellet feed, which is organic but still contains grains. We want to phase the pellets out in favour of some home-made feed, mainly to make sure Tal doesn’t react to the grain inputs when eating the meat (our chickens get grain-free diets for the same reason, so that their eggs and meat are safer).

Once each patch of ground starts to get muddy or threadbare, we move them to another enclosure.

Results

On the surface, our results have been pretty disastrous. Taking a broader view, though, it has been worthwhile.

The girls escaped a few times, and we recaptured them by chasing them, or with a catch-and-release box trap. Then one of the girls (Mimi) escaped and we never got her back. We saw her around for a while, then not, so either something ate her or she moved away.

The boy started showing weakness in his left hind leg soon after arrival. We’re not sure if it was splayed leg syndrome or possibly heatstroke in extremely hot weather, but it never got better. He lived as a rabbit with disability, still able to enjoy life, move around, and mate with the girls. He appeared to be getting faster and stronger, and learning to work around his disability, but he suddenly died, apparently peacefully, on October 13th.

Lessons learned

Nice guys

These rabbits are much better-natured than we expected. From what we’d heard about rabbits, either as pets or livestock, we were expecting them to be rather fussy, easily frightened, possibly violent to each other, and unfriendly to humans. What we actually found is that they’re friendly to each other, adventurous, calm, adaptable, and even friendly to us. When we move them to a new place, including times we brought them into the house to shelter from typhoons, their reaction, was “new place, wow, this is interesting, I wonder what the food’s like”, rather than “oh no, unfamiliarity”. Benny, with his bad legs, still persevered and led a recognizably rabbitish life (running around, eating, mating, community, digging). Overall, we’re impressed with these rabbits, and we enjoy working with them (liking them is a mixed blessing when they’re livestock rather than pets, but I guess it’s better than working with animals that have been over-adapted into madness or stupidity).

Escapologists

We never had any dig their way out, but they can jump through small, high-up gaps and eat through unprotected plastic mesh. Once outside, they might wish they had an easy way back in, but they’re not interested in being grabbed and put there. Catch and release traps do seem to work, but I’m not sure whether we’re really capturing them with our high-end human ingenuity and opposable thumbs, or whether the trap is a tool the rabbits use to say “OK, I’m done out here, gimme some of that bait food and take me home”.

Skilled

Faced with a field of tall, mixed vegetation, they can go in and start foraging for whatever food suits them. They don’t eat everything indiscriminate until their luck runs out and they eat something toxic to them, or until they burst. They like pellet food, but when there’s fresh salad, they usually eat that first.

They also build hide spaces in dense cover, which they can run into in a moment and become completely invisible, even from the air. These are bright white rabbits, so you’d expect them to stand out like the inverse of a cockroach on a white rug, but they really do vanish, at least to human senses.

The rabbits who were outside in the wild looked happy and were well able to feed themselves. They’re fast and stealthy. That suggests that they might be able to survive as a wild population, if only by breeding fast enough to stay ahead of attrition (which is basically how rabbits exist anyway). There’s scope for exploring ways to improve the odds in their favour while letting them live fully free range.

Sociable

These rabbits liked each other and functioned as a group, not just as three rabbits in the same place. The only times they looked unhappy were when they were alone (Benny, the time both girls escaped and left him alone, and Nana, when she was the last one left). Even when the girls escaped, they stuck around, presumably to be close to the ones in the paddock. Clearly keeping a single rabbit is never going to be acceptable.

Relatively low maintenance

Compared to the various chicken flocks, looking after the rabbits didn’t burn much time. OK, there were only three of them, but scaling it up wouldn’t make it much more time-consuming.

Losses

Two out of three rabbits gone after three months. That’s pretty harsh.

One girl is only missing (we never found a corpse or an obvious kill site), so we can imagine her living the good life in a lush pasture somewhere, but she probably got eaten by a fox. This was a failure of containment, so it needs an engineering solution. Basically, I need to raise my game with the fencing.

Benny died from what we assume to have been complications of his illness. They were actually indoors at the time, for shelter from a typhoon. That means their food was controlled, so it doesn’t make sense that he ate anything poisonous or was scared by anything. Also, Nana was with him and she was fine. There’s not much to do about something that was probably congenital, other than to remember that Benny was adaptable enough to be functional. Once we have more rabbits, we’ll be able to absorb casualties better.

Taking stock

Inputs: Three rabbits, pellet feed, bedding straw, fencing and shelter materials, time (for building enclosures, gathering feed, cleaning, feeding, etc.)

Outputs: One more mature rabbit, knowledge and experience of rabbit care. Lots of good manure for fertilizer. No meat, no new rabbits.

Bottom line: As a way to get rabbit meat, this was a total failure. As a pilot project to gain expertise, it was a success.

The decision

So, we were left with one rabbit, Nana. She was lonely enough to crave human company, and might have adapted to enjoy life as a pet, but that wouldn’t be good for us or for her. She doesn’t seem to be pregnant, so there are no more rabbits on the way. That leaves us with two options: Scrap the whole rabbit-raising idea and kill Nana for the pot/freezer, or double down and buy more rabbits. Despite the losses, we decided we’re still in the rabbit-raising game, so on the 19th of October, I drove to the Inoue farm in Gunma and bought three more rabbits, two girls and a boy. Wish us luck. Whatever happens, those are three more that won’t end up in a lab somewhere.

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