The Life and Death of Bun-bun.

There has been some heartfelt times around the urban homestead recently. Our doe rabbit Apple had stopped producing reliable litters of kits, and so for the first time we put one of our breeding rabbits on the dinner table. I have some precedents in my childhood, particularly when Abby the Goat finally got too old. Abby was a great goat, a good mother, a productive milker, and a lovely person to be around. She was so old, by the time my family killed her, that she was sure to be tough as an old boot, and so we turned every bit of her into Ground Goat. Many the dinner of spaghetti and meat sauce came with a fond remembrance of Abby and a story of living with her. So, I have some precedent, but I had never killed one of my own breeding animals. Killing Apple was hard. We tried a new kill method and that was excellent so Apple truly died as peacefully as you could imagine, literally with a mouthful of clover. To fill Apple’s spot we bought Lucia, a piebald doe—what the rabbit breeders call a broken colouration. Lucia came bred, which is maybe good or maybe bad because we still don’t know if our buck Apollo is part of the problem. Lucia is not so used to human contact and charges quite a bit. But she has quickly learned that the green deliciousness we bring is not to be feared. And then Lucia kindled—a litter of one small kit. So it begins. … I guess someone who “produces” rabbits would have other litters they could introduce little Bun-bun to, so it would be warmed by the cuddle puddle of cuteness. Or perhaps someone who produces rabbits would have just snapped Bun-bun’s neck and tossed it on the shit that accumulates under the cages in a production barn. Carmen brought Bun-bun in at night, and tucked it in a nest of Lucia’s belly hair and straw, so it would survive the chill. In the morning, she took it outside to nurse. I say it because after several days of this, Bun-bun died, and we never sexed it to know if it was male or female. We tried to keep it alive, knowing a single kit would usually die. Next time we will try something else. Bun-bun’s death occasions a lot of thought. There was only one end for Bun-bun, and that was an untimely demise—though untimely is difficult to define, since in the wild Bun-bun may have died at birth or within days. Rabbits have many kits for a reason.Rabbits are r-selection animals, they have lots of kits because few of them live to maturity. If Bun-bun matured enough to venture outside the den there are eagles and hawks, dogs and cats. Foxes? Weasels? Mink? I don’t know. But like I say, rabbits have many kits for a reason. On our homestead, Bun-bun would have spent four months being moved to fresh grass every day. It would have snacked on blackberry canes and carrot tops, as well as any dandelions we pulled from the garden. Bun-bun would have torn around on those powerful and delicious hind legs, frolicking in sunshine and reclining in rain—droplets beading on its fur. Would it grow to be piebald like Lucia? Anyhow. Four months, and then we would have put Bun-bun in our stew pot, probably in the Portuguese style. We would have scraped Bun-bun’s hide and tanned it to gift, or to work into something lovely. Should I be sad? I am. As Stephen Jenkinson says, “You don’t have to like death, but you do have to befriend it.” I never like it, and I am tearing up and congesting as I read over these words. Bun-bun would die regardless—by hypothermia or predator or the stew pot or just old age. But I am sad that Bun-bun never knew the taste of fresh clover, or the warmth of sunshine or the joy of leaping. So, Bun-bun got a tiny shroud of organic cotton. I dug Bun-bun a grave many times deeper than its little body, and laid it carefully on soft sand. Carmen poured it a final meal of milk and sang laments in her ancestor’s language for its short life. I filled the grave in, taking care to pack the soil so Bun-bun would not be dishonoured with soil sinking in an unseemly way. And then we laid rocks in a careful pattern, with big rocks at the cardinal directions and one particular rock in the middle which was just about the same size as Bun-bun itself, though much heavier than that poor, cold little body.
Addendum: I wrote this post a few months ago, and in our rabbitry some things have changed and some have remained the same. After Bun-bun died we mated Lucia and Apollo and Lucia bore a litter of six lovely kits. These kits are practically a high-school genetics class, showing the combinations of their black father and piebald mother—one black, one white, three piebald…and one very beautiful light silver. A couple of weeks after their birth, I found this gorgeous silver bunny dead and stiff out in the run. So a little more about rabbits… A few weeks after breeding, we give our doe a nest box and a pile of straw. As she gets close to kindling she begins tearing around with mouthfuls of straw, like a comical moustache. She builds a straw burrow in the box, and as she gets very close to kindling, she pulls the softest hairs from her belly to line the nest. Born blind and hairless but for a light down, this nest keeps the litter warm until they can walk. The doe will jump into the nest box once or twice a day to nurse the kits. Unfortunately, sometimes a kit will stay latched on the doe’s nipple when she jumps out. Rabbits do not have the instinct to pick the kit up and put it back, so if the kit is too young to find its own way back, it will likely die. As did this fine silver kit, carried away from the warmth of its litter mates. As fate would have it, I found it after the Trick or Treaters had all gone home on Hallowe’en. We were tired, but it was obvious to me that there was no better time to return this little kit to the soil than when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. So I dug another deep grave near the ash Carmen calls her Grandmother Tree. We wrapped the kit in a clean square of organic cotton from an old sheet that has now provided the shroud for several animals. We sang and drank whiskey. And then, out of the darkness—Christmas Carols. I guess a group of people had costumed themselves as carollers, and were singing for their candy. It was eerie and wonderful and hair-raising; I feel quite sure that little silver one was carried safely across. So, there has been more tears than tastiness in our back yard, but that is how it sometimes must be. I have written a bit about this before, and I frequently struggle to put my feelings into words. I think if we would like to be “sustainable”, if we would like to find our harmonious place in the order of things, we need to spend a lot more time intimate with the life and death of our kin, both human, and more than human. Raising rabbits is not our dominant source of protein, and it likely costs more in feed than it contributes to the grocery budget. But it very much makes me human.


  1. Well done. I liked the Stephen Jenkinson aphorism. After looking him up on line, I think he was talking about human death, but it covers the death of farm animals too.

    I have killed and eaten many goats, sheep, chickens and other farm animals. It is never easy, but something that has to be done well and with stoic grace. To me, a perfect slaughter isn’t a matter of pride, but a bungled one is shameful.

    Old and infirm family pets are harder. The hardest part is knowing the optimum time, when continued life brings too much suffering.

    • Yes, Jenkinson spent much of his career in palliative care, The Death Trade, as he calls it. He is quite an orator, if he happens to come to your town.

      I had two cats within year of each other, and it quite wrecked me. It took several years before I could think of having another. Now I look at our dog and groan at the size of the hole I will have to dig to lay her to rest—hopefully many, many years from now.

  2. Fantastic.

    It’s been a long time coming – but worth the wait.

    A hard and fast rule on the farm where I grew up… you don’t name the livestock. You can name the pets, and so the dogs and cats had monikers. But the cattle went nameless. If one required some sort of singling out… the one that always comes back last from the pasture for instance – then you merely described it. Names were off limits.

    I’d no real appreciation for the rule until my little sister broke it. She got to have a calf of her own. The only girl (at that point) in a house full of brothers, she could get away with some things her brothers could not. She named the calf Feather (for a feather shaped patch of white on an otherwise black face). Her brothers got to have a calf of their own as well. We stuck to the rule. The time came for the 1800 lb behemoth that Feather grew into to join his company at the local locker for the final day. Parts of Feather were frozen and added to the freezer at home. And in their turn came to be dinner. We boys were very sternly warned not to mention that Feather was on the menu. Didn’t help. A brother in a moment of some sort of derision let slip where the steaks on our plates had come from… tears gushed forth, shrieks even. She could not be consoled. I thought my little sister might die from the trauma. In time the difficulty passed. Many lessons learned (my brother’s back side eventually healed and today he can sit just like the rest of us). My mother never again shared secrets of this sort, and my father made no further exceptions to the rule of not naming livestock.

    Rabbits. I am a big fan, but have yet to build a hutch. Need to remedy that. Turns out that rabbits may yet lay claim to a more honored place in the livestock pantheon. Seems that on a planet more and more subject to the whims of one particular species – us – and all the atmospheric warming we should own as the result of our behaviors; we’ve started to examine what we’re doing. And it turns out lots of livestock research folk have been looking at methane emanating from our ruminants. Several things can be done, from breeding the plants fed to said ruminants (my favorite approach of course), to feeding seaweed, to breeding the ruminants themselves for lower levels of methane generation. The gut microbes also come in for inspection on the matter. But wait a minute Clem, where do the rabbits figure in all this? Well, turns out rabbits are more efficient than sheep in this methane generating theater. Who knew?

    Following on the logic of this development, it’s not too hard to imagine that rabbit breeders who can work up a lineage with an even more favorable methane to body weight ratio should garner much fame (if not some attendant fortune). But the naming of such critters might be better left to alpha-numeric codes. Saves on the tears.

    Again – most grateful to see words once more in this space.

    • So far we have named the breeding pair, but not the kits.

      Carmen tells a horrified story of the breeder describing how farmers kill the runts and the largest kit, so the mid-sized kits are not out-competed for food. We are far from that focussed on productivity—but I knew the time would come when an adult would have to be dispatched.

      All of our goats and my 4H sheep had names, so I guess I found a relationship with this. I still imagine I would find it very hard to raise animals in volume and send them to the slaughterhouse.

      On methane, I remember the seaweed being mentioned on Small Farm Future. Was that where I read that it is the factory farm diet that produces so much methane, whereas grass-feeding does not?

      I didn’t know about rabbits low-methane production, but it makes sense. They are the most efficient animals at converting feed to meat because they are coprophages. They pass a sticky stool which they eat and redigest before passing little pellets that are so well digested you can put them on your garden without burning the plants.

      The thing about rabbits is how small they are. If you kill a steer or a pig you take one life and get hundreds of pounds of meat. Deer, goats or sheep provide dozens of pounds of meat for one life.

      But rabbits are only three pounds for each life, and that gets exhausting for us. Our dinners are salted with tears.

      • Ruben said:
        On methane, I remember the seaweed being mentioned on Small Farm Future. Was that where I read that it is the factory farm diet that produces so much methane, whereas grass-feeding does not?

        I did a piece at GP on Cows – a gut check – at the end of October in which I brought up the seaweed angle. I don’t recall seeing anything (yet) comparing feedlot vs grass fed influencing methane production. Will have to have a look and see if I can find something. My simple little monogastric gut tells me it might be the other way round. I think the majority of the methane is generated in the rumen, the first stomach, whereas concentrates such as grains pass more quickly through the rumen. But as a plant guy I really do need to check myself on that.

        As for rabbit’s diminutive size – yes, it does have that drawback. But you really can’t be raising too many Holstein steers in your back yard now can you? The local FFA chapter has a small colony of guinea pigs they maintain for livestock teaching purposes. They keep the wee ones in the classroom, can illustrate genetics, breeding, labor and delivery, lactation, feeding and so forth. In talking to the Ag teacher about them I learned in some African regions the guinea pigs are a real livestock animal. In an area where land rights are always suspect and you may need to up stakes and skedaddle at a moments notice it is much easier to grab a couple guinea pigs, stuff ’em in a pocket and head for the hills. Had me scratching my noggin. It makes meat rabbits look pretty large by comparison.

        Going off to see about the grass fed vs feedlot methane issue. Will let you know what I find.

        • Without an exhaustive stroll though the whole of the animal science R&D underworld I have come up with this very recent paper:

          The money comment: CH4 emissions were also higher in animals fed the forage compared to concentrate basal diet (P < 0.001).

          I also ran across a paper suggesting we just scrap all the bovines, and focus on goats. A link to this latter one available on request. Hope that doesn’t get your goat.

          OR, just go with soy. Soymilk, and faux meat made from soy proteins. Problem solved.

          • Clem, you soyvangelist, thanks for this link.

            I have also had responses coming in from a facebook group. The short form of that is that grain-fed animals reach slaughter weight more quickly, and so they produce less CO2. However, recent studies show that grazed land is a net carbon sink.

            “”Across-farm soil organic carbon (SOC) data showed a 4-year C sequestration rate of 3.59 Mg C ha−1 yr−1in AMP grazed pastures. After including SOC in the GHG footprint estimates, finishing emissions from the AMP system were reduced from 9.62 to −6.65 kg CO2-e kg carcass weight (CW)−1, whereas feed-lot (FL) emissions increased slightly from 6.09 to 6.12 kg CO2-e kg CW−1due to soil erosion. This indicates that AMP grazing has the potential to offset GHG emissions through soil C sequestration, and therefore the finishing phase could be a net C sink.”

            in other words:

            – The feedlot carbon emissions started at 6.09 kg CO2-e kg CW (a unit of measurement) and rose slightly to 6.12 due to soil erosion from the industrial farming which grew their feed.

            – The adaptively-grazed carbon emissions started at 9.62 and ended at -6.65 (!) ”

            Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems – ScienceDirect


            Sound management may sequester methane in grazed rangeland ecosystems | Scientific Reports

            • Thanks for those links! I particularly like Table 3 in the second paper. Goats show up better than sheep, and both are a fraction of the cattle (though I feel I need to check into this further as the unit measured is kg per head per year and obviously sheep and goats are much smaller – one wonders how the kg per kg dressed carcass wt would turn out.)

              The AMP grazing in the first paper is a better way to work with forage. But they’ve focused on CO2 rather than methane, no? Given methane’s more significant impact as a GHG one may want to add this into their analysis.

              I don’t want to advocate for feedlot finishing. But going back to the grass vs concentrate comparison… the basic ruminate digestive system emits less CH4 with concentrates. But how the concentrates get to the gut in the first place matters (and how the forage gets there also makes a difference).

              I passed by a couple other potential leads – will go back to see if anything else matters to this topic.

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