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Urban farmers find raising rabbits for fertilizer not such a hare-brained idea

Urban farmers find raising the furry, floppy-eared mammals to gain natural fertilizer not such a hare-brained idea

Posted: April 16, 2011 - 5:38pm

Editor’s note: This is the first piece in a three-part series on raising urban farm animals.

When I was 3, we had a rabbit.

At the hutch in our Anchorage home’s side yard, I would peer at our amazingly soft bunny. Your hands never forget the feel of rabbit fur. That winter, though, poor Thumper died. My parents were concerned for me and planned “the Death Speech,” including phrases like “part of life” and “nature’s cycles.” They prepared for the tears, the questioning of fairness in the universe. But instead I asked, “Well, can’t we eat him now?”

Ah, yes. Ever the practical pet owner. I love my pets, especially my dear geriatric blue heeler, Katie. The sorrow I’ll feel when she passes will be deep and heartfelt. But she’s lived a life without doggy spas, fancy jackets, or homemade food. And since our move to a yardless downtown Juneau home, she’s had a more urban lifestyle than a dog of Dingo descent should have.

So pet talk in our practical family has veered away from cats (can’t afford the Benadryl) a new dog (I refuse to run) and rodents (been there, done that, they’re still in the freezer, eek!). But the feeling persists we need a pet. A family without animals just isn’t complete, though the traditional selections are no longer quite right either.

And this discussion is occurring across the nation. For some people “pet” now includes a live animal worn like a broach. But my biggest fashion decision is which boots to wear (ankle or knee, brown or black, and really, they ought to coordinate with the weather!), so I can’t quite see a matching tea cup dog. For other folks, though, “pet” now includes those fed and cared for so that they will feed and care for you back. The traditional term? Farm animals. Ahhh, now with these folks my practical soul finds a kindred movement.

Here in Juneau, the urban farm movement is building momentum. People from the Federal Flats to North Douglas have chickens on the brain and want rabbit poop on the garden. Others are considering miniature goats and cows for milk and sheep for fiber. Over the next three weeks, I’ll look at these new urban neighbors and what folks need to know about them. I’ll start here with the cuddliest and most common, the rabbit. Next week I’ll talk about backyard poultry flocks, then spend the final week looking at animals that require a bigger commitment (and yard): cows, goats, sheep, and maybe even pigs. My focus is on the neighborhood home, with an assumption that space, zoning, and neighbors are bigger considerations than farm subsidies and return on investment.

Now, to finish my story, we didn’t eat Thumper. In fact I’ve never eaten rabbit, though they’re considered excellent by many. In the U.S., it’s rare a city family would raise food rabbits — we tend not to eat our pets. But rabbits offer something to the urban homestead no other pet can: instant fertilizer. In addition to this, someone practicing extreme urban homesteading could get a few angora rabbits, collect the fur and either spin and knit with it, or sell the fur to someone else with those skills.

Here’s how you can get started.

• Never buy a rabbit for Easter!

• Make sure a rabbit (or two – they’re happier and healthier with friends) is right for your family. Just like cats and dogs, different breeds of rabbit have different characteristics and personalities, and these should match with yours. In general, though, rabbits are shy of predators and, face it, we’re predators. You’ll need to be patient and restrained to change their minds on this. Rabbits prefer to be handled and picked up on their own terms, not grabbed unexpectedly (introduce rabbits to kids very carefully). Finally, rabbits are animals of very small brain. They don’t respond well to negative behavioral conditioning.

• Consider your lifestyle. Rabbits need consistency in their daily feeding and interactions with people. Simple grooming is needed weekly to remove extra hair (and reduce hair balls), but this can mostly be done by petting and handling your rabbit. Their nails need to be trimmed monthly. It’s possible to house train rabbits, making cleaning easier, but litter boxes and the hutch will need to be cleaned at least weekly. Importantly, if you travel, someone else must continue this care every day.

• Research breeds. You can find helpful info on the internet, and in books, but if you’re interested in poultry or rabbits in Juneau, all roads lead to Swampy Acres. Or rather, Glacier Highway leads there. I’ll write more about this local resource in the article on poultry, but if it’s rabbits you want, ask for Laura. Granddaughter of JoAnn Sidney, owner of Swampy Acres, Laura is a local rabbit expert. An active member of 4-H, Laura raises four breeds of rabbit, each with different characteristics. The 10-13 pound Satins are recommended for meat and/or garden fertilizing (as Laura says, “Rabbit poop is amazing!”), while the 2-4 pound Polish and Mini Rex make good pets (still with amazing poop, just not as much). The 3-4 pound Hollands are good for showing or keeping as pets (and poop!). Laura can tell you all about their personalities and quirks, and will even show you her newest batch of babies.

• Complete all preparations to keep your new bunnies happy and healthy in your home:

1. Buy a hutch. Outdoor hutches used to be the standard, but it’s now more common to house a rabbit indoors. An indoor hutch is a simpler affair than the old outdoor ones: a wire cage with a removable droppings pan. It should be large enough that the rabbit can stretch out, hop a bit, and sit up without its ears touching the top. A cage that’s six times the rabbit’s length is good. It should be located in a quiet, warm, draft free location away from direct sunlight, doors, or heat sources.

2. Rabbit-proof your home. Raise all electrical cords or protect them in PVC tubing or spiral cable wrap. Remove or raise as many tempting wood items out of rabbit reach. Wrap wooden legs in plastic or limit the rabbit’s access to those areas with gates. Raise all houseplants off the floor. Keep chewable items off the floor and offer acceptable chewing alternatives.

3. Other needs include food bowls, a water bottle, grooming tools, hay, litter boxes, bedding, chew sticks, toys, and a travel carrier.

• Bring your rabbits home and slowly introduce them to their new environment. If they’re not house trained, start the process, to make “fertilizer” collection easier (and the house cleaner!). Rabbit poop is considered a “cold” manure, requiring no “hot” composting process to kill pathogens. Because of this, some gardeners apply it directly to the garden as needed. Others recommend it as a soil amendment, tilling it into the soil at the beginning and end of the growing season to build up soil nutrients. Those who are generally uncomfortable adding any poop to a garden recommend composting it, just to be sure.

But I figure, what a bonus! To have a house rabbit or two, adding that great pet energy (and responsibility) to my kids’ lives, while building up my woefully depleted urban soil at the same time? Not a bad idea – but I wonder if there’s a tea cup variety that will match my Xtratufs.

• Lewis is a local architect and member of the Juneau Commission on Sustainability. She hates to think of losing her blue heeler, but plans to buy a few rabbits once the “family pet” position is sadly available.

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