From what I understand, Dancing Rabbit got its name before the people who started it even bought the land in Missouri where the future ecovillage was to be located. When they eventually moved here, they were surprised to find rabbits running around, possibly dancing (maybe if you squinted your eyes a bit), everywhere. So the name was never some kind of tribute to the abundant rabbits found here.
|Rabbit in the pressure cooker|
My first experiences with rabbits here were fairly positive. I liked seeing them hopping around but always thought of bunnies as fuzzy cute things, never as food. After gardening at Dancing Rabbit for a while, I came to realize that the bunnies made things very difficult. They are pretty much the reason people have to fence their gardens. If you don't have a fence, it will be difficult if not impossible to get most vegetables going, and forget about edamame or carrots for the entire season. And they always seem to find ways to get into fencing and devastate your crops. Although rabbits eat all of some tender plants, they have a pernicious habit of lopping off the tops of anything you plant and just leaving the top sitting there uneaten.
This habit has been incredibly destructive in the vineyard where, even though I protect the trunks of the vines, when it snows enough in the middle of winter, I'll find a year's worth of growth hanging free from its trunk on the trellis. The vine will take at least another year to recover. Sometimes rabbits just damage the trunk and crown gall sets in, strangling the vine slowly over a few years if it isn't pruned to the ground. It's setbacks like these, that a rabbit does seemingly on a whim, that are the most frustrating. "Oh, maybe I'll hop over here and set back his vines a year doing something that takes me about a half second to do---and then not even eat the vine at all."!!?
|A year's worth of grape vine cut off above the protection|
Last winter rabbits busted a few holes in the plastic of my hoop house and decimated my winter greens, cutting severely into my profits. I also have to protect all my fruit trees because no matter how old the trees are, if left without protection, their bark will be girdled over the winter and the tree will have to be removed or start over from sprouts at the trunk. And as I've said, you can do what you can to prevent girdling, but if it snows enough, the rabbits will find and girdle your trees higher up. I have often thought this was the rabbit's way of getting back at humanity for encroaching on its territory. The reason I think it is done out of revenge is that there are myriad wild trees everywhere without a sign of damage. It's only trees planted by humans that are damaged. But I know the rabbits can't be doing this out of spite, unless they don't understand ecology (which may be, but if they didn't, how could they understand revenge), because we are the ones responsible for their success here.
|A grafted apple tree cut off by rabbits|
We as humans--at least out here in the country, and particularly here at DR--are creating an imbalance in our local ecology by scaring away all the predators of the rabbit. In addition, we leave unused land to grow in tall wild plants, creating the perfect habitat for rabbit fecundity and general thriving of these little mammals. We have constructed an ideal protected bunny buffet for rabbitkind. There are a few hawks that will come into the village occasionally to pick off the odd rabbit, but mostly, rabbits go untouched here. On top of this, we have a lot of vegetarians here who will not eat rabbits, though they understand how the rabbits impact their efforts to eat local vegetables. As you go away from the village, the rabbits get scarcer, and their skills at deceiving predators increase. The village rabbit genetics allow for more laziness.
For so long, I didn't even think of eating rabbits here, perhaps because I'd grown up in a society where the eating of small wild animals is taboo and people prefer to get their meat from a grocery store, where it comes from who-knows-what CAFO or feedlot, and is raised under who-knows-what kind of conditions (likely deplorable), fed who-knows-what food, and pumped with who-knows-what antibiotics, hormones, and other chemicals (likely a lot of them). It took me a while to realize that rabbits are the perfect sustainable food source, even more sustainable than most vegan diets. Rabbits are abundant and able to reproduce rapidly, they require absolutely no care or inputs of food or labor (aside from the bait used to catch them and the trapping and cleaning process), they live on marginal land and can convert it into healthy high-protein food, their abundance is the direct result of our presence, so they will thrive where we live, and in eating them we are reducing the negative effects of their presence. Despite their detriment to my garden and fruit trees, I see no negative impact on their local wild habitat.
|Dressed wild rabbit|
And the grande supreme reason they are so great to eat is that they are delicious! A dressed adult rabbit weighs probably a pound and a half, but most of that is edible meat. That is enough to easily feed two people. Rabbit is lean, being lower in calories and higher in protein than beef or chicken. It's also high in iron. And these stats are for domestic rabbit. I'd be pretty certain that the wild version is even more nutritious, having a more diverse diet (many different varieties of fruit tree bark and small vegetable starts). The meat isn't as tender as say, store-bought chicken. It's more like a heritage breed of chicken in its texture. But like heritage chicken meat, it can be slow cooked, stewed, or pressure cooked to tenderness. It's great in soup. I've slow cooked rabbit in the solar oven with herbs, and it turns out tender and delicious (and is a double sustainability wallop). I've been wanting to try grinding up the meat to use it like you would ground beef in chili or in a burrito.
This winter a vegetarian neighbor of mine has been regularly live-trapping and bringing me rabbits to eat. He doesn't want them invading his garden and he doesn't want to eat them, so I get the benefits. I've also been trapping rabbits on my warren. I use live traps because they are the least cruel if they are carefully monitored. They won't kill pets or non-target species. If I catch a possum or mink, I can just let it go. I use a little bit of apple to target rabbits. The same trap with peanut butter will catch a raccoon, another species that has potential for food. I've probably dressed at least 15 rabbits this winter so far, and I doubt we've made a dent in the population. And this number from traps set in just two small locations in the village. Each evening rabbits can be seen everywhere in the village and on its outskirts.
Sometimes I see people here collecting local greens and wild edibles in an effort to eat more sustainably. I support this, but sometimes think they are suffering for a cause when they don't have to. A lot of wild edibles are very bitter and though I have the desire to eat them, the reality is that, compared to garden-raised vegetables, they just aren't as tasty. Rabbit is not like this at all. It has sort of "weaseled" its way into my diet by not only being such a good idea for sustainability, but by filling a flavor and nutrition niche in my diet. It's not something I have to force, and I think it could be like that for more people.
It's hard to say what kind of yield of food we could sustainably get by eating local rabbits, but I don't think we've tapped into the potential at all yet. We really only trap the rabbits in the winter because they are more desperate for food and so, easier to trap, but also because they can carry tularemia, or rabbit fever, a tick-borne disease that can make you sick during the tick season. This may be more a precaution than a necessity because, although it can be transmitted from the raw meat, the disease does not persist in cooked meat. But we do have a lot of ticks here, so tuluremia is a potential threat. But in the winter you can stock up on them and just let them reproduce the rest of the season, allowing their populations to recover. We do have a rabbit trapping season in Missouri, but it is legal to harvest them out of season if they are causing damage.
Having rabbits is like having tiny cattle that you don't have to tend, who live happy lives (if you consider living your entire life covered in fleas and ticks happy), and who extract the food from all the stuff around us that we can't eat. They cost us nothing and have no impact on the planet, yet they provide us sustenance.
You too can promote rabbit populations in your area. Just stop growing a lawn and provide more rabbit habitat. If you already have abundant rabbits, consider trapping and eating them. Or maybe you could catch and eat squirrels if that's what you have more of. I think that by looking at these fecund species as food sources instead of taboo for food, we can reduce our impact on the planet and get some delicious free meals in the bargain.