When I was growing up, my family went to the feed store one spring to buy something (farm equipment? wire, grain? rakes? cowbells? I just don’t remember). The store had a big pen filled with “Easter bunnies” for low, low prices, and thanks to their endearing cuteness, my sister and I had to have one. My long-suffering parents were deeply reluctant, but in the end they agreed, provided the bunnies stayed in hutches outside. We went home with two adorably cute little rabbits (and a bunch of wire for building pens). It was the beginning of a very painful lesson about the ambiguous nature of domestication. Rabbit-lovers may want to stop reading. In fact everyone may want to stop reading. Not all animal stories have happy endings.
European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) were raised in large walled colonies in ancient Rome (like snails!) but they were not properly domesticated for the farm until the middle ages. Wikipedia half-heartedly quotes a date of “600” (presumably 600 AD). Goats, pigs, and cows were domesticated about ten thousand years ago—long before the first cities rose—so the rabbit is a newcomer to farming life. Not until the eighteenth (or maybe nineteenth) century do we have any records of rabbits as pets.
The rabbits we obtained from the feed store were certainly not raised as pets but as stock (the fact that they were sold at the feed store was a real clue). We already had cats and dogs and birds inside, so the rabbits had to live in wire pens with little straw lined nesting boxes. For a while the bunnies were sort of stuck in a limbo between being pets and being livestock, but, as people who have real pet rabbits can tell you, rabbits don’t really love being held and they have an ambiguous relationship with children. They are also gifted escape artists and extremely devoted to producing more rabbits. We had some litters of baby bunnies (did you know that stressed out rabbits eat their young? You do now) and we also had some rabbits that went renegade. We tried to catch the escapees at first and we did catch some (even domestic rabbits can run like the wind) but ultimately we resigned ourselves to the fact that a certain number of rabbits would go “Watership Down” and never return. Eventually something must have got them: the highway, the foxes, the hawks, the coyotes, the bobcats, the owls, the weasels—who knows?
So in the end we wound up with hutches filled with rabbits that had to be fed and watered and tended to. In the summer they would occasionally die of unknown causes (heat, stress, disease?). I have extremely unpleasant memories of putting on rubber gloves and carrying a stiffened decomposing rabbit covered with flies over the hill to dig a shallow grave.
You can probably see where this is all heading. On a farm filled with delightful & personable animals like dogs, cats, ponies, and turkeys, the rabbits did not cut it as pets. The cards had been hopelessly stacked against them from the beginning. And so eventually they became rabbits for the pot. It turned out that slaughtering rabbits was a task which I was shamefully unequal to as a child. Jim Bowie might have slapped me around until I toughened up and became a frontiersman but my dad just sighed heavily and did the butchering himself (sorry Dad, I’ll take care of it next time). Thereafter we found that the Amish neighbors were happy to slaughter rabbits in exchange for a share. Rabbit fur really is soft and warm and we had a bizarre mud room filled with tanned pelts (although I am not sure what we ever did with them). Rabbit meat is particularly delightful (especially with creamy sauce) and we had lots of savory rabbit curries, which are even better than they sound.
So what is the point of this story? I am sure it will not endure me to other animal lovers (although I beg you all to stay with me–I am an animal lover too). Maybe it is a simple story about domestication. I like meat, but I have not forgotten where it comes from (and I can understand the point of view of vegetarians–but it isn’t my point of view).