Are Rabbits Pets or Meat?

Some people are incensed that Whole Foods is selling rabbit meat, and the debate they're caught up in reveals the contradictions in how we relate to different creatures in different ways. 
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A protestor outside of a Whole Foods store in Manhattan on August 17th (Courtesy of Miriam Wasser)

No one is talking about selling kittens and puppies at the meat counter, but for the group of bunny-loving pet owners protesting near the Whole Foods in Union Square, they might as well be. Fifty or so women and men of all ages carry signs, pass out flyers and pamphlets, and try to spread their message to passing Manhattanites. “Boycott Whole Foods,” they say, “because they’re killing rabbits.”

Earlier this year, after developing its own welfare standards, Whole Foods launched a rabbit-meat pilot program across several North American regions that involves selling whole rabbit carcasses. In response, rabbit-protection activists organized a day of action this past weekend outside of more than 40 stores across the country. 

“Remember,” explains one website dedicated to this day, “Whole Foods says they are carrying rabbit meat because of customer demand. We need to show that enough customers demand that Whole Foods NOT carry rabbit meat.”

“Boycott Whole Foods! They’re selling rabbit meat!” yells one of the protesters as she paces across the sidewalk holding up a homemade sign. “My name is not dinner,” it says in big letters above pictures of rabbits.

“God, that’s disgusting!” a woman says as she walks by, accepting a pamphlet from one of the protesters. “Rabbit is delicious,” says another, waving away the flyer. For every person who stops to the sign the petition, there are plenty more who don’t care or can’t be bothered.

A teenager engages with the demonstrators. “Is the only reason we’re not eating them because they’re pets?” he asks. “What about the fact that they’re overpopulated in Australia? Shouldn’t we eat those?” He has an argumentative, smirk-like smile.

“The hypocrisy of Whole Foods,” one of the day’s organizers, Tim Neithercott, begins to say, but the teen walks away before he can finish his sentence.

Virtually everyone involved in the debate over rabbit meat is outspoken, frequently turning to social media to accuse and insult. Meanwhile, Whole Foods has been rather mum on the topic. Its representatives have occasionally told media outlets and activists that the company is committed to creating and following humane standards, and that it hopes to become an industry leader in rabbit meat should the pilot program be successful.

Miriam Wasser

This may seem like a trivial fight involving a disproportionate amount of vitriol, but at its core it’s a debate that sheds light on the sometimes arbitrary categories we construct to make sense of the world. 

* * *

Among the 873 acres of gently sloping hills and fields of Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Marin County, California, owners Mark Pasternak and Myriam Kaplan-Pasternak grow a lot of grapes and raise a lot of rabbits. But not just any rabbits: Devil’s Gulch is one of the largest rabbit-meat producers in the state and sells to high-end restaurants like Chez Panisse, The French Laundry, and over a hundred others. At the height of their operation, the husband-and-wife pair had 12,000 rabbits, but these days, they keep about 2,000 and process 100 to 300 a week. They average, Mark estimates, about 10,000 a year. They are known for their high-quality meat, and given that Myriam specializes in rabbit veterinary care and nutrition, it’s safe to say they know how to raise bunnies.

The Pasternaks have their hands full with restaurant orders, so they won’t be supplying to Whole Foods—those rabbits come from two large, USDA-certified plants: De Bruin Brothers in Iowa, and another undisclosed processor in Missouri—but they applaud the company’s decision to start selling it.

“I don’t think it would be a bad thing if it did normalize or get the American public to eat it more,” Mark says. Rabbit may not be very popular in this country, but if you’re going to eat meat, he points out, it’s one of the better options out there, nutritionally and environmentally speaking.

Rabbits are easy to raise and butcher in your backyard, they’re light on the environment—producing six pounds of rabbit meat requires the same amount of food and water as it takes to produce one pound of cow meat—and their meat is lean and low in cholesterol. The biggest drawback of rabbit meat has traditionally been the struggle to find it in stores, a point Modern Farmer writer Karen Pinchin makes in an article that ponders whether rabbit is the new "super meat." With Whole Foods taking on the role of supplier, this might not be a problem anymore.

But Margo DeMello, a professor of cultural anthropology at Canisius College, is convinced grocery stores shouldn't sell rabbit meat. DeMello, who is the president of the House Rabbit Society and a co-author of the book Stories Rabbits Tell, says it's a problem that stores carry the meat of “an animal that has been embraced as a pet in millions of American households.” Sure, Whole Foods’s decision was a response to demand, she says, but they're only going to end up creating more of it by putting it in their stores.

“Right now, it’s five regions, but eventually, if this pilot program is successful, it’s going to be all the regions,” she says. “And if that is successful, then the other stores are going to say, ‘Hey, we want to get in on the action!’” Whole Foods is a self-proclaimed industry leader in rabbit meat, and DeMello and her allies fear it won’t be long before factory-farmed rabbits start popping up everywhere.

* * *

“I would like everyone to know what the people against rabbit meat are like. I am being harassed by them because I said I support [Whole Foods’s] decision to sell rabbit meat,” Corinne Fayo wrote on the Facebook page for her pro-rabbit-breeding group, the Rabbit Education Society. This was after she discovered the website devoted to stopping her, and others, from breeding rabbits. “They can't even get the facts straight, they put on that page I breed meat rabbits; I don't. They are mentally ill, steal people's pictures, lie, and harass," she wrote. Fayo calls her critics "fanatics."

Just to remind you, we are still talking about rabbit meat here.

Splashed as they are with semi-anonymous insults, Facebook and other public comment forums seem to function as this debate's equivalent of junior-high bathroom stalls. But after reading through hundreds of Facebook posts and tons of websites and blogs, it prompts the question: If your thoughts on rabbit meat are so passionately tied to your sense of right and wrong, then is compromise out of the question?

Fiery rhetoric aside, the rabbit-meat debate has some similarities with the conversation about horsemeat. Eating horse is common in other parts of the world, but here in the States, most people can’t quite bring themselves to do it. “Horses are not found in any grocery store chain in this country,” Margo DeMello says, “and horses don’t even live in our homes!” Like rabbits, horses blur that boundary between animals we use for utility or food, and animals that we consider pets.

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Miriam Wasser is a journalist based in New York City. 

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