Kathleen Stachowski Other Nations
Easter morning dawned bright and beautiful in Western Montana. I glanced out the window and there sat Sylvilagus nuttallii, the mountain cottontail. Though our mostly-wild, predominantly-native property is perfect habitat, rabbits don’t show themselves readily, and the sighting was a special treat. I mean, who doesn’t love a bunny?!? Then I recalled the day a few years back when we heard gun shots across the road and saw the neighbor throw a limp body from his then-unfenced garden. No, not everyone loves a bunny.
Later, relaxing with the Sunday paper, a feel-good Easter story about a “bunny rancher” left me feeling decidedly bad. “I only have three Easter bunnies left right now,” the breeder told the reporter. “This time of year, they go as fast as I can make them.”
They go as fast as I can make them. Look, that’s fine when you’re talking about rabbit-shaped cakes or crocheted stuffed bunnies–but living, sentient beings?!? Does she know that rabbits require a 10- year-plus commitment and regular veterinary care? That they’re the third most surrendered animal in humane shelters? That most Easter rabbits are relinquished to shelters or abandoned within the year? That “many shelters euthanize rabbits in percentages as high as 80-90% of incoming rabbits” (source)? More importantly, do the buyers know this? And does anybody care?
We also learn from this enthusiastic member of the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) that “there’s a whole world out there that cares a lot about rabbits”; “they’re a lot of fun to have around”; “they are incredibly smart, you know” (she goes on to inform that rabbits can be clicker trained and can run agility courses); and that “people interested in rabbits are just like those who like horses, dogs or cats. They are really passionate about them.” Then–more ominously– “they can be used for so many different things.”
Uh-oh. Could it be that serving as an oft-discarded, living toy presented in a colorful basket is not a bunny’s only worry?
The three S’s: Slippers, supper, & survival
The rabbit breeder–who credits 4-H for everything she knows about rabbits–shows the reporter an animal with velvety fur. “People like using their fur for slippers and hats,” she tells him. “some use it for fly tying, too. It is so incredibly soft.” Then there’s meat:
Pound for pound, she said, a rabbit can outproduce a beef cow for making meat and you don’t need a large pasture to raise them. “I think people are starting to look for ways to raise their own food,” she said. “I’m seeing more and more people interested in getting rabbits for that.” ~Missoulian
But wait, it goes south from there. Bunny Rancher has sold her fun, smart, passionately-cared-about animals to the U.S. Air Force, which, according to the article, “used the rabbits in survival training for pilots in Spokane”:
… one of the most anticipated and dreaded tasks is procuring and preparing food. The menu for the supper under the stars: fresh rabbit and chicken that the students will take part in killing, skinning, gutting and cooking for the group meal.
The students receive an impromptu anatomy lesson as they peel back the rabbit’s skin like a glove from a hand, and cut open his belly. They’ll…discard the digestive organs and keep the others for their stew. ~Full Contact, Military.com
Just last year, a commenter at an online military forum wrote, “My brother is an A-10 pilot, he said the hardest thing he had to do at SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) was skin and prepare a rabbit. I asked him how he caught the rabbit, and he said ‘they brought them to us in the field..in cages.’” A follow-up response offered, “We got our choice, rabbit or chicken. They had a single goat to demonstrate for the whole class” (source).
Absent in these accounts is the method by which these docile, defenseless, domestic animals are killed, but an update to Project Censored’s top 25 unreported stories for the year 2000 reveals,
These exercises result in the deaths of more than 10,000 animals annually—including goats and chickens—usually by soldiers using their bare hands or primitive tools such as rocks and sticks.
The practice dates back to World War II and was designed to teach soldiers how to procure food when separated from their divisions for long periods of time. However, in the modern exercises, soldiers are given tame rabbits… Nothing about the exercises simulates combat conditions with regard to “hunting” for food, making the classes as pointless as they are cruel.
Rabbits: Much like humans…nothing like humans
At the ARBA website’s frequently-asked-questions page, one question reads, “What breed is best for me and my children?” The answer begins by acknowledging that “rabbits…are much like humans, in that each has their own disposition, characteristics, and temperament.” A subsequent question in the commercial section asks, “How long will it take for fryers to reach 5 pounds?” You’ll find no mention of similarity to humans in that answer, but still, the disconnect is enough to knock you to your knees.
Then there are those for whom no disconnect exists because animals are strictly commodities. At the Instructables website (…a place that lets you explore, document, and share your creations), you can learn to make a rabbit fur hat from scratch (meaning you start with a live rabbit) from instructors who maintain that,
Raising rabbits is a valuable addition to almost any household. They are quiet, easy to breed and manage, and do not require much space or input. We raise them mainly for the lean, delicious meat, but they also provide a valuable manure and, of course, fur. ~Make a rabbit fur hat from scratch
And, of course, fur–and for $80, these off-the-grid folks will even make a rabbit fur Kindle cover for you!–but back to the hat tutorial. Within the 61 comments posted, one from the instructors notes, “Our rabbits are raised sustainably and butchered humanely. We strive to provide them an excellent life, as healthy and happy animals produce higher quality products.”
What does all this say about the human psyche? For people who identify as ethical vegans, animal rights proponents, or simply compassionate humans, there’s no question that the purposeful creation, exploitation, and intentional destruction of sentient life is wrong. (Line up here to pat the bunny!) The Instructables folks are unapologetically whack the bunny and make no bones about it: their rabbits are treated well because it benefits the bottom line. They’re honest, even if–from a rights perspective–they’re wrong. Still, one wonders how the growing body of science on animal consciousness and emotions fits into their scheme–if at all. Another commenter advises, “Don’t let the ‘moral high ground’ ding dongs bother you.” Maybe for some it’s really just that easy.
But it’s the bunny ranchers of the world whom I find most troubling in their easy accommodation of patting with one hand while whacking with the other–extolling the virtues of an animal about whom they’re passionate (they’re fun! so smart! all individuals!) while making fryers of those unique, little individuals and selling them off to the military as survival projects. There’s something so unsettling about the human animal there–something fraught with what looks like effortless betrayal.
And why not. Humans have, throughout history, readily betrayed and persecuted our own species for money and for power over the ones deemed “other.” How easy (and convenient) it is to categorically see all nonhuman animals–sentience be damned–as the no-account “other” and trade their lives for pieces of silver.
Perhaps exactly this is what separates the moral high ground ding dongs from the whack the bunny crowd.
Rabbit advocacy: Rabbitron; House Rabbit Society; many wonderful others
Also: Regulating the Military’s Survival Skills Training Under the Animal Welfare Act, 2001, Animal Legal & Historical Center, Michigan State University