1. Raise Rabbits on Your Property
Most municipalities allow rabbits to be kept as pets, but that’s a different proposition than raising rabbits for slaughter. In many places, commercial rabbit-rearing – even at hobby-farm scales – is not permitted on properties zoned for residential use.
Elsewhere, raising rabbits (and other small livestock, such as chickens) may be permitted, but slaughtering and processing them may be prohibited. For instance, the relevant section of Austin’s city code reads:
“For properties zoned residential, raising of fowl, rabbits, and aquatic foods using an aquaponic system is permitted in accordance with Chapter 3-2 (Restrictions on Animals) of the City Code. Slaughtering and processing of aquatics foods is permitted. Slaughtering, processing of fowl and rabbits is prohibited. Composting of animal parts is prohibited in residential zoning districts.”
Even where raising and (less frequently) slaughtering and processing rabbits on residential property is permitted, amateur rabbit farmers need to abide by the relevant city ordinance terms. See below for more detail on this point. Rules around slaughtering and processing rabbits tend to be more lenient in rural townships and unincorporated areas than in urban or suburban neighborhoods.
2. Raise Rabbits on a Communal Farm
If your hometown doesn’t allow you to complete the rabbit-rearing lifecycle on your homestead, don’t despair. You can still raise rabbits for meat without using a third-party processor to humanely kill and process them. You’ll just need help from an urban farm or community garden.
Back in 2010, the Minneapolis foodie publication The Heavy Table reported on a motley group of urban farmers who’d turned an abandoned lot into a produce and livestock factory. Their farm, part of a low-income housing cooperative, included “a sundry congregation of ducks, geese, chickens, and rabbits,” according to The Heavy Table.
Compared with its space- and feed-intensive chicken-rearing operation, the cooperative’s rabbit farm was a breeze to maintain. The rabbits huddled together in a corner of the livestock shed they’d built, ate hay and naturally occurring vegetation, and only needed to be moved inside on extremely cold winter nights.
If you’re not allowed or would prefer not to process rabbits on your homestead, or you’re seeking a more community-oriented approach to rabbitry anyway, you can find or start a communal farm in your city.
To find an existing urban or community farm, check out this comprehensive directory from Urban Farming or search for active Facebook groups in your area. To start your own, follow this step-by-step guide from the University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources.
You Might Also Like: Curious about another type of sustainable community garden? Check out our post on community solar gardens, an increasingly popular power generation solution that’s viable in most of the continental U.S.
3. Components of a Municipal Rabbit Ordinance
Whether you choose to raise rabbits on your own property or a vacant lot given over to small-scale agriculture, you need to know what you can and can’t do with your rabbitry operation.
Rabbit ordinances (often included in broader small livestock or market garden ordinances) vary widely from place to place, but most include provisions for:
- Permitting: These items spell out if and when your backyard rabbitry operation requires a municipal permit. It’s not uncommon for municipalities to waive permitting requirements for small rabbit herds, usually no more than three or four adult animals. Larger operations usually require permits. Keep in mind that you can generally keep greater numbers of juvenile rabbits – younger than three months or so. Juvenile rabbits, known as fryers, produce tastier meat, so you’ll likely slaughter or send your rabbits off to slaughter before they reach full maturity anyway. (Adult rabbit meat is better braised or in stews, and it’s much gamier – not a deal-breaker, but not something you’d want to eat on its own.)
- Neighbor Notification: Neighbor notification requirements vary widely. Portland, Oregon’s rabbit ordinance requires notification of all neighbors within 150 feet of your property lines. Some ordinances don’t mandate notification at all.
- Fees: Where there’s a permit, there’s a fee. These fees usually aren’t onerous: Portland’s is $31, one-time, for instance. If your city’s permits expire after a year or two, you may need to pay a renewal fee that should be lower than the initial fee.
- Dwelling Units On-Site: Some cities discourage extralegal urban farming by prohibiting rabbit enclosures on parcels without dwelling units. Likewise, most cities prohibit livestock-keeping on more densely built residential properties, such as apartment buildings or complexes. In Austin, you can’t raise rabbits on properties with more than two dwelling units.
- Herd Size: Ordinances’ permitting requirements are de facto limitations on herd size. If you don’t want to pay the fee and fill out the paperwork for the permit, you need to keep your herd small. Otherwise, permitted rabbit herds are generally constrained by enclosure size limits, space-per-rabbit requirements, or limits on slaughter frequency. For instance, ordinances that spell out space-per-rabbit requirements mandate at least 10 to 15 square feet per animal. Ordinances that limit slaughter frequency may do so as a function of farm or lot size. For instance, Austin’s ordinance limits slaughter to one animal per week, per tenth of an acre.
- Setbacks and Placement: Enclosures need to be placed away from neighboring structures and property lines. In Portland, the minimum required structural setback is 15 feet.
- Enclosure Size and Dimensions: In many cities, enclosures are further governed by minimum or maximum size limits and space-per-rabbit requirements. Don’t assume that your ordinance explicitly spells out these matters, though: Portland’s Specified Animal Facility code doesn’t say anything about the size or layout of your rabbit hutch.
- Slaughter and Processing: Rabbit ordinances generally treat these issues in one fashion or another. If on-site slaughter and processing are prohibited, there may or may not be language about how to legally arrange processing off-site. If slaughter and processing are permitted, there should be language spelling out permitted frequency and method.
- Sanitation and Disposal: These matters treat permissible ground cover, composting of waste and remains (if permitted), and any action required to protect local water quality. Note that some city ordinances, such as Austin’s, prohibit or restrict animal husbandry in critical watershed areas, where effluent can pollute drinking water or sensitive habitats.
Some municipal codes may require you to submit detailed schematics for your rabbits’ enclosure, or hutch. This is a common feature of livestock fowl (chicken, duck, turkey) ordinances, which tend to be more detailed and specific than rabbit ordinances due to the comparative prevalence of backyard fowl farming and the disruptive character of domestic birds.