1990 / 3月
Tang Jung /photos courtesy of Arthur Cheng /tr. by Andrew Morton
Taiwan's sidewalk traders are doing a roaring trade selling miniature rabbits, and braised rabbit meat is popular with customers in restaurants and beer parlors too. Many people are even buying rabbit-fur coats costing NT$30,000 or NT$40,000. All these signs suggest that rabbit breeding and marketing is being deliberately expanded.
Actually that's quite right. The local rabbit breeding industry is on the up and up, as confirmed by the variety of rex rabbits on display at the Fine Agricultural Products Exhibition held in Taichung in January.
According to Huang Ch'iung-tzu, an assistant researcher at Taiwan Livestock Research Institute, one of its most energetic promoters, the Taiwan rabbit industry used to be just a quiet sideline. Most rabbits were sold to pharmaceutical manufacturers for use in making vaccines, and if ever these manufacturers suspended their purchases the price would plummet dramatically. As a result, few people took a chance with rabbit breeding.
"Animal pelts and fur have regained popularity recently due to the shortcomings of man-made fibers, and this has brought a turn-around in the rabbit industry," says Huang Ch'iung-tzu. In FY 1986 rabbit breeding was incorporated in the agricultural development plan for Taiwan province. The main objective was to produce high-grade pelts and fur, with rabbit meat as a by-product.
Rex and angora rabbits are today's favorites.
The rex rabbit was bred in France in the early nineteenth century from the common gray rabbit. Its fur is the same length all over, is flexible, fine, glossy, does not fall out, and feels like goose down to the touch. It would be fair to call it the next finest fur after mink and fox.
The angora rabbit is well suited to both the temperate and sub-tropical climate and is a reliable source of high-grade fur. Finer than wool, this is a super lightweight fur. Large cellular cavities within each strand form a kind of atmosphere chamber, thus making angora fur resistant to heat loss and highly moisture absorbent. It can be used in the medical world to make knee and wrist protectors or the treatment of rheumatism and arthritis.
It's amazing how comfortably these animals live! But how to make improvements in this inherently labor-intensive, high-risk industry? "The first steps must be to improve feed, equipment and management," explains rabbit-breeding expert Huang Ch'iung-tzu. Nowadays granular feed is used, thus saving on labor costs for cutting grass and avoiding seasonal shortages. Most importantly, tests have shown that rabbits are perfectly happy with this easy to nibble, grassy-tasting "fast food."
To give the rabbits a happy home the old stacked steel cages, which were damp and encouraged disease, have been replaced by suspended equipment. Rabbit droppings fall directly on to the floor below and are easily rinsed away. To get a drink of water the rabbits just lick a teat-like dispenser which never runs dry, unlike the old bowls which needed regularly topping up and cleaning out.
Careful attention ensures that the rabbits live in quiet, clean and dry surroundings.
The Chinese conventionally describe the nimble little rabbit in the phrase: "Still as a tiger, quick as a fleeing rabbit." Rabbits are undoubtedly fleet of foot, but they also seem to enjoy crouching still and quiet in the comfort of their hutches.
"Each rabbit has a character of its own," Huang Ch'iung-tzu explains. For example, some mother rabbits grow restless when they are pregnant and may even urinate over their babies so that they die of cold. Others are very good mothers and will nibble off their stomach fur to make a warm nest, as well as feeding their babies regularly; they tread lightly and never trample them.
The fur of rex rabbits is best at four months old, so that is when they are slaughtered for their pelt.
Angora rabbits are clipped every 70 days. "This kind of rabbit eats its fur so you must give it extra feed to keep it busy," says Ch'en Chin-hsing, this year's winner of the Shen-nung Award for breeding angora rabbits. If fur is swallowed you must feed it some pineapple juice to help expel the fur ball.
Rabbit breeding in Taiwan is concentrated in Yunlin, Tainan, Changhua and Taichung counties, and the Rabbit Breeders' Cooperative is in Yunlin. "The Cooperative has 31 members working on fur and pelt processing, quality control of rabbit fur goods, and managing the rabbit population," says its director Huang Ch'ing-sung. Currently between two and three thousand rabbits a month are slaughtered at the automated slaughterhouse at La-t'ung Agricultural Association, Yunlin.
Farmers sell adult rabbits to the Agricultural Association who send them in batches to be slaughtered, after which the pelts are tanned and the meat is sold to meat dealers at about NT$120 a kilo wholesale. Even the rabbit droppings are sold to tea farmers as fertilizer, so absolutely nothing is wasted.
It takes one and a half rabbits to make a rex scarf, and between 25 and 30 rabbits to make a fur coat which sells for about NT$40,000. Demand is good and export business is booming, "but we don't want too many people to jump on the bandwagon otherwise prices will tumble," laughs Huang Ch'iung-tzu. "I don't want everyone to dump their rabbits on me! But breeding rabbits is easy work and has great potential. It only requires rough feed and agricultural by-products, while rabbits have a short gestation period and rabbit meat is high in protein and low in cholesterol and sodium. . . ."
There are plans to expand the Cooperative to bring processing, tanning, manufacture and administration work together under one roof.
The worldwide economic upturn has brought in new processing industries, and the Department of Agriculture Forestry is now promoting rabbit fur as a sophisticated agricultural product. This successful initiative has benefitted the farming population and kept skilled young people on the land.
If the Cooperative's planned annual sales of 60,000 rabbits are achieved, then despite this being the Year of the Horse the rabbit industry surely has a bright future ahead.
Angora rabbit fur is diversely colored, fine, does not fall out, and is an excellent material for fur clothing.
"To breed rabbits takes attention to detail, love and patience," says Tung Ch'ing-sung, chairman of the Rabbit Breeders Cooperative.
Rabbit furs are warm and elegant, and sustained strong demand has consistently raised profits for rabbit farmers.
One rabbit's fur shawl requires the fur of one and a half rabbits.
Rabbits have a character of their own. Good mother rabbits will look after their babies very well.
Ch'en Chin-hsing was awarded this year's Shen-nung Award for his outstanding achievement in breeding angora rabbits.
Angora rabbits are clipped every 70 days, and about 30 rabbits can be shorn in one day.