Raising rabbits was the occupation and 4-H project that was handed down from brother to brother to brother in my family, like the outgrown clothes. I was the third in line, and around the age of nine or ten I inherited the population of twenty to thirty New Zealand white rabbits. With them came the hutches that my oldest brother had made—a single hutch, a double hutch, and a dandy triple decker with three pens on each level. The triple decker not only had woven “wire cloth” floors like the others; underneath the wire, it also had a tin slanted floor that allowed rabbit feces to roll down the ramp and out the rear to form a nice pile behind the hutch, handy for carrying to the garden that was next to it.
Every couple of years we went down to the Okaw Valley Rabbitary and bought a couple more to keep our population from getting too inbred. We had two or three breeding seasons a year, and most of the rabbits became dinner for our neighbors, although once in while someone bought live rabbits for their own breeding programs or pets.
Taking care of rabbits was relatively simple. I fed them morning before school and after school with Purina Rabbit Chow and occasionally hay and green leafy vegetables, put water in their coffee can waterers, refreshed the salt block in each pen occasionally and some fresh wood to chew on, so they’d leave their bed boxes and the hutch itself alone, kept the hutch clean, and provided shelter, straw, heat lamps, and unfrozen water in winter. When the time was right I put a male into the hutch with a female and watched them go at it, putting one and one together to get more than two, as farm kids learned more than math in those days. Then when the female started to nest with her own fur, I prepared to count the babies, because there wasn’t much else to do but watch the mother care for her brood or not.
When the cute little rabbits ate their way into being big rabbits, I learned to slit their throats quickly, skin them and hang their pelts to dry, and butcher those rabbits for the fine meat our neighbors and we enjoyed. I don’t remember what we sold them for—maybe a couple of bucks apiece, about as much as the rabbit chow cost to feed them probably. I kept records for the 4-H project book every year, and I don’t think we ever made a profit that would match the amount of work involved.
When the weather was good, of course I played with them, took them out one by one and played in the grass or the garden. As I enjoyed the stories of Peter Rabbit and all of his kin, I never considered that I was the mean old farmer who would mercilessly put them to death. It was just the expected cycle of things.
My most embarrassing rabbit moment came in the last 4-H Fair where I exhibited a pair of rabbits as usual. I had always gotten a first place blue ribbon. Only my pair in that last year was two females, because I had sold or butchered all my young males. I figured two sisters was as much a pair as a male and female, but the judge did not agree. I had to be satisfied with a red ribbon, and face my competitors who thought I could not tell the difference.
Why did the rabbits come back to haunt me in my dreams years later, after I had given up raising rabbits and moved on to theology and philosophy? I would dream that I had forgotten to feed and water them, neglected to put up the corrugated sheet shelter that protected them from ice and snow, starved them to death, let them freeze, and the dreams would not just come once; they recurred. Not night after night, but every few weeks the rabbit dream recurred. If I was not the irresponsible, neglectful person while I had the rabbits, I certainly was when I got rid of them. They came back to haunt me, and remind me that diligence and attentiveness were required if I was to care for living beings. I was about sixteen when I gave up rabbit culture. The last time I dreamed of rabbits was about fifty years later.