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Why Celebrate Rabbits?
Margo DeMello, PhD, is the executive director of the House Rabbit Society and is recognized as one of the foremost experts on rabbit social behavior. She is also the director of the Human-Animals Studies Program for Animals and Society Institute, the author of numerous books and papers, and a professor of sociology, cultural studies, and anthropology. Read more about Margo.
A person who doesn’t know rabbits would be hard-pressed to come up with an answer. But someone who has had the privilege of living with rabbits knows. Rabbits are funny, loving, gentle, curious, charming, playful, energetic, smart, and mysterious. They are also lazy, territorial, vindictive, pushy, domineering, and destructive. For the community of rabbit lovers around the world, there are a whole host of reasons to celebrate rabbits.
And for many of us, celebrating rabbits means protecting them.
Rabbits are not classified as pets in the United States. They are, according to the USDA, “dual purpose animals.” This makes them exempt from most state humane pet laws, leaving them vulnerable to almost unimaginable cruelty and suffering. Since rabbits aren’t considered livestock either, they are exempt from the two federal laws (including the Humane Slaughter Act) that protect food animals from agony and abuse.
Ironically, millions of rabbits suffer due to the meat and fur industries, animal experimentation, and product testing, while they continue to be one of the most beloved creatures in cartoons, stuffed toys, and literature. In mythology, religion, and art around the world, they represent fertility, sexuality, the moon, and rebirth on one hand, and innocence, passivity, and purity on the other. Rabbits also play a major role in folktales and legends on almost every continent, often embodying the clever trickster or the cowardly fool.
Yet even as we appreciate the cultural aspects of the rabbit (from Bugs Bunny to Peter Rabbit) and hold on to our fondness for depictions of them—collecting porcelain figurines, garden sculptures, and kitchen kitsch—most Americans turn a blind eye to the plight of live rabbits.
Eight million rabbits are slaughtered for meat every year in this country, with another 800 million slaughtered worldwide. Prior to their slaughter, they are generally raised in tightly packed cages similar to those in which egg-laying hens suffer. Because they lack legal protection, they generally suffer death in ways that seem straight out of a horror movie.
Millions of rabbits lose their lives in the fur industry, enduring an unimaginably brutal end to supply Americans with “fun” fur coats, fur-trimmed apparel, cat toys, and novelty items. Because rabbit fur is not as highly valued as the fur from other animals, these items tend to be relatively inexpensive and likely to be discarded rather than cherished.
Three hundred thousand rabbits give their lives every year to American medical research and product testing. Product testing, although not legally mandated for most personal care items, is forced on rabbits by placing toxic substances into their eyes or onto their abraded skin.
Even as pets, rabbits tend to suffer more than cats and dogs. Rabbits are often bred in filthy, largely unregulated rabbit mills whose purpose is to produce as many rabbits as quickly as possible. Once purchased, they are generally kept alone in outdoor cages, an especially cruel fate for a gregarious animal whose wild kin live in busy, close-knit communities. While people are realizing that chaining a dog is cruel (and in some locales the practice is now illegal), most people don’t think twice about leaving a rabbit alone in a cage, away from interaction and stimulation.
One reason for rabbits’ poor treatment is the fact that they are marketed by the pet industry as a “children’s pet” or “starter pet”—an animal whose needs are simple and can be easily met by the smallest of children in the barest of enclosures. Due to such misinformation, rabbits end up abandoned in animal shelters, along highways, and in parks in ever-increasing numbers. Like dogs and cats, they are often euthanized when no homes can be found for them.
Thankfully, organizations like the House Rabbit Society and books like Rabbits: Gentle Hearts, Valiant Spirits offer a different understanding of rabbits and a different approach to living with them.
We now know that rabbits thrive in the home as companions and family members, learning to use the litter box, to play with their toys, to “purr” and dance when happy, to bond with other family members including cats, birds, guinea pigs, and well-behaved dogs. Rabbits who are allowed to have a relationship with another (spayed or neutered) rabbit can develop richer, deeper relationships than we ever thought possible.
Perhaps now that you understand a little more about them, you’ll agree that rabbits are definitely animals worthy of our celebration—and our protection.
Statistics from: Stories Rabbits Tell by Susan E. Davis and Margo DeMello, New York: Lantern Books, 2003
© 2007 Margo DeMello