22 Mar Rabbits Used For Their Flesh
Rabbits occupy contradictory positions in Australian society. Simultaneously, they are considered beloved companion animals, destructive feral pests, and “livestock”. In the state of Queensland and the Northern Territory their breeding and keeping is illegal for any purpose, while in all other states they are promoted as a profitable farming opportunity or an ideal child’s first pet. Due to this diverse categorisation, rabbits are not protected by the usual state-based welfare codes that cover other companion animals.
Tragically, due to a lack of understanding of the nature and needs of rabbits, the pet rabbit has long been treated as little more than a garden ornament, existing in solitary confinement in small hutches, receiving little attention, denied their necessary diet, and veterinary care. In backyards across Australia possibly millions of rabbits have endured lives of emotional and physical deprivation and discomfort. But, fortunately, with the increase of the “house” rabbit trend we are seeing greater consideration given to these complex creatures, and by many people, they are no longer treated as a replaceable impulse item, but as a loved family member.
This positive shift in our treatment of companion rabbits is in stark contrast with the legal conditions endured by rabbits used for meat production.
Until 1987 there was a nationwide ban on rabbit farming throughout Australia. Introduced wild rabbits had long been considered a threat to primary producers; competing for grass eaten by animals exploited for human consumption, devouring crops, and creating vast underground warrens that pose risks to heavy, hoofed animals such as horses and cattle. The ban on rabbit farming was one measure to limit the potential for escaped rabbits but in 1987 it was lifted in Western Australia and all other states and territories except Queensland and the Northern Territory, soon followed.
When the rabbit calicivirus was released in 1996 decimating the wild rabbit population, interest in rabbit meat production increased.
The beginning of the 21st century saw a boom in rabbit farming, with between 80 and 100 farms in operation across the country but estimates now predict that fewer than 40 rabbit farms remain. Unreliable survival rates of offspring and the prohibitive cost of the calicivirus vaccine (between $6 and $9 per year per rabbit) are reasons given by many famers for leaving the industry.
But even with this decline in rabbit farming there are still thousands of rabbits currently exploited for their flesh.
The most common breeds of rabbit farmed in Australia are the New Zealand White and the Californian, they are chosen for their large size and fast-growing qualities. These breeds are fundamentally no different to rabbits kept as companions.
Rabbit farming across Australia is governed by a “voluntary” code of practice and there is no legal requirement for producers to adhere to it. The following is a list of the basic conditions recommended by the Victorian Code of Practice.
- accommodation which provides protection from the elements and does not harm or cause undue discomfort;
- freedom of movement to stand, stretch, turn around and lie down;
- readily accessible food and water,
- rapid recognition and treatment of injury and disease,
- protection from predators and insect-borne diseases,
- an environment which permits a level of social interaction so that individually housed rabbits can see and are aware of other rabbits.
These recommendations don’t come close to ensuring the level of care, and social and environmental enrichment required by rabbits and the reality is, rabbit farming in Australia does not even meet these grossly inadequate guidelines.
Rabbits are housed in large sheds containing rows of raised wire cages, often stacked. Ammonia from accumulated urine and faeces permeates the air in the sheds, burning the eyes and respiratory passages of the rabbits.
Female breeding rabbits known as does are confined to a space of approximately half a square
Well short of the ten years a healthy, happy rabbit can live breeding mothers will be slaughtered at about 18 months of age when their breeding capabilities diminish. The stresses of confinement, lack of health care and constant reproduction take a heavy toll on their fragile bodies.
Bucks, the males used for breeding, are kept in isolation apart from when does are introduced to their cage for mating. They are accorded the same half a square metre of a barren wire cage as the breeding does. Rabbits are highly social animals and if given the opportunity will bond with a mate for life. The isolation inflicted on bucks is unnatural and harmful to their emotional and psychological well-being. Bucks are culled and replaced on average every three years. Their bodies sold, along with spent does, as low-quality meat for human consumption or pet food.
Litters containing anywhere from 5 to 14 young are born to breeding does about every 7 weeks. Exact information on what age they are taken from their mothers is not available, but eye witness accounts of rabbit farming facilities confirm they are removed well before the 8 weeks of age a mother would naturally wean her young. The babies are moved into cages that allow for .07 square
During their time in production rabbits suffer immensely both physically and psychologically. The harsh wire floors of the cages inflict painful injuries on the soft feet of the rabbits. It is not unusual for rabbits to get their feet stuck in the gaps in the wires and die from dehydration or starvation, unable to reach water and food. They also suffer from painful infections caused by injuries from wires or from fighting with other rabbits. Naturally territorial rabbits do not accept unknown rabbits easily and will often attack each other. This is a particularly common occurrence when does are introduced into buck’s cages for mating. As with all intensive farming, individual care is not cost effective, so injuries are often left untreated.
Illness and disease are also common within rabbit farms. Due to toxic air caused by a
When the desired slaughter weight of 3 kgs is reached, rabbits are loaded into crates and trucked to a processing facility. The Code of Practice recommends rabbits be electrically stunned or otherwise made insensible to pain before their throats are slashed and they are bled out. Most rabbits are stunned using blunt force trauma, the rabbit is held upside down by their paws and given a blow to the back of the head with a heavy implement, other methods are cervical dislocation where the spine is removed from the base of the brain and skull, and decapitation via the use of a guillotine. None of these methods ensure a painless death and as is common across the
Smaller producers sometimes choose to slaughter rabbits themselves. This is often done by the procedure known as cervical dislocation as mentioned above. Rabbits are held upside down by their back legs, a broom handle or similar object is placed across their neck, and stood on, their legs are then jerked violently over their head to snap the spinal cord from the brain, their throats are then slashed, or they are fully decapitated, to be bled out.
According to The American Veterinary Medical Association; cervical dislocation is only considered “humane” and effective if a rabbit weighs less than 1 kg. As rabbits are usually slaughtered for human consumption once reaching 3 kgs one can easily surmise many rabbits killed with this procedure suffer from protracted painful deaths. As a side note, it is important to mention, any use of the word “humane” in reference to slaughter is absurd. No matter how painless
While many Australians do kill and eat wild rabbits, food safety regulations limit commercial viability. Slaughtered wild animals, known as game, must be processed in approved abattoirs if they are to be sold to restaurants or butchers. The scarcity of these facilities prevents most shooters from selling rabbit carcasses for human consumption.
Wild rabbits that are commercially available for human consumption have been shot in the head or sometimes the neck, to ensure their flesh is intact and undamaged, their deaths are almost instantaneous. Their body parts are then marketed as ethical and sustainable meat. However, numbers of how many rabbits suffer protracted deaths from inaccurate shots making their bodies unviable for sale are unknown. The pest status of rabbits affords them no protection from authorities and little respect from hunters and so, wild rabbits often endure horrific, painful deaths. The killing of female wild rabbits also condemns their offspring, known as kits, to a slow death from starvation, as they wait in the family warren for a mother who will never return.
The life of rabbits bred and exploited for their flesh is short and tortured. Confined to their barren, wire prisons they are denied the ability to express natural behaviours such as digging, running and the joyful display known as binkying, they never see, feel or eat green grass, they never enjoy the warm sun or a refreshing breeze, they suffer with painful injuries and diseases, and maybe most tragically are prevented from forming the powerful life long bonds with a mate that are so profoundly important to their enjoyment of life. These complex, sensitive beings exist in a state of continual reproduction and loss, their minds stripped bare in life as their bodies are in death, the only relief from this misery coming after a brutal, terrifying slaughter.
Wild rabbits while not enduring the torture of confinement that farmed rabbits do, also suffer, their lives stolen from them prematurely, their babies left to starve, and their social groups destroyed.
We humans must learn that there is no humane way to turn a sentient being into food and the fact we do this out of greed not need makes it unethical. Inhumane and unethical is no way to eat. Please, leave rabbits off your plate.
Author: Felicity Andersen
Director of Blackwood Fields Animal Sanctuary and Radio Host Animal Nation