The less savory side of sugar

SUN JOURNAL

Rabbits: Florida's vast sugar fields are burned before harvesting, sometimes at the expense of small lives.

April 05, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

BELLE GLADE, Fla. - Legend has it this is how the communities along the southern side of Lake Okeechobee became a great training ground for state champion football teams: Players got their speed chasing rabbits.

In this farming community 40 miles due west of the ritzy island of Palm Beach, the sugar cane fields are ripe for harvesting between October and March. To ready the cane for picking, two sides of each field are set ablaze to clean out the dead leaves and foliage in the way.

And that's when the rabbits run for their lives.

And that's when men and boys of all ages take off, too. Catch a few muck rabbits and you can sell them for $2 a pop; $4 or $5 if you take your haul to Fort Lauderdale or Daytona Beach and trade out of the back of your truck.

"That's like a ritual out here, a tradition," says Dannoris Corbett, a 19-year-old car detailer. "You kill what you eat.

"The rabbits jump back and forth. They juke and fake. You have to be fast."

As rabbit hunting season is hitting its stride, this common practice little known beyond the Glades, as this region is called, is suddenly getting some unwanted attention. The controversial animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals last month came out with one of is myriad "action alerts," this one demanding a boycott of U.S. Sugar, the largest producer of sugar cane in the United States with 180,000 acres in South Florida. PETA's activists railed against the inhumanity of the company's burning since "countless animals ... suffer and perish in Florida's sugar cane fields each year."

They may never have discovered this widely known side-effect of the harvest had it not been for a New Jersey man named Robert Powell, who picked up an injured rabbit on his way to the Florida Keys for a mid-February vacation. He put the rabbit into a milk crate in his car and delivered it to a Key West animal hospital, frantic not only because of the severe burns covering 40 percent of the animal's body but because he said he saw hundreds of other rabbits in the same condition as he passed by a burning cane field.

"I couldn't believe it," Powell told the Key West Citizen. "The sky was filled with turkey buzzards swooping down and feeding on them while they were smoldering. They were squealing in pain and jumping into the water."

The rabbit died hours after a veterinarian examined the burns and prescribed fluids and antibiotics. "We just did what we could," says Debbie Brittin, a spokeswoman for the Wildlife Rescue of the Florida Keys. "I felt very sorry for the rabbit."

Though a call for a boycott likely won't make a dent in the sweetener business, "this has brought awareness by some that may not have been there before," says Barbara Miedema, spokeswoman for the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, which represents farmers of 70,000 acres.

U.S. Sugar stands by what it does, though a spokeswoman's statements to a local paper helped add to PETA's ire and has been incorporated into its literature. "I don't know why anyone would pick up one of those marsh rabbits," she told them. "They're mangy and vermin-ridden. They're not pet rabbits."

The scorched rabbit is a compelling piece of evidence, but many in the sugar cane and rabbit hunting trades seriously doubt Powell's tale. Fire is part of the natural process, they say, and it will flush wildlife out of a field, but the rabbits and rats and bobcats and raccoons simply run off to the next field once they smell smoke.

"As far as this business of hundreds of burning rabbits, it's nonsense," says Henry Cabbage, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "It's not like this is something that is a horrible massacre of rabbits when they burn these fields. One rabbit was not fast enough or smart enough to get out, which is how nature assures only the fastest and the smartest survive.

"You can go through an area after a fire. You are going to find a few dead snakes and other critters, but generally animals will get out of the way of fire."

Ronnie Harris, an unemployed migrant worker in Belle Glade who knows something about trafficking in rabbits, is another doubter. "That man's exaggerating. It's nothing like that," he says. "You might see three, four rabbits dead on the side of the road."

Mostly the rabbits head for the safety of the water. "If they see you, they'll run back in the fire," Harris says.

Near the lake, Florida's eyeball on a map, the sugar industry overtakes the landscape. It didn't gain dominance in South Florida until the 1960s, after the Cuban revolution brought thousands with sugar expertise to the state and the United States banned Cuban sugar from the shores. Now, the 450,000 acres of sugar cane produce more than one-quarter of the sugar grown domestically.

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