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Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Rabbitry

There is an elephant at the Permaculture Homestead, in my opinion…and it’s something that not many folks I’ve encountered like to even talk about. If you’ve read our posts, you’re aware by now that we are passionate about animals and their welfare. Many of my neighbors, fellow homesteaders, and Permaculturists want to raise meat animals. They do care about the quality of the animal's life and want to provide a good home and diet for their animals.
There are handfuls of articles out there heralding the convenience of meat rabbits for small scale and urban homesteaders. They are quiet and will not annoy neighbors. They are prolific and will produce many offspring. They are also primarily grass eaters, making their food easy to come by. The final reason that homesteads gravitate toward bunny breeding and eating is one that raises, for me, more questions than it answers. They can be kept in small cages.
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I am struck with a sense of hypocrisy when I see a homesteader providing the best pasture, the cutest coziest stall, and lots and lots of running room for their horses, cows, and sheep, and then, on the other hand, they raise meat rabbits in suspended wire cages. Tons of experts will tell you that it’s a clean and safe way to raise rabbits, but I have to wonder if that reasoning is from the rabbit’s perspective or the humans. Is it more convenient to have their poop in a pile that you’ve got to shovel out and distribute around your garden? Debatable. Is it worth reducing the quality of life of your animals drastically? A rabbit tractor may be the best of all worlds in this respect. Rabbits are on grass, where they would naturally be so you don’t have to feed them, and the excrement is distributed by them…not you.

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Permaculture is about imitating nature, observing natural ecosystems, and attempting to recreate that stability and complexity within our own systems. We tend to recoil away from systems that confine animals and concentrate waste and are drawn to systems that rely on the animal’s instincts and behavior. For instance, a dairy where the cows are kept in concrete stalls for the entirety of their milk-giving career would not be a system that a Permaculturist would adopt. From our perspective that is a labor intensive, risky business. Why would you harvest and bring food to the cow when she is quite willing and eager to go and get it herself? Why would you concentrate her waste just to spend laborious hours re-distributing it when she can distribute it for you? Why would you ever risk her becoming ill because you can’t read her mind when she is capable of self-medicating if allowed a wide variety of forage and free choice? When you take this perspective, suddenly what is convenient for you is also beneficial for your animals. I think rabbit raising is no different and suspended wire cages are the concrete stalls of a dysfunctional rabbitry. 

Joel Salatin (Yes, I have to bring him up in every meat-animal related article I write) says to honor the cowness of the cow, the pigness of the pig…and the rabbitiness of the rabbit! Tell me what rabbitiness is expressed from the 24 inch square of a suspended wire cage? Not a whole lot. Rabbits are ground animals, not only that but they are burrow creatures. Getting their paws into the soil is an ecstatic fulfillment of purpose for them (seriously). If you’ve ever watched rabbits dig, you know what I’m talking about.

We are currently in the process of improving our rabbitry, and in the coming months, I will write a piece dedicated to showing it to you. In a word, though, I’d say it’s paradise. Paradise for rabbits, and I don’t think any of our animals deserve anything less. It didn’t take too much work, it’s not difficult to maintain, and it encourages the widest range of behavior in our animals which is what we strive for in every environment we create. I still get rich compost, it’s super convenient for feeding, and our rabbits have fresh grass and an extensive tunnel system they built. By incorporating the habitat into our greenhouse, they get protection from weather and predators plus I get to throw them whatever treats happen to be growing in there.
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Our system isn’t for everyone, but it works for our homestead. I encourage everyone considering raising meat rabbits to avoid wire cages at all costs and put some time into designing a habitat that is rich for both you and your animals.  Farmers aiming to nurture life, add vibrancy, and create a sense of whimsical magic will benefit from self-designing their habitats within their practical design. That goes for every animal on the farm, always think habitat…not stall or coup or field or shed, and certainly not cage. It's not Permaculture until all of the aspects of the farm function like an ecosystem.

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