By Jenny Neyman
Sure, rabbits are cute.
They’re fuzzy and soft, with twitchy little noses and cotton-balls tails. They figure prominently in petting zoos and have scored major roles in Disney cartoons.
But they also happen to be tasty, nutritious, relatively easy to kill and even easier to clean and cook. Given all that, plus the exploding snowshoe hare population on the central Kenai Peninsula this winter, which just happens to be the best time of year to eat hares, their appeal as dinner is outweighing their appeal as anything else.
“You can prepare them exactly the same way as chicken. You can marinade them, you can just bread them and fry them like you would chicken. It’s a different taste, but it’s an extremely good taste. It actually has flavor. It’s not gamey, it’s a meaty taste, like all your taste buds working at once. It’s just got a really full flavor to it,” said Patty Miller of Funny River, who’s been raising and butchering
rabbits since she was a 4-H kid growing up in Palmer.
Benjamin Jackinsky, co-owner of Country Liquor in Kenai, said he’s been fielding questions lately about what wines go well with rabbit, and has heard from shoppers that snowshoe hares are so plentiful in the area people can walk out their door and shoot dinner from their porch. Jackinsky said he’s heard people mention hasenpfeffer — a German dish made with braised rabbit — a French rabbit stew and even good ol’ American Shake ‘N Bake as favorite preparation methods.
Jeff Selinger, area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the local snowshoe hare population is reaching its peak. Unlike other areas, the Kenai Peninsula snowshoe hare population doesn’t always exactly follow the 10-year boom-and-bust hare cycle, but the population should peak this year or in the next year or two, he said.
Unlike past cycle peaks, this one looks to result in a high hare population.
“The last few peaks have been relatively low on the Kenai,” Selinger said. “It looks like we’re in for a pretty good peak this time, with some of the recent fires.”
Hares like to eat new growth in post-fire habitat, especially young willow shoots and all the other browse moose prefer. The larger vegetarians tend to trim young brush from above, while hares snip at it from below.
“When things are good for hares, they’re good for moose,” Selinger said. “Since we’ve had relatively few fires recently, until the last four or five years, on the whole the hare cycle hasn’t come up to real high numbers.”
Any area open to hunting is open to hunting for hares and there is no bag limit, although all the usual rules apply, such as not shooting from on or across a roadway or in areas not permissible for the discharge of firearms. Selinger said that hares are a great way for kids to get started hunting.
“All small game is great for youth to get them used to hunting with genrel firearms safety and handling a weapon. And they’re a lot easier to butcher than a moose,” he said.
Snowshoe hares are safe to eat as long as they’re cooked, but rabbits can carry tularemia, bacteria passed on through internal organs, that can be contracted through open cuts and contact with infected tissues. Selinger recommends wearing rubber gloves when cleaning hares, cooking thoroughly and obeying the old hunting adage to never eat a hare until after the first heavy frost.
“Normal cooking temperatures kill the bacteria so it is safe to eat. It’s also rarely present in winter. I’ve never heard of a case that’s occurred in the winter, once you get a good freeze going,” he said.
The bacteria are carried by ticks, Selinger said, which don’t survive the winters in Alaska. Winter hares can have fleas on them, but it’s not the same insect. Hares can be eaten year-round, but extra caution should be taken with cooking and cleaning of wild hares beyond April. Pet owners should also keep their dogs and cats away from wild hares, especially during springs and summers as the hare population peaks. Contact with hare organs infected with tularemia can cause an animal’s spleen to enlarge, which can be fatal, but usually just slows a pet down until it’s taken to the vet and treated.
“Still, it’s one more reason not to let your dogs roam free,” Selinger said.
Miller avoids the worry of bacteria in eating hares year-round by raising her own. She keeps them in hutches, away from other animals. As a kid in Palmer, she and her family raised rabbits for 4-H and to sell, either alive or as meat. She’s lived in Oregon and on the Aleutians since, and moved with her kids and husband to the Kenai Peninsula in 2004, where she cares for a menagerie of animals on their property in Funny River. The kids do their own 4-H junior market livestock projects, and she manages the rest, including sheep, horses, a cow, dogs and two bossy barn cats. During the summer Miller and her kids set up a petting zoo at the Wednesday markets in Soldotna, and she may expand that this year to more days a week near the 4-H office on Kalifornsky Beach Road.
She keeps rabbits year-round, selling them as live breeding stock or meat, doing the butchering for an extra fee, and treating the family to four or five fresh rabbits for dinner a month. Two 5-pound rabbits feed Miller, her husband and their two kids and baby for one meal with leftovers.
“It’s fairly common in our diet,” she said. “The kids actually like rabbit really well.”
Other parents trying the cuisine out on the family for the first time may want to consider whether to tell kids what it is, since some kids tend to be squeamish about eating “bunnies,” Miller said. She’s known some youngsters who swore they were fine with it and wanted to go hunting and help with the whole process, but balked when it came dinnertime.
“They would not touch it after cooking it because it was a fuzzy bunny,” Miller said.
If that sounds like a likely occurrence, Miller advises, “Just don’t tell them it’s rabbit. Tell them it’s chicken. ‘It’s really good chicken, Mom.’ Say, ‘Yep, it is really good.’”
Rabbit cooks just like chicken, Miller said.
“I haven’t found a way not to cook rabbit the same way you cook chicken, so all your chicken recipes will work,” she said.
Her favorites are baked rabbit or roasted rabbit with teriyaki sauce or just some garlic and onion, with a side of sweet potatoes or rice. Shake ‘N Bake is a good, easy route to go, and rabbit enchiladas are particularly tasty, she said.
Fresh rabbit also freezes just fine. Miller recommends soaking it for half a day to 24 hours in cold water, then double wrapping it in plastic bags to protect against freezer burn.
“They last as long as chicken or fish, I’d say a good six months to a year. If it’s wrapped well it should keep as well as anything else,” she said. “Mine never get to stay in the freezer very long.”
Rabbit meat is occasionally available to purchase locally, Miller said, but hunting, raising your own or finding someone who does is the best option for a reliable supply of rabbit meat.
Raising and butchering rabbits isn’t difficult or expensive to do, but like with any animal, Miller said you should know what you’re getting into.
“Take a class or find somebody that’s raising them. Go out and see what they have and what they do and then make sure they’re up to the commitment. It’s not a huge commitment, but I’d like to make sure people understand they have to be fed every day and need water every day,” Miller said. “And when it comes to actually butchering them, can they butcher them or are they going to have to find someone to do that for them? Plan ahead if you need to do that.”
Miller keeps her rabbits in fenced-in, roofed hutches. Rabbits’ fur keeps them warm enough in the winter, but they do need a box with hay where they can get out of the elements, she said. And they don’t eat much. A 50-pound sack of rabbit pellets lasts Miller for the winter, with some extra garden and vegetable scraps or some other roughage thrown in.
A rabbit litter can produce four to 12 offspring, Miller said. Owners can produce as many rabbits as they’d like to eat, and either hold them over through the winter for fresh meat or butcher them in the fall and just keep a buck and a doe, or even just a doe and find someone with a buck they can use for breeding in the spring. When procuring new rabbits, Miller said it’s a good idea to have them checked out by a vet, to make sure they’re healthy before they’re used for breeding or butchering.
Rabbits get to be about 5 pounds and are ready to eat within eight to 12 weeks, Miller said, and she’s eaten them as old as 4 years without noticing any difference in the meat.
Killing and butchering rabbits is simple, she said, and there are different methods for both. Some prefer to shoot them with a .22, or bonk them on the back of the head with a fish bat. She finds that holding their feet with one hand and stretching and breaking their necks with the other is the quickest way to go.
And yes, there is such a thing as a rabbit scream, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in pain.
“There are some that scream,” Miller said. “Some scream just because I pick them up, so it just means that they’re scared, it doesn’t mean that they’re hurt.”
There are different approaches to butchering rabbits, as well.
“People have different ways of skinning and gutting them. If you ask a trapper, they’re going to give you a whole different way of doing it. I’ve yet to see anyone else do it my way, but that’s OK,” Miller said.
She hangs the rabbit carcass against a garbage bag above a bucket. She removes the head and front feet first, then makes little slices in the fur around each foot and cuts down each leg in a V shape, with the cuts meeting up in the pelvic region. She cuts and loosens the fur around the feet, then pulls the hide downward, cutting away ligaments and taking care not to tear the stomach open. She splits the pelvic bone and removes the digestive tract, internal organs and esophagus, careful not to rupture anything. After cutting off the hind feet, the carcass is ready to head to the kitchen.
“They’re easier to clean out than a chicken. With a chicken you’re going in through the rear end, where the pelvis bones are. With rabbits you split the pelvic bone so your hands can get in it really well. Even people with big hands have an easier time doing rabbits than chickens,” she said.
Rabbit hides can be tanned and made into any manner of fur crafts, such as hats and gloves. And rabbit manure also is good for gardens. Miller said it can be placed straight on plants without worrying about them burning.
Miller said she’s happy to answer questions about rabbit care, butchering or cooking, and that the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Office on K-Beach can point people to good information.
If anyone has taken on rabbits and decides it’s not for them, don’t just turn them loose.
“(Releasing them) really endangers our wild bunny rabbits because they can carry diseases and the wild rabbits aren’t used to them. They can cause a lot of trouble and they don’t know how to live on their own outside, anyway, so it’s actually quite hard on them. A lot of times they don’t survive,” Miller said.
“There’s always some place for them to go. There are always people that are willing to take them,” she said.
And this time of year, there are plenty of people willing — and wanting — to eat them.
Old-Fashion Rabbit Stew
Time: 2 ¾ hours Serves: 6
- 1 large rabbit, cleaned and cut into 12 pieces with head and feet removed
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 onion
- 8 ounces bacon
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup red wine
- 12 new potatoes
- Fresh herb (chervil)
- 10 sprigs parsley
- 10 sprigs thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- Finely chop onion and garlic and dice bacon.
- Make a bouquet garni by tying together parsley, thyme and bay leaf with string.
- Sear rabbit pieces in olive oil until lightly browned. v Remove from casserole.
- In the same pan, fry garlic, onion and bouquet garni.
- Add bacon, allow to color lightly, then pour off fat.
- Return rabbit to pan and deglaze with red wine.
- Add 3 cups water, cover and cook for 1:45.
- Peel and cut potatoes into narrow rectangles.
- Add potatoes to rabbit stew after the stew has been cooking for 90 minutes.
- Cook, covered, until tender.
- Serve stew garnished with chopped chervil.