Are Rabbits Pets or Meat?

These days, Herzog is no longer a quasi-homesteader. He's swapped that lifestyle for one of teaching and writing about human-animal relationships—his most recent book is titled Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. “We think of ourselves as a nation of animal lovers. What we really like to do with animals is eat them," he says.

Why can some people—Herzog, Corinne Fayo, Janet Groves, Mark Pasternak, me—look at rabbits as a species and say, these ones are pets, and those ones are livestock, and not feel like moral hypocrites?

Herzog started thinking about this 20 years ago, when he was sitting in a hotel bar having a beer with the psychologist and animal rights activist, Ken Shapiro. Herzog knew Shapiro was a vegan; Shapiro knew Herzog ate meat. Both men had read all of the same psychology and animal-rights literature, and both spent a lot of time working through the same philosophical questions. But somehow, they came to different conclusions about how to live their lives.

“Hal, I don’t get it: why aren’t you like us?” Shapiro suddenly asked. Herzog didn’t have an answer. He still doesn't. 

“I’ve been struggling with this for a long time,” Herzog says. “I can handle moral ambiguity. I can deal with it. So I don’t have that need for moral consistency that animal activists do.” He laughs a little. “And I know that their logic is better than mine, so I don’t even try arguing with them. They win in these arguments.” 

Herzog would like to see rabbits covered under the Humane Slaughter Act—they currently aren’t because of an odd USDA quirk that classifies them as poultry, which is exempt. And if Whole Foods can find sources of rabbits that are humanely raised, and humanely slaughtered, Herzog sees no problem with the store selling the meat.

But, he says, he'd be disgusted if Whole Foods were to start selling dog and cat meat. “That’s not a logically defensible argument in and of itself,” he says, “but I like to think that we have two operating systems when it comes to morality—one is logical and the other is emotional—and they sort of come into conflict sometimes. So my logical side might say, yeah, there’s really no big difference between dog and cat and rabbit because ethically, what’s the distinction?"

He goes on: “But my inner moral compass—my sense of disgust—sort of says, 'No, it’s not okay for Whole Foods to serve dog and cat,’ even though I know I’m being inconsistent.” 

“Margo puts them in the same category,” he says. “And I respect her views.”

* * *

Outside of the Union Square store, the activists are talking to a small crowd. “They refuse to test products on the very animals they turn around and sell as meat,” says a man wearing fuzzy bunny ears and holding a big sign.

This inconsistency presents a valid question: If I decide there is something ethically wrong with dripping chemicals into a rabbit’s eye to test its toxicity, is it hypocritical to eat that animal? 

Hal Herzog talks about the relative ability of an individual to live with moral inconsistency, but perhaps the rabbit debate is less about morality and instead has to do with the categorical boundaries we use to talk about the debate in the first place. Maybe someone like Herzog isn’t tortured by Whole Foods's decision because it doesn't upset his mental categorization of different animals.

But if Whole Foods were to sell dog and cat meat, it would cut across the categories, and disrupt the way he orders and understands the universe; dogs are unequivocally pets in this country, therefore you don’t eat them. This system of organization might be based partly in logic, but a lot of it comes from emotionally-charged experiences.

Those involved are only trying to navigate their relationships with all other creatures—humans included—based on the lines drawn in their own minds. The fact that most of this boils down to arbitrary subjectivity might seem dissatisfying. But that might be the best way to make sense of the contradictions in this small corner of the moral universe, complete with its ethically-flexible eaters, its relatively indifferent grocers, its carnivorous rabbit-breeders, its pet owners, its animal lovers, and its unwavering activists—even if sometimes it's hard to keep track of all those categories.

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Miriam Wasser is a journalist based in New York City. 

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