The Easter Bunny: It’s What’s for Dinner
Flowers are blooming, songbirds are singing, and grocery-store shelves are studded with thousands of bunny-shaped novelty candies ready to be thrown into a wicker basket and contribute to sugar hangovers across the globe. Brace yourselves: Easter is coming.
For as many rabbit-shaped marshmallows, chocolates, and gummies America eats during the holiday, few people eat actual rabbits. In August 2014, Whole Foods announced it would be adding the adorable lagomorphs to its butcher section, only to be met with outrage, petitions, and calls for boycotts from animal-rights organizations.
Even if eating them is still considered taboo, Easter is rough time for rabbits in America, when thousands of parents buy their children real-life embodiments of the candy-toting bunny to keep as pets. According to the Utah Humane Society, “Within the first few weeks of Easter, an estimated 30 percent of all Easter ‘pets’ die, and another 60 percent to 70 percent are abandoned or turned in to shelters.”
Rather than buying a pet rabbit for Easter—eat one. It’s a sustainable food choice that leaves a smaller environmental footprint than the typical Easter ham, and most rabbits found in America aren’t raised in factory farms. Instead, farmers like Lance Casey Sr. are raising them in sustainable, ethical, and pastoral environments.
Whenever someone asks Casey how he could kill such a cuddly creature, he gives them the same matter-of-fact response: “Well, my chickens are cute too—and frankly, my chickens have more personality than my rabbits.”
Casey owns Penryn Rabbit Farm in Northern California, about 30 miles from Sacramento. He has a herd of 105 rabbits—80 female and 25 male—that he raises, takes to a local butcher, and sells at farmers markets throughout the year. And he does it all on 2.5 acres.
The property, which was previously owned by his parents, once hosted chickens, goats, a few horses, and a cow. But when Casey returned home from living in Sacramento to take care of his sick mother, he needed something more commercially sustainable.
“I asked myself the question: ‘What kind of animal can I raise and take to the local farmers markets to sell?’ ” he said. “I did my research and found that rabbits take up less space, the conversion ratio of meat to bones is a lot higher than other meats, and they reproduce rapidly. It seemed perfect.” And in many ways, it has been. Demand for Casey’s rabbits is so high that he sells out almost every weekend.
Because rabbits have such a short gestation period—typically about 30 days—Penryn Farm is able to turn over a high volume in a short period of time. Casey takes them to be butchered between 10 and 12 weeks of age, when they weigh about five pounds and yield three pounds of meat. Some of the more aggressive farmers have their does breed within 15 days of birthing a litter, but Casey prefers to wait a little longer.
Rabbits take so few resources to raise and reproduce so quickly that in 1943—two years after the United States officially declared war on Japan—the Los Angeles Times proudly announced, “Rabbits are helping win the war.” While food in America was scarce, especially the luxury cuts of beef and pork, the government was encouraging people in suburban areas to cook and eat more rabbit.
After the war ended, rabbits, which were predominantly raised on the urbanizing West Coast, were never able to hop their way onto supermarket shelves. Even now, the USDA doesn’t have systems in place to regulate rabbit farming on a large scale: It lists rabbits as a non-amenable species, which “pose hazards for food safety that are not yet fully known or controlled for under the existing meat inspection system.”
Casey doesn’t see his rabbits as posing a threat to food safety in the least, mainly because he raises them in such a pastoral, nonindustrialized manner. His herd is fed on organic, hydroponically grown barley fodder, and he proudly advertises the fact that rabbits require six times less feed and water per pound of meat than cattle.
“When you feed them something that’s natural—that you’re growing—it’s way better nutritionally for that animal, rather than giving them something that’s been pressed and steamed and has all kinds of other addditives in it,” Casey said. He added that his rabbits are all grass fed, GMO free, and antibiotic free, which is what makes them so tasty.
So, what’s Casey’s personal favorite recipe? “I like my rabbit fried, smothered in gravy, and put over rice or mashed potatoes—but then again, I’m not a fancy cook,” he said, laughing. If you need any additional cooking tips, you can find them right on Penryn Farm’s website.