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updated: 7/10/2012 9:22 AM

Bunny: It's what's for dinner

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  • David Bowman, president of the Decatur Area Rabbit Breeders Association, talks about the specifics of breeding rabbits for fun, profit and meat during a workshop at the University of Illinois Extension Office in Decatur.

    David Bowman, president of the Decatur Area Rabbit Breeders Association, talks about the specifics of breeding rabbits for fun, profit and meat during a workshop at the University of Illinois Extension Office in Decatur.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

DECATUR -- Buck rabbit sounds like he's dropped into our world from some strange and alternate bunny universe.

He's a breed called Californian, white with dark ears, weighs a hefty 11 pounds and has no pet name, only the designation 17SB tattooed into his left ear.

He's well-fed and watered, lives in a Decatur "rabbitry," a kind of caged futuristic bunny condominium with flush toilets, and has a very active romance schedule.

"In fact, he's been pampered his whole life. He doesn't know what the real world is like," says David Bowman, 17SB's owner and controller. "And every week, a female appears at his cage, and he knows exactly what to do."

And that's breed like rabbits. His many offspring, however, only have a one in three chance or less of getting to live long enough to enjoy daddy's lifestyle of rhapsodic rabbit revelry.

Bowman breeds about a third of his rabbits for lean white meat -- domestic bunny tastes like chicken, he says -- and so a lot of 17SB's profligate progeny production will end up processed and sleeping the big sleep in freezer bags.

"The meat's good," says Bowman, 60, addressing a recent class in rabbit-raising at the University of Illinois Extension Office on the campus of Richland Community College. "I sell it ready to cook for $3.50 a pound, and I sell it cooked, hand-pulled and prepared with Sweet Baby Ray's Barbecue Sauce for $5 a pound."

Bowman sees entree self-sufficiency as a shining, cost-effective and historically American virtue in our troubled present full of multiplying expense and processed foods. He is biofuels programs coordinator at Richland, teaching people how to grow their own fuel, and he's also president of the Decatur Area Rabbit Breeders Association, a warren of bunny ranching experts.

17SB was a guest visitor to Bowman's Extension rabbit 101 class, which covered everything from housing to feeding and breeding. Students learned that one of the few clouds raining on the rabbit meat parade is keeping them breathing long enough to harvest. Bowman describes rabbits as a nervous "prey species" with a hare trigger on mortality.

"They drop dead at the drop of a hat," he explains.

"They can have heart attacks."

Among his tips for keeping your bunnies alive and kicking is piping in soothing music 24/7, and he prefers easy listening golden oldies from WDKR radio. "The secret to looking after rabbits is to treat them the way you'd want to be treated," he says.

"And rabbits will respond." It turns out the flush toilets in his rabbitry, which uses a sluicing system that floats away droppings through plastic pipes, isn't just about bunny hygiene. Bowman has big plans for it, aiming to maximize the returns from his rabbit operation by using the manure to feed a solar-heated "red wiggler" worm farm. He says it will yield a bumper crop of the squirming bait so prized by anglers.

"It's my current project," he adds proudly.

Bowman's siren song to make men fishers of rabbits fell on receptive ears, especially with eager students Don and Jane Morr from Bement. Jane Morr had been a little squeamish about the process of turning rabbits into meat, but her eyes brightened when told there are specialist slaughter houses in Arthur handling the conversion at reasonable rates.

"I didn't want to kill 'em myself," said Morr, 70. "And I didn't want to have to do the butchering." She's also very interested in getting ahold of what the rabbits leave behind as they munch their way through their brief lives. "The manure is real good fertilizer, and I want it for my garden," she explains.

The only family member not on board with all this is 11-year-old granddaughter Laura Morr, who lives in Decatur and came along with her grandparents to learn more about rabbits. Her quick mind danced through the lesson in a hop, skip and a jump but dropped down a big squeamish hole when confronted with the prospect of encountering a rabbit on her dinner plate.

"Eat them?" she echoed in dismay. "But they're so cute and furry. No way."

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