Rabbit ranching: Pat the bunny, whack the bunny

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.”

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:

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”:

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,

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,

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 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, willingly 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; and many wonderful others
Also: Regulating the Military’s Survival Skills Training Under the Animal Welfare Act, 2001, Animal Legal & Historical Center, Michigan State University

Comment on this post at animal law blog Animal Blawg.

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