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.