Urban farmers turn to raising rabbits

Erik Lacitis / The Seattle Times /

SEATTLE — The five women in the “Raise City Rabbits” class at Seattle Tilth have some soul-searching to do.

Sure, plenty of city types now raise chickens for their eggs as they join the urban-farming movement.

Rabbits, well, that’s kicking it up a notch, for a reason that soon becomes apparent.

“We have to talk about slaughtering,” says Charmaine Slaven, who teaches the class.

Meaning that you, the owner of the rabbits, will have to do the deed that clinically is described as “cervical dislocation,” and colloquially as “breaking their necks.”

Unless you plan to raise Angora rabbits for their wool, when you’re talking rabbits, you’re talking meat.

This is the third time in a year Slaven has taught the class at Seattle Tilth’s headquarters in the Good Shepherd Center.

Rabbits won’t replace chickens as the next urban-farming trend, she says. It will be more of “a niche.”

Near Slaven, in a cage, is a long-eared, fuzzy creature that’s wiggling its nose and looking cute. His name is Tom and he is one of Slaven’s rabbits that she raises at the White Center property where she lives with her husband, Charlie Beck.

At some future date, she says, Tom will end up in a stew or maybe roasted over a bed of veggies.

Slaven says she names all her rabbits — Bruiser, Dollar, Dime. They still get killed.

“I cared for these animals. I name them to honor them. They were all my friends, and one day they’ll be on the dinner table,” she says.

“Slaughter day is no fun. I always dread it and put it off for a couple of days,” says Slaven. “One thing that I’ve thought about is the ethical price we pay for meat when we go to the store. Somebody, somewhere in some factory, had to kill for you. I feel better paying that ethical price myself.”

Anyway, for urban farmers, this is a task you really can’t leave to someone else — unless you’re willing to pack the rabbits in your car and spend the day delivering them to a place like Farmer George Meats in Port Orchard, Wash.

It is one of nine food-processing facilities licensed by the state to slaughter rabbits for meat.

Owner Joe Keehn says he charges $5 a rabbit to butcher and bag.

Slaven is 33 and used to be a veterinary tech until switching full time to playing music with her husband in an old-time country and blues band, The Tallboys.

She had become a vegetarian at 17, but when she was 26, Slaven’s doctor told her that eating meat would help with her iron deficiency. She decided on rabbits.

Slaven wanted meat from animals that had had “a good quality diet,” without hormones and the rest, and what better way than to feed them herself?

Inevitably, there is a point in each of the classes when cervical dislocation is discussed.

Annya Uslontseva, 32, is one of the students.

She remembers her grandparents raising rabbits for meat in Russia and would like to try raising them at her Seattle home.

But it will be she, not her husband, doing the deed, says Uslontseva.

“He said that if I want to do it, fine. But he said that he’ll eat it,” she says.

The couple has a 3-year-old son.

“My biggest issue is what his reaction will be to his mother going to slaughter a rabbit. I’m trying to figure out if it’s emotionally possible,” says Uslontseva.

Certainly, it’d be an image her son would remember.

Slaven describes the most common way of breaking a rabbit’s neck. (If you want the full details, just Google “rabbit and broomstick.”)

“Be determined and be quick,” she advises.

As the class goes on, Tom, an American Chinchilla rabbit (they are not related to chinchillas, just bred to resemble them) placidly stares off into the distance.

Tom is about 6 months old. He weighs 8 to 9 pounds, and will dress out at 5 pounds.

He is among the five rabbits, two dairy goats, 12 chickens and two turkeys Slaven raises. “My urban farm is well accepted in the neighborhood,” she says.

Slaven figures she spends about $25 in feed to raise a rabbit from when it’s born to ready-to-cook four months later. She figures she butchers about 10 rabbits every three months.

Rabbits are such cheap meat to raise that during the World War II food-rationing years, homeowners put in “Victory Gardens” that also included raising rabbits.

Patrice Barrentine, administrator of the office of compliance for the state’s Department of Agriculture, explains why it makes sense for urban farmers to raise rabbits for meat: “They grow so fast and multiply so quickly. They’re a very inexpensive meat to raise in a small space like a backyard.”

But Barrentine understands the problem for modern city types.

“The rabbits are cute and furry. But that’s how you get meat,” she says.

This image is copyrighted.