Are Rabbits Pets or Meat?

* * *

“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.

However, according to DeMello, public opinion has shifted in recent years, and more people consider bunnies pets than ever before. “They are the third most common companion mammal in the U.S.,” she writes in an email, citing a survey mentioned in an industry publication.

Predictably, those supporting the right to consume rabbit meat question that statistic for its semantic vagueness. "Companion animals," "pets," "small mammals"—it all sounds, at least to the pro-rabbit-meat side, like a convenient bending of words.

For years, Corinne Fayo, who's  in favor of rabbit-breeding, has asked the House Rabbit Society to share the sources of their rabbit-related data, but they won’t. “Some of it I think they just make up,” she says with a sigh, having read through all the studies and links she can get her hands on, none of them conclusive. “And then they say, ‘Well, this is what we’ve seen,’ as if that’s good enough.”

No reliable statistics about rabbits exist in the U.S. like they do for dogs and cats, because veterinarians, shelters, pet stores, and breeders are not required to tabulate them. In fact, much of what we know about the number of rabbits is either estimated, the result of surveys, or otherwise qualitatively constructed.

But worrying about data is probably just a distraction, because, ultimately, “pet” is a relative term—there are more fish in our home aquariums than there are pet dogs, and any category that lumps the two together feels inadequate.

* * *

Standing on the sidewalk across the street from the Union Square Whole Foods, Susan Lillo and Tamara Bedic hold up their posters proudly. Today's organizers asked everyone to stay peaceful and at a reasonable distance from the store's entrance, but Bedic looks anxious to get closer to the shoppers.

“They’re not going to tell me one person is blocking the entrance with a sign,” she says to Lillo. “I’m going over there.”

“Good luck!” Lillo shouts over the noise of 14th Street as Bedic walks across. It isn’t long before a dozen or so of the protestors follow her lead and migrate across the street to confront the people going in and out of the grocery store, which, as it turns out, is not currently selling rabbit meat.

A woman passing by the protest whispers to her friend, “If they were in Italy with these signs, they would get…” She trails off, ominously.

Rabbits, as this passer-by is implying, are widely consumed in other countries. Western Europeans love rabbit sausage, slow-cooked rabbit stews, and braised bunny dishes, while the Chinese—who account for 30 percent of global rabbit consumption—consider rabbit's head a delicacy.

Rabbit was even a staple of the American diet at one time. It helped sustain the European transplants who migrated west across the frontier, and during World War II, eating rabbit was promoted as an act of patriotism akin to growing a victory garden. But as small farms gave way to large-scale operations, rabbit meat's popularity melted away and other meats took over. 

One hypothesis is that rabbits fell out of fashion because they’re not amenable to factory farming in the way chickens and cows are. Since they're at the bottom of the food-chain, they breed a lot, but this tends to leave them with vulnerable immune systems. They die easily if not cared for properly, which means in a massive operation, there isn’t much money to be made. Plus, at anywhere from $10 to $13 per pound, rabbit is probably pretty far from becoming the new chicken.

* * *

Janet Groves, a vocal member of the pro-rabbit meat side, wrote a letter to Whole Foods that highlights the debate's fundamental tension: How you feel about eating rabbits has a lot to do with whether you think of them as pets. “There is a vast difference between an animal raised in a home, with a family, as a pet, and an animal raised with the intent of being harvested for meat," she writes. "Of course, the [activists] want to know what, exactly, the difference in those animals is. The difference in those rabbits is, of course, purpose.”

Presented by

Miriam Wasser is a journalist based in New York City. 

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