By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 2, 2007
EBERSWALDE, Germany -- Few people raise bigger bunny rabbits than Karl Szmolinsky, who has been producing long-eared whoppers since 1964. His favorite breed, German gray giants, are the size of a full-grown beagle and so fat they can barely hop.
Last year, after the retired chauffeur entered some of his monsters in an agricultural fair, word of his breeding skills spread to the North Korean Embassy in Berlin. Diplomats looked past the cute, furry faces with the twitching noses and saw a possible solution to their nation's endemic food shortage: an enormous bunny in every Korean pot.
The North Koreans approached Szmolinsky in November and asked whether he'd advise them on how to start a rabbit breeding program to help "feed the population," the 67-year-old pensioner recalled in an interview at his home in Eberswalde, an eastern German town a few miles from the Polish border. Sympathetic to the Koreans' plight, he agreed to sell some of his best stock at a steep discount and volunteered to travel to the hermetic nation as a consultant.
"They liked what they saw, and they liked how big they were," he said, as he showed off other bunnies that he raises in weathered hutches in his back yard. "It's harder than you think to raise them. They need a varied diet, but they have to be fed like pigs, basically, to get that big."
In December, Szmolinsky stuffed six of his rabbits into modified dog carriers and took them to the airport in Berlin, where they boarded a flight for Pyongyang, via Frankfurt, Germany, and Beijing. Robert, a 23-pounder, was the largest of the bunch, which included four female rabbits and one other male carefully selected for their breeding potential.
How, exactly, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea intends to parlay the small herd of German Flopsies into hunger relief for its 23 million citizens is unclear.
An official at the North Korean Embassy in Berlin, who would not give his name, confirmed that the Asian nation coveted the German bunnies for their gigantism. But he refused to answer any other questions about the breeding program.
In the hands of a skilled butcher, a German gray giant can yield up to 15 pounds of meat, according to Szmolinsky. "There's not much fat, and it's very tender." Their gray-and-white pelts are soft and supple but are generally worthless on the European market, he said.
The breeder said he was notified by an attache at the North Korean Embassy that Robert and the other rabbits from Eberswalde had arrived safely at their destination. But he allowed that he was a little concerned their new masters might not know how to care for them properly. He said he hopes to travel to North Korea in April to inspect their living conditions.
"If they aren't able to feed them the way I do here, I won't send them any more," he said. "I don't want them to be half-starved."
The Koreans' choice of rabbits has other German breeders scratching their heads.
Karl-Heinz Heitz, chairman of the State Association of Rabbit Breeders in Berlin-Brandenburg, said that German gray giants are hard to beat for size but that they aren't cheap to fatten up. It takes wheelbarrow-loads of hay, vegetables and rabbit chow to bring them to maturity.
"Let me say this: There are certainly breeds that are more economically profitable; I do not know why the North Koreans wanted this one," said Heitz, who introduced the Korean officials to Szmolinsky.
Breeds such as New Zealand red or big light silver or Vienna blue are only half as big but are more cost-effective to raise. "You do not have to put in as much to get out a fair amount of meat," Heitz said.
For whatever reason, the German gray giants appear to hold a special allure in Asia.
A North Korean television crew visited Eberswalde last year to film Szmolinsky's rabbits for a children's program. And a couple of Chinese visitors showed up unannounced at his doorstep the other day, asking if they could buy some of his critters.
"I had to get rid of them," he said of the Chinese. He's not parting with any of his 14 remaining adult rabbits until he can breed some more.
Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report.