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.
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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.
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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.”
“In some ways, obviously, the categories are completely arbitrary,” Margo DeMello explains. “There’s nothing inherent in an animal that makes it a pet or livestock; there’s nothing inherent in an animal that makes it edible or inedible.” It’s all socially constructed, she says.
In America, it’s socially okay to fall in love with your golden retriever and let it sleep at the foot of your bed, but the same can’t really be said for a chicken. People's relationships with other creatures exist on a spectrum, or perhaps more accurately, within a series of concentric circles. The closer something is to the center, the more we consider it family; the farther out it is, the less it resembles kin. We don’t eat animals emotionally close to us, but the less we identify or have a relationship with them, the more edible they become. Eating your dog is repulsive because it seems like cannibalism. Yet for at least 95 percent of Americans, eating a hamburger doesn’t elicit the same response.
Because most Americans don’t put rabbits in the same category as dogs and cats, perception is what matters most, DeMello says. “All we’re trying to do is change the social perception of rabbits so that more people see and understand what we see, which is that they’re smart and they’re funny and they’re—you have a rabbit, don’t you?”
And with her self-interruption, DeMello pinpointed why I find this debate so fascinating: Yes, I used to have a pet rabbit, but I also spent a season working on a farm that raised and butchered rabbits a few years ago. I even ate some of those rabbits, too, ending my stint as a vegan. I knew our animals were raised and slaughtered in a manner I deemed humane, and I decided there wasn't anything wrong with eating meat if it comes from a respectable source. All that said, I would never eat a pet rabbit.
Why is it that when I think about eating a dog I immediately think of the dogs I grew up with, but when I think about eating a rabbit, my first thought isn’t my pet bunny?
* * *
When Hal Herzog and his wife bought their first house together 37 years ago in North Carolina, their neighbors were elderly “back-to-the-landers” who grew all of their own vegetables and fertilized their crops with rabbit manure. They also ate the rabbits if they felt like eating meat. It wasn’t long before Herzog, a professor of anthrozoology, or human-animal relations, and his wife were growing their own garden and raising rabbits for meat too.
“For the first time in my life I was taking responsibility for my eating habits,” Herzog says. “I was the guy who raised them, I was the guy who killed them, I was the guy who skinned them out, and I was the guy who cooked them. There was a lot of satisfaction in being able to do that.”