Furry Giants: The Trials and Triumphs of a Monster Bunny Breeder

By in Eberswalde, Germany

The man who breeds the world’s biggest bunnies has gotten over the drama of last year when, he claims, North Korea’s leaders ate the prize rabbits he sold them to set up breeding farms. Karl Szmolinsky shares his latest adventures and the tricks of a trade whose days seem sadly numbered.

Robert II, the 2007 champion giant rabbit for the Berlin-Brandenburg region, seems docile enough but looks like he packs a punch. The 11 kilogram (24 pound), two-year-old male has Rottweiler-sized paws and a wide-jawed face that exudes the self-confidence of a prizewinner.

Retired truck driver Karl Szmolinsky, 69, gasps as he heaves Robert out of his roomy hutch and places him on a carpet-lined table where he measures his ears. "21 centimeters (8 inches)," he says proudly. In fact, Szmolinsky is so proud of Robert that he has a big photo of him emblazoned on the back of his bomber jacket.

“It’s all a matter of what you feed them,” says hobby breeder Szmolinsky, stroking Robert’s thick fur. “Rabbits are just like humans, they don’t want to eat the same thing every day, they want variety. Last night I gave them barley mixed up with wheat and they ate it all, today they’re getting muesli. It’s really meant for horses, but my giants like it. It includes grass and dried apples.” Their diet also includes copious snacks of carrots and turnips.

“If you’re nuts about rabbits like I am, it’s very hard to get away from,” Szmolinsky, who has won more than 100 awards for his rabbits since he started rearing then in 1964, told SPIEGEL ONLINE at his home in Eberswalde near Berlin.

Szmolinsky requires more than 50 kilos of feed every month for his 30 adult rabbits and their dozens of babies.

Robert II and his fellow adult giants get 500 grams of food a night. “The bowl has to be completely empty in the mornings or I’ve done something wrong,” says Szmolinsky. “I’ve also got to be careful because rabbits get constipated easily, they have to drink a lot of water.”

The females grow even bigger but they are currently out of bounds to visitors because they have given birth to a total of 40 babies so far this year. “They mustn’t be disturbed when they’re nesting,” says Szmolinsky. “Besides they can get quite aggressive then. I’ve been bitten a few times and a rabbit bite can be dangerous because it easily gets infected.”

North Korean Debacle

Szmolinsky made global headlines last year when he accused North Korea's rulers of eating a consignment of rabbits he had sold the reclusive communist country to help boost meat production. North Korea denied the allegation but Szmolinsky maintains that there has been no sign of the rabbits since a birthday banquet was held for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in February 2007.

The delivery to North Korea included Germany’s largest rabbit Robert I, the father of Robert II. Officials from North Korea had told him they wanted to use the rabbits to set up a breeding farm to provide food for the population. The country has had problems with famine in recent years.

Szmolinsky had even been due to fly to the capital Pyongyang to provide advice on rearing rabbits. But he was contacted just days before his departure and told that his services were no longer needed.

“I heard that the animals were eaten at a state banquet and I was outraged. If they’d told me they planned to slaughter the rabbits I would never have given them Robert I, he would have stayed here and lived out his days with me,” said Szmolinsky. “I’ll never let go of Robert II.”

Fresh Bunny Exports

But time heals all wounds. Szmolinsky has put the North Korean fiasco behind him and is tentatively resuming exports. “I got approached by the South Koreans and I was skeptical at first after what happened with the North Koreans. But they’re just the opposite. They only want the rabbits because they’re setting up a breeding program and I’m in constant phone contact with them to give advice.”

Szmolinsky sold the South Koreans four female rabbits and two males in February, and this month sold a pair of rabbits to an Italian breeder. He has also had enquiries from breeders in China and Holland. He has sold rabbits for slaughter on occasion but these days sells most of them to other breeders.

The North Korean incident has turned Szmolinsky into a media celebrity and even prompted an American filmmaker to produce a documentary which was featured at the Berlin Film Festival in February.

A British television crew is visiting him this week and German TV spent two days filming him and his rabbits in his house where he lives with his wife Inge and an unfeasibly fat cat.

Dozens of silver cups won in rabbit competitions over the decades line shelves and the top of a wardrobe in his hall and the walls are filled with certificates, pennants and framed newspaper articles of his triumphs.

Future of Giants in Danger

But despite his growing fame, Szmolinsky warns that giant bunny breeding is in peril because the breeders are dying out.

“Giant breeding is in a lot of danger here in Germany," he says. "We’re not getting fresh blood, the young people have moved away to get jobs and many breeders are now on unemployment benefits and can’t afford the feed.”

Another problem is that the competition judges are ageing and have recently slapped an 11.5 kilo weight limit on the rabbits because they can no longer lift animals that are any heavier, said Szmolinsky, adding that an upper limit on giant rabbits defeats the object of breeding them.

His pessimism about the future of rabbit growing may be a little exaggerated given that 300 giant rabbit breeders are still hard at it across Germany.

Szmolinsky said German Grey Giants were called Belgian giants until 1937 because the breed was imported from Belgium. But German breeders managed to increase the size of the rabbits through innovative feeding, and the breed adopted its Teutonic name. Since then, he said, German breeders have been at the forefront of big rabbit growing.

“The Czechs, Hungarians and Poles were always envious of how big we got our rabbits,” said Szmolinsky.

Rabbit Rapport

He evidently adores his charges. “Look at how well he stands. It’s a joy to watch,” he says, gently ruffling a one-year-old male, a comparative lightweight at just seven kilos, who is standing on his hind legs holding his huge front paws to his chest -- a pose he says never fails to win over the competition judges. The rabbit clearly appreciates the compliment because he turns and kisses Szmolinsky on the cheek.

That affection, an appetite for more prizes and the media attention explain why Szmolinsky is determined to carry on as long as he can lift the monsters in his backyard. “My sons always tell me to give up but they don’t understand what it’s like when you’ve been doing it this long, and always been competing at the top. I’m nuts about the giants, I’ll never stop.“

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