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Battery Bunnies By Mark Hawthorne
Despite being one of the most popular companion animals
in the country, rabbits are among the most exploited. Domestic rabbits—cherished
for their playful, gentle natures—are skinned for their fur, blinded
to test cosmetics, bred for show, drugged for science, clipped for wool
pulled out of magicians’ hats, killed in vivisection labs, sold as
food for pet snakes, and raised and shipped by breeders. To add insult
to all this injury, we chop off their paws and tout the rabbit’s
foot as a “good luck” charm.
But the exploitation doesn’t end there. A 2002 rabbit industry report by
the USDA suggests that 8.3 million rabbits are raised and slaughtered each year
in this country to be served in restaurants and sold in grocery stores. Recent
media coverage asserts rabbit meat is a growing U.S. industry, especially in
southern states. With members in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, the Tri-State
Rabbit Growers Association was formed in 2003, and its goal is to become an economic
force in the food industry. “It’s alarming to see the growth of rabbit
meat production in the South, where heavy development of chicken meat currently
exists,” says Christine Morrissey, whose organization East Bay Animal Advocates
(EBAA) investigates the rabbit meat industry. “Like chicken, rabbit meat
is gaining popularity as an alternative to red meat.”
Rabbit meat production mimics the inhumane practices of poultry and egg industries,
often keeping animals packed in small wire battery cages that afford each rabbit
the same amount of floor space as a sheet of legal-sized paper. Such confinement
can cause a host of health problems, yet sick rabbits are routinely denied
veterinary care. EBAA’s recent investigation of a processing facility
in California found rabbits living in overstocked, unsanitary conditions, and
medical examination on several of these animals revealed respiratory and skin
infections, diarrhea and urine burns.
“ Meat” rabbits are sold live to commercial processing plants, who
market them to retail groceries and restaurants. Although a processor may first
attempt to break a rabbit’s neck prior to slaughter, rabbits raised for
their flesh are generally large and difficult to handle; consequently, they
are killed using a number of other cruel methods, including a blow to the head,
and slitting their throats.
According to the USDA, with intense competition from China, which exports frozen
rabbit meat at low prices, commercial rabbit meat groups in the U.S. are struggling
to improve the supply, consistency and market outlets for rabbits. (Neither the
Professional Rabbit Meat Association nor the Rabbit Industry Council would comment
for this article.)
Do Rabbits Have Feathers?
In July 2005, the Humane Farming Association (HFA), Animal Rights International,
and the Animal Welfare Institute placed a full-page advertisement in The New
York Times criticizing the USDA for classifying rabbits as “poultry,” giving
them the same protection as chickens and turkeys—which is to say none whatsoever.
The clever ad depicts three young rabbits above the headline “Please help
these chickens” and details some of the suffering rabbits endure, including
struggling to survive as they’re skewered with meat hooks. By grouping
rabbits with poultry, the USDA avoids having to include them in the 1958 Humane
Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA)—standards that exclude poultry. Among
other things, this means rabbits may be fully conscious while being slaughtered.
“ The Animal Disposition Reporting System clearly classifies all rabbits
as poultry,” says Gail Eisnitz, Chief Investigator for HFA and author of
Slaughterhouse. “In addition, all edible rabbit products are stamped with
the mark of inspection that is used on federally inspected poultry products.” The
USDA’s Animal Disposition Reporting System divides animals into two groups:
livestock and poultry. It defines livestock as large animals and poultry as “chickens,
turkeys, ducks, geese, capons, rabbits, and other,” with a footnote explaining
that because rabbits and poultry are nearly the same size, it is common practice
to slaughter rabbits in poultry establishments; therefore, to simplify reporting
from inspectors, rabbits are grouped with poultry.
Unfortunately, the USDA seems reluctant to discuss the issue. Although I could
never get anyone at the agency to definitively answer my question “Are
rabbits protected under HMSA?” I did get a reply to my query about how
they classify them. Rex Barnes, Associate Deputy Administrator of Poultry Programs
for the USDA, attempted to clarify the matter by emailing this response: “While
we do not classify rabbits as poultry, rabbit quality standards and grading
are organizationally operated in the USDA, AMS [Agricultural Marketing Service],
Humane Protection for All
Whether or not the USDA regards rabbits as poultry, agribusiness certainly
treats them that way. In November of 2005, the Humane Society of the United
EBAA filed a lawsuit against the federal government challenging the USDA’s
exclusion of poultry from HMSA. When reminded how evasive the USDA can be about
the status of rabbits and their protection under HMSA, Jonathan Lovvorn, Vice
President of Litigation for HSUS, isn’t surprised. “USDA is being
purposefully vague,” he says. “They’re playing a definitional
game with us, and that’s at the heart of our lawsuit against them.”
Nothing good can be said regarding the distressing combination of inhumane treatment
and intensified efforts to market rabbit flesh for food. Ironically, their popularity
on dinner plates coincides with an increase in our appreciation for them as companions.
Like dogs and cats, rabbits are full of personality, thrive indoors and form
deep bonds with their human guardians. We would be appalled to see Fido or Fluffy
on the menu. So, why should Thumper be any different?
What You Can Do:
Don’t patronize restaurants that serve rabbit; better yet, ask them to
Ask the USDA to protect rabbits under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.
Contact: Secretary Mike Johanns, USDA,1400 Independence Ave, SW, Rm 200-A,
Washington, DC 20250; phone (202) 720-3631; fax: (202) 720-2166;
Read Stories Rabbits Tell by Susan Davis and Margo DeMello (Lantern, 2003).
Visit www.rabbitproduction.com and
watch the film Rabbits: Pets or Poultry? Mark Hawthorne is a California-based writer, animal advocate and rescuer of bunnies.