Rabbit ranching: Pat the bunny, whack the bunny

Kathleen Stachowski  Other Nations

Easter morning dawned bright and beautiful in Western Montana. I glanced out the window and there sat Sylvilagus nuttalliithe 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.”   

Rabbitron – click

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

C. Murdock photo – click for credit

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.
~Project Censored

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.”

Fair use under U.S. copyright law - WikipediaWhat 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 otherextolling 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

9 Responses

  1. Oh yes… Bunnies can be used in so many ways! Ugh! It was about 6 months ago that I got into a lengthy series of comment-debates on youtube with a rabbit rancher – Also a product of 4H. She insisted that everything she did to the rabbits was so kind and loving. She spoke of how many times she “saved” them from being eaten by their mothers or “saved” them from the freezing cold. She never got the comparison I gave her that she was essentially placing a puppy in a building, setting the structure on fire and then expecting accolades for attempting a rescue. They just don’t see what they don’t want to know. 😦

    I tried posting a comment at the make-your-own-cruel-hat site but you have to be a cash-member to even send a private message. The person claiming “circle of life” who gave a lion/antelope scenario was who I wanted to direct my thoughts to — Oh well. She probably wouldn’t have paid any mind or heart to my opines anyway.

    What takes the vegan cake though has got to be the military and its “survival” tasks… I wonder how much of this has got more to do with desensitizing training than anything else?

    I agree it’s a rare treat to spot a wild bun. Even in semi-urban Florida I’ve had an occasional sighting of one that comes hopping into my yard. In those moments there is such peace and connectedness to all that’s good in life. How can we ever reach those who gleefully defile it all – I just don’t know. 😦

  2. The disconnect of the people in this post reminds me of a story I read today, about a girl in Ethiopia who was reportedly protected from her human abductors by a group of lions: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/8305836/ns/world_news-africa/t/ethiopian-girl-reportedly-guarded-lions/ People speculating on why the lions protected the girl instead of harming her concluded that the girl’s cries must have made the lions think she was a lion cub (yeah, right!). Apparently, it didn’t occur to them that it was odd that the girl’s cries would garner a sympathetic response from the lions but not from the HUMANS who sought to harm her!!

  3. Thank you for this, well done.

  4. I used to hear the coyotes doing their after kill howl not too far from where I live. Hearing them, I felt agonies of ambivalence: dispiriting as it was to think of another violent death, at least the coyotes’ hunger pangs would be briefly alleviated and the hunted rabbit would no longer have to shiver from cold or endure chronic hunger and fear. : The deathly chorus would always evoke Hardy’s plangent cry: “Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed/How long, How long?”

    There’ve been more howls for a long time now : the coyotes froze to death after losing their fur to mange. It’s worth pondering for a moment how unspeakably these magnificent beings suffered before they finally expired. This is the sort of news that turns Hardy’s echo into a deafening lament.

    I don'[t understand vegans ‘or simply compassionate human beings’ who bewail ‘moral evil’ but blithely overlook ‘natural evil’, to use the handy terms of Catholic theologians. In the end, suffering is suffering, whether or not it’s anthropogenic. The point can be illustrated by imagining 2 calamities, a genocide and an epidemic, We can avert only 1. The total suffering resulting from the genocide is X. There are 3 possible values for the suffering created by the epidemic:(1)10X, (2)X, (3) 1/10X. In situation 1, we would presumably be obliged to avert the epidemic and let the genocide take its course. Under 2, it would we a toss up. Only under 3 would the genocide be the greater evil and the event requiring our intercession. But whatever their respective effects, it would be strange indeed, and more than a little inconsistent, if we deplored the genocide but didn’t also regard the epidemic as a catastrophe. What counts, in the end, is the reality of suffering, not its source.
    And sentimentalism aside, the suffering that pervades nature is quite literally incalculable. The colors may be very pretty, but as Ishmael suggests, we have only to look beneath the surface prettiness to find that ‘all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements hide nothing but the charnel house within.”

    There are, sadly, 2 kinds of breeding facilities. One is acidly described in this post. It, and all the other breeding crimes humans perpetrate, are atrocious, and should be abolished. The second kind of breeding facility–nature–is also horrific. If the means become available, it too should be abolished. If technological civilization lasts long enough to develop a cruelty-free way of sterilizing all other species, a refusal to use this technology will constitute our single most unpardonable lapse from altruism towards the nonhuman world..


  5. Joe, what an incredibly dim and pessimistic view of nature. I find nothing at all horrific about it.

    As to rabbits, Cottontails, or “bunnies” are actually very common in my neck of the woods. My dogs sometimes make great sport of chasing them on our walks at the fringes of town. Of course, the bunnies easily give them the slip.

    We’ve also got a fairly robust population of jack rabbits, and in the more mountainous regions, snowshoe hares.

    I see nothing fundamentally wrong with raising domestic rabbits for fur or food. I’ve hunted wild rabbits for food. Indeed, over the course of one winter during which I was particularly financially strapped, I practically lived on rabbit meat and rice.

    Speaking of domestic rabbits — an apparently feral colony of those animals — considerably larger and heftier than wild bunnies — had set up residence near a house I lived in years ago. One of my cats made the foolhardy choice to approach them with ill intent one day. After a sound pummeling, the cat fled back toward the house at lightning speed, and never again bothered those particular rabbits.

    I agree that anybody pondering taking a rabbit as a pet, should not do so flippantly or on the spur of the moment. As noted, they can live quite a long time, and need all the same care and attention a dog or cat would.

    On a final note regarding hoppers, “Watership Down” was a great novel, and also adapted to a great animated film.

  6. I hope you wrote a letter-to-the-editor in response to this horribly irresponsible article.

  7. Thanks for the links. I liked the two articles very much! Left my opines on them as well…

  8. […] later I explored other speciesist atrocities visited upon members of the family Leporidae in “Rabbit ranching: Pat the bunny, whack the bunny.” Atrocities like fur fashions. And meat: Watch as a rabbit […]

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