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By Mark Hawthorne, Striking At the Roots
Media reports indicate the consumption of rabbit meat is on the rise. What is behind this disturbing trend -- and what can activists do about it?
Despite being one of the most popular companion animals in the country, rabbits are among the most exploited. Domestic rabbits – cherished for their playful, gentle natures – are skinned for their fur, blinded to test cosmetics, bred for show, drugged in the name of science, clipped for wool products, pulled out of magicians’ hats, killed in vivisection labs, sold as food for pet snakes, and raised and shipped by breeders motivated only by profit. To add insult to all this injury, we chop off their paws and tout the rabbit’s foot as a “good luck” charm.
But the exploitation doesn’t end there. A 2002 rabbit industry report by the USDA suggests that 8.3 million rabbits are raised and slaughtered each year in this country to be served in restaurants and sold in grocery stores. Recent media coverage asserts rabbit meat is a growing U.S. industry, especially in southern states. With members in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, the Tri-State Rabbit Growers Association was formed in 2003, and its goal is to become an economic force in the food industry. “It’s alarming to see the growth of rabbit meat production in the South, where heavy development of chicken meat currently exists,” says Christine Morrissey, whose organization East Bay Animal Advocates (EBAA) investigates the rabbit-meat industry. “Like chicken, rabbit meat is gaining popularity as an alternative to red meat.”
The rabbit-meat industry has learned from the inhumane practices of the poultry and egg industries, often keeping animals packed in small wire battery cages that afford each rabbit the same amount of floor space as a sheet of legal-sized paper. Such confinement can cause a host of health problems, yet sick rabbits are routinely denied veterinary care. EBAA’s recent investigation of a processing facility in California found rabbits living in overstocked, unsanitary conditions, and a subsequent medical examination on several of these animals revealed respiratory and skin infections, diarrhea, and urine burns.
“Meat” rabbits are sold live to commercial processing plants, which market them to retail groceries and restaurants. Although a processor may first attempt to break a rabbit’s neck prior to slaughter, rabbits raised for their flesh are generally large and difficult to handle; consequently, rabbits are killed using a number of other cruel methods, including a blow to the head, decapitation, and by cutting their throats.
With intense competition from China, which exports frozen rabbit meat at low prices, commercial rabbit-meat groups in the U.S. are struggling to improve the supply, consistency, and market outlets for rabbits, according to the USDA. (Neither the Professional Rabbit Meat Association nor the Rabbit Industry Council would comment for this article.)
Do Rabbits Have Feathers?
In July 2005, the Humane Farming Association (HFA), Animal Rights International, and the Animal Welfare Institute placed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times criticizing the USDA for classifying rabbits as “poultry” to give them the same protection as chickens and turkeys – which is to say none whatsoever. By grouping rabbits with poultry, the USDA avoids including them in the 1958 Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA), which the USDA interprets as excluding poultry. Among other things, this means that rabbits may be fully conscious while being slaughtered. The clever ad – it depicts three young rabbits above the headline “Please help these chickens” – details some of the suffering rabbits endure, including struggling to survive as they’re skewered with meat hooks.
“The Animal Disposition Reporting System clearly classifies all rabbits as poultry,” says Gail Eisnitz, Chief Investigator for HFA and author of Slaughterhouse. “In addition, all edible rabbit products are stamped with the mark of inspection that is used on federally inspected poultry products.” The USDA’s Animal Disposition Reporting System divides animals into two groups: livestock and poultry. It defines livestock as large animals and poultry as “chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, capons, rabbits, and other,” with a footnote explaining that because rabbits and poultry are nearly the same size, it is common practice to slaughter rabbits in poultry establishments; therefore, to simplify reporting from inspectors, rabbits are grouped with poultry.
Unfortunately, the USDA seems reluctant to discuss the issue. Although I could never get anyone at the agency to definitively answer my question “Are rabbits protected under HMSA?,” I did get a reply to my query about how they classify them. Rex Barnes, Associate Deputy Administrator of Poultry Programs for the USDA, attempted to clarify the matter by emailing this response: “While we do not classify rabbits as poultry, rabbit quality standards and grading are organizationally operated in the USDA, AMS [Agricultural Marketing Service], Poultry Programs.”
Whether or not the USDA regards rabbits as poultry, agribusiness certainly treats them that way – the nine billion chickens raised and slaughtered each year in this country suffer unimaginable cruelty. In November of 2005, the Humane Society of the United States and EBAA filed a lawsuit against the federal government challenging the USDA’s exclusion of poultry from HMSA. When reminded how evasive the USDA can be about the status of rabbits and their protection under HMSA, Jonathan Lovvorn, Vice President of Litigation for HSUS, isn’t surprised. “USDA is being purposefully vague,” he says. “They’re playing a definitional game with us, and that’s at the heart of our lawsuit against them.”
The combination of inhumane treatment and increased efforts to market their flesh clearly spell bad news for rabbits. Ironically, their popularity on dinner plates coincides with an increased appreciation for these animals as companions who form deep bonds with their human guardians. Like dogs and cats, rabbits are full of personality and thrive indoors. Yet we would be appalled to see Fido or Fluffy on the menu. Why should Thumper be any different?
What you can do:
1. Don’t patronize restaurants that serve rabbit; better yet, ask them to stop.
2. Ask the USDA to protect rabbits under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act: Secretary Mike Johanns, USDA, 1400 Independence Ave., S.W.,Room 200-A, Washington, DC 20250, phone: (202) 720-3631, fax (202) 720-2166, email.
3. Read Stories Rabbits Tell by Susan Davis and Margo DeMello.
4. Visit America's Commercial Rabbit Meat Industry site and watch the film "Rabbits: Pets or Poultry?"
This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Satya magazine .
Mark Hawthorne is the author of Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism. He writes a blog on activism.
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