LONDON, Feb. 1, 2007 — -- Not everything is as it seems in Carl Szmolinsky's backyard.
Rabbits in hutches snack on kale, while others twitch their noses. Szmolinsky shuffles around, wearing dirty sweat pants and a vest emblazoned with the colors of the local rabbit breeders' chapter.
Just another senior citizen in Germany with an unusual hobby? Hardly. This man may hold the answer to the chronic food shortage in North Korea.
In his hand is a giant rabbit named Robert II.
Szmolinsky is a big guy, but next to his rabbit, he looks like a shrimp. From the tip of his nose to the fluff on his tail, Robert II is more than 2 feet long and weighs 17 pounds. At just 1 year old, he's not yet fully grown.
Robert II is a giant rabbit, a prime specimen of the German Grey breed. He's got pedigree and he's got Szmolinsky regularly filling his food bowl with kale, boiled potatoes and dried parsley -- apparently an appetite stimulant.
Though Szmolinsky may be 68 years old, he coos like a teenage girl as he kisses his rabbits and strokes their fur. Apparently a lot of love is another secret to success in the world of giant-rabbit breeding.
The rabbits, however, aren't allowed to love one another. In Szmolinsky's yard, there's strict segregation of sexes.
"They get flustered easily," if they're allowed contact, Szmolinsky said. "They ruffle the hay. We want to avoid that, because when they are restless they don't put on any weight."
But what brought an attache from the North Korean Embassy in Berlin to Szmolinsky's front door?
It all started last year when Robert, father of Robert II, won the title of "Germany's Biggest Rabbit."
The prized rabbit tipped the scales at a whopping 22 pounds. A South Korean children's television show ran a feature story about the giant animal.
North Korean officials in Pyongyang caught the show, and an idea was sparked. Days later, that attache's convoy of Mercedes S-Class limousines screeched to a halt outside Szmolinsky's front door.
The diplomat took one look at the rabbits and immediately placed an order for 12. After some problems with customs, Szmolinsky shipped Robert II and 11 of his rabbit friends to one of the last bastions of communism, the emergent nuclear power and fiefdom of Kim Jong Il.
Could a plan to feed starving people with giant rabbits really work?
Szmolinsky estimates that it costs about $1,000 a year to feed the 60 bunnies he keeps in his yard. When you think that each full-grown rabbit has 15 pounds of meat on its bones, though, the payback is handsome.
Fifteen pounds is the equivalent of 60 hamburgers, but it's not all good eating. The 15 pounds include the liver, heart, stomach, and even the meat on the rabbits' gigantic heads.
As the old saying goes, they breed like rabbits. While one cow has one calf every year, one female rabbit can give birth to 16 bunnies in a year, and a male rabbit can impregnate two female rabbits every day.
Even if Szmolinsky doesn't ship any more rabbits to North Korea, if North Koreans breed the animals correctly, the 12 they already have could multiply to more than 1 million in just eight years.
Rabbits have been Szmolinsky's hobby for 47 years. He's never left Germany; he's never been on a plane. In fact, he's actually never even been on vacation. In April, though, Szmolinsky will fly to Pyongyang to share his expertise in feeding and breeding these German Greys.
His love of these giant rabbits doesn't stop him from eating them. A roulade of stomach is his personal favorite.
"That's what the rabbit is there for. Like a pig or a cow," he said. "But I don't slaughter it myself. … I can't do it myself because I rear these little things."
Szmolinsky says he's happy the North Koreans are hungry for his rabbits as well: Anything to help a hungry nation.
But if he discovers in Pyongyang that his bunnies aren't getting the love and attention they're used to back home, he says, the deal is off.