“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?
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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.”
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?"