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BREEDER SEES PROFITS IN BUNNY TRADE BUT MARKET FOR RABBIT MEAT STILL LAGS IN THE U.S.

Donald R. Wild, an Allegany soil conservationist, has a sideline business: raising rabbits for food.

So far, it has made him more work than money. Still, with a little market development, Wild believes that his 30-minute-a-day labor could increase his cash flow.

Right now, he counts personal satisfaction, family togetherness -- his wife, Sharon, and sons Matthew, 7, and Aaron, 4, are involved -- and rabbit-produced garden fertilizer as his major profits.

But statistics and scholars suggest greater possibilities.

And so do promoters of alternate farming enterprises.

Dr. Peter Cheeke, an Oregon specialist, says that one buck and three does can supply more meat in one year than a beef cow.

The meat, moreover, would be chicken-tasty and have less fat, few calories and more protein than any other kind of meat.

And while over 350 years, Americans have borrowed many European customs, only a few have adopted their rabbit habit.

Statistics show that the per capita consumption of rabbits in the United States is a microscopic 0.1 pounds per year.

That compares with a 6.2 pounds in Spain, 5.1 pounds in Italy and 3.5 pounds in France.

True, there is a big mind-set hindrance.

Many people have a hard time overcoming the thought of eating Peter Rabbit, the Easter Bunny or Uncle Wiggley.

While selling rabbits never is far from his thoughts, Wild's big concern in recent weeks was the Cattaraugus County Rabbit Club's annual show, held Saturday at the Little Valley Fairgrounds.

In local trade, meat rabbits sell for about 85 cents a pound or $5 each. Frozen and packaged rabbits in chain stores cost more, Wild said.

There are two good reasons -- well, maybe just one three-word phrase -- for the low price of rabbit meat: supply and demand.

Even though the demand for rabbit meat is increasing, no Col. McRabbit fast-food chains are yet in sight.

And, yes, it's really true, rabbits are prolific parents.

"There's Buck, my No. 1 male," Wild said. "I paid $10 for him three years ago. He's sired, oh, about 200 rabbits so far."

Two other males and 12 does round out Wild's breeding herd. They are housed in cages alongside his home near the intersection of Routes 98 and 219.

"I breed them six times a year. If I wanted to push the does, I could breed them eight times."

A rather vulnerable species, rabbits owe their survival to their reproductive excesses. Anything numbering less than seven or eight baby rabbits per litter is disappointing, Wild believes.

He opened a cage. "These are one day old," he said, counting 12 baby rabbits. "One of my does recently had 17 in her litter."

The does will wean the babies after four weeks. After that, Wild feeds them pellets with a 16 percent protein content for six weeks. That's when they they reach their 6 1/2 -pound market weight.

Rabbit raising, advocates say, has another advantage: getting started isn't costly. A rabbit publication estimated in 1986 that $885 would buy the cages, nesting boxes and feeders to house 50 does and six bucks.

If demand ever can be stimulated to, say, the level of goose, duck or even fallow deer, rural specialists see rabbit raising as another way to keep people down on the farm.

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