Cathy Caracciolo is no amateur rabbit breeder. She got her first bunny at a birthday party when she was five, and fifty years later, she still considers herself a rabbit addict. Cathy brings to mind a fondly recalled kindergarten teacher – she is in her mid-fifties, and her bearing and attire of jeans, sweatshirts, and sneakers suggest comfort. She is also a star in the rabbit world.
Cathy is among the nation’s best known breeders of Flemish Giants, a type of rabbit that, as the name implies, are really, really big—often growing to the size of a small dog and weighing as much as eighteen pounds. That she has achieved this status as a woman makes her ascent and position all the more remarkable.
“Once you have a Flemish Giant, you never go back,” she says, pausing to smile at her own joke before flipping the latch on her backyard gate. She lives only about an hour from Manhattan with her husband and two daughters, but their yard feels rural with all the gardening supplies and tools scattered around.
“Pardon the mess,” she adds, blushing a little, and pointing to the rabbit barn.
A sudden electric feeling hits as you enter the barn. Dozens of creatures turn their heads to stare, and all noise seems to cease. With the exception of a few twitching noses, the animals look frozen. And then a moment later, they lose interest and turn back to their rabbit business—chewing on hay and sprawling on the floor, relaxing.
Cathy is accustomed to this welcoming. She goes over to one of the three rows of cages to greet her bunnies. She asks how they’re doing. She pretends to scold those who have overturned or pooped in their water bowls. She knows which rabbits have picky hay-eating habits, which ones are particularly good mothers, and which ones like to rearrange their cages.
A bunny barn is called a rabbitry, and the smell inside Cathy’s is intense, though not unpleasant; the scent of hay mostly masks the astringent odor of urine. The Top-40 countdown plays on the radio, but you can also hear the softer noise of little paw-thuds, the gnawing of chew toys, and the shuffling of plastic bowls being pushed across the metal-wire cage floors. On this March morning, it’s just chilly enough in the barn to necessitate the black fleece Cathy’s wearing—embroidered with an image of a rabbit—though outside, it’s the first warm day of spring.
For Cathy, the changing weather signals the beginning of the rabbit showing season, and she only has a few weeks until the most important show of her year: The National Flemish Giant Show in Taylorsville, North Carolina. Cathy’s background is in technical illustration, and her day job is in administrative assistance. But her true passion is breeding show rabbits. And like many of the other 23,000 members of the American Rabbit Breeder’s Association (ARBA), Cathy is a regular competitor in the showing circuit. Her ranch-style house overflows with trophies, plaques, and ribbons, a testament to her success. She’s famous for her “Blues,” one of the seven Flemish Giant fur colors that, in point of fact, isn’t really blue, but more of a slate or dark gray.
As a show breeder, Cathy’s goal is The Rabbit Standard of Perfection—a set of criteria for a perfect rabbit so specific, it perhaps only exists in the World of Forms. It is no simple task to breed anything close to the standard, and earlier this winter, Cathy was recognized by the National Federation of Flemish Giant Rabbit Breeders for her dedication: The organization awarded her the title of Master Breeder, one of the highest honors in the rabbit world.
There are perhaps 50 rabbits in Cathy’s barn – by no means a high number; she’s had as many as 150. She is at ease and cheerful in their company, a welcome feeling because, as Cathy knows only too well, bunny land is not a peaceful place these days.
The rabbit world is divided—passionately, vehemently divided. On one side are those who believe rabbits are only meant to be pets. On the other are those who insist that rabbits are “multi-purpose animals,” meaning they can be raised for show, or cuddled or eaten.
The battle is being fought legally – in courtrooms and local governments – and in rabbitries, where in its most extreme moments gun-wielding rabbit breeders threaten to shoot “eco-terrorists,” and animal control officers stage large-scale busts. In the past few years, tensions have escalated as so-called “A-R-As” (extreme animal rights activists) target rabbit breeders across the country, vandalizing their barns and stealing their rabbits. In 2011, Debe Bell, a nationally recognized breeder, had her Colorado rabbitry raided by local law enforcement after an anonymous caller reported her for animal cruelty – a crime that in all fifty states, can be a felony. Breeders now refer ominously to this as the “Colorado case.”
Opposing them are rabbit advocacy groups and the (mostly non-violent) animal rights activists who fight to stop animal hoarding and abuse, and to curb the domestic rabbit overpopulation problem. Led largely by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the international, non-profit House Rabbit Society, this side campaigns on behalf of the thousands of homeless, abused, and abandoned rabbits in the country, and won’t declare a truce until all breeding operations are shut down.
There are radicals on both sides. Then there is Cathy, who just wants to raise and show her Flemish Giants.
There is more to this debate than the fate of those who raise bunnies; we’re gambling with the entire genetic diversity of the domestic rabbit. And at its core, the battle over bunnies is about how we think of, and understand the animals themselves:what we do with them, how we treat them, and where they fit in relation to us. Cows, chickens, cats have their places for the most part. Not so the bunny.
For Cathy, and everyone who will be at the National Flemish Giant Show—breeders and rabbits alike—the stakes are high. Losing the bunny battle could mean losing it all.
Like many rabbit breeders, Cathy once showed dogs, but tired of it, and now likes to playfully rag on dog people—apparently bunny people are friendlier and more laid-back. Yet in a lot of ways, the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) is for rabbits what the American Kennel Club is for dogs: it maintains the national rabbit registry, has an organized system of nationwide sanctioned rabbit shows, and determines the Standard of Perfection for each of the forty-eight breeds it currently recognizes. The specifications for each breed are broken down in such minute detail, that to become a judge at a rabbit show, one must be able to discern whether the eyes of a Flemish Giant “have a reposeful expression.”
For one of Cathy’s rabbits to be perfect, its “body should gracefully arch from immediately behind the shoulder blades, reaching its highest point directly above the haunches, and gracefully sweep, rounded and full, to the base of the tail.” But a few weeks before the National Show, watching her choose which rabbits to bring seems a little less poetic.
“This one is going to North Carolina with me,” she says, placing a four-month-old Blue junior buck on a baby-scale. She hasn’t come up with a good name for it yet, so it goes it by its ID number, CJ365. “Yeah, I like you,” she says to the rabbit, “you’re promising—almost eleven pounds—just like your daddy!” Cathy removes CJ365 from the scale and nudges its rear end, while running her other hand over its back to examine the arch and the width of its hips.
Next she looks over a Blue rabbit named Pandora—“she’s a box of trouble”— who has a back shape that’s about as perfect as they come: round and full like a basketball. Show rabbits are divided into three age categories—juniors, intermediates and seniors—and even though Cathy doubts Pandora is big enough to compete as a senior, she puts her on the scale anyway just to see. It takes a little while to get the rabbit to sit still, but when she finally does, Cathy inches the smallest weight to the right little-by-little, leaning in close.
“Oh, happy, happy, joy, joy!” she says snapping up. “She made her senior weight.” Cathy pumps her hands in the air and lets out a “whoop, whoop!” Pandora, Cathy’s most promising rabbit, is fourteen pounds and going to North Carolina. It’s hard to win with Blues, but with Pandora, she stands a good chance.
Raising Blues fell out of fashion sometime in the early 1940s, though no one quite knows why. It might, however, have to do with the difficulty of breeding for the proper fur color: “Blue” is actually a diluted “Black” color, and since Black genes are dominant, they can hide undesirable recessive ones for years, secretly “polluting” the genetic line. But Blue breeders need Blacks because maintaining the right color requires mixing in their genes every few generations. And because breeders trade rabbits to prevent inbreeding and to add desirable traits, one or two careless people can ruin years of careful genetic work.
When people stopped raising Blues, inbreeding caused the whole gene pool to suffer. But in the last decade or so, a small group of breeders have taken on the challenge of bringing them back. Cathy is one of those people. For years she has worked to revive and perfect Blue Flemish Giants—breeding them pure, cleaning the genetic lines of faults, and improving their size, color, and shape. “She’s known for developing the Blues into where they are,” says fellow Flemish Giant breeder Stephen Trent. “They used to be really small. And now she’s worked it, she has them bigger, better. And she usually wins with her Blues.”
A lot of Flemish Giant breeders consider Cathy’s contribution “invaluable.” Not only are her rabbits some of the best in the country, but she was one of the first women to compete and be taken seriously in the Flemish Giant world. It was traditionally, she says, “a good ol’ boys club;” because up until the last decade or so, women tended only to compete with the smaller and fancier breeds. But Cathy pushed her way into the club, and put her rabbits up on the table with the men. And now, over a decade later, her name is included on the list of Master Breeders.
Stephen Trent puts it simply, “you mention Blues, and you hear Cathy Caracciolo.”
Breeding rabbits for show produces a lot of “extras.” And culling, which is what happens to those animals, is a sensitive topic on both sides of the rabbit debate. Kenneth Montville, a spokesperson for PETA, calls culling “a dress-up word” because it allows people to say they’re not killing animals, they’re just “culling” them. Cathy, like the rest of the breeding world, is frustrated by comments like his because they contribute to the assumption that culling means killing—“Look it up in the dictionary,” she says. “It just means to remove from the breeding stock.” She estimates that 99% of the rabbits she “culls” get adopted as pets, and she even has a waiting list of people who want her bunnies.
But that’s not to say that all imperfect rabbits get placed in a good home. A lot of culls do become dinner, or are otherwise disposed of – buried, composted, fed to snakes, or hauled off to a dump. And not all meat rabbits are technically culled from a herd; most that end up on your plate are raised to be eaten.
Animal culling isn’t regulated, so there are no statistics available on how many show rabbits die. In fact, no one knows for certain how many domestic rabbits even exist in the United States. The most recent figures, released in 2002 by The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency within the USDA, place the population somewhere around 9 million. Of those, lab animals account for 250,000; 4H and Future Farmers of America groups raise about a million; and hobby breeders show about 930,000 rabbits. A 2012 American Veterinary Medical Association study reports that 6.2 million rabbits are kept as pets, and the latest USDA Agricultural Census found that the 5,026 commercial rabbit farms collectively had 852,837 rabbits, for a total industry value of $15,251,000. (The census only takes into account farms where $1,000 or more of agricultural products are produced and sold in a given year.) If that sounds like a lot of rabbits, consider the fact that Tyson Foods kills 42.5 million chickens per week and did $34.38 billion in sales during 2013.
There are relatively few rabbit farms in the country, in part because Americans don’t eat a lot of rabbit meat, but also because most people have small backyard operations that aren’t counted in the census. Leaha Passaro and Ton Rietveld, who own a small organic vegetable farm in Washington and raise rabbits, are two such people. Their rabbits are officially, and perhaps most importantly, kept for their manure—“it’s the best shit on earth,” Leaha says laughing—and while their daughters keep a few as pets, most end up as meat and pelts sold to private customers.
Butchering has to be done really early in the morning, Leaha explains, before the yellow jackets wake up. Yellow jackets, as any backyard butcher knows, are attracted to blood and meat. So as the sky begins to lighten, Leaha and Ton bring the supplies and rabbit carrying cages to the butchering spot near their greenhouse. The couple looks like an unlikely pair—he’s a tall, light-haired Dutch man with a missing front tooth, and she’s a short, dark-haired and tattooed woman from New York—but on these mornings, they have matching somber faces. This is no one’s favorite part of raising rabbits.
Ton places the carrier cages a bit off to the side and covers them with a blanket to keep the rabbits calm. The most important thing, Leaha explains, is to not upset the rabbits. They’re a nervous animal by nature, and can sense distress. As Leaha organizes all of the tools, Ton removes the first rabbit and cuddles it into his neck, stroking it and cooing, “good bunny, good bunny.” He places one large hand around the rabbit’s neck, and with his other, grabs its legs. Suddenly the rabbit is by his waist, and with a swift pull down and up, its neck is broken. Death is instantaneous. Ton severs the head with a knife and hands the carcass to Leaha, who ties knots around its back feet and hangs it upside down from a wooden beam to bleed out.
“Thank you, rabbit,” she whispers, picking up the first knife.
To many in the rabbit world, this method of slaughter, called cervical dislocation, is the fastest, most fool-proof method of ending a rabbit’s life humanely. Those who think humane slaughter is an oxymoron aside, the majority who oppose the practice do so out of fear that when it’s employed on a large scale, cervical dislocation has far too much room for error. The latter may or may not be true—there just aren’t that many big rabbit farms to point to as an example—but the reality is that it’s the primary way things are, and have always been, done in the backyard.
Rabbits in general tend to be a backyard livestock animal because they simply aren’t cut out for factory farm life—they require more individual attention than chickens and most other livestock animals, plus, the evolutionary trade-off of prolific breeding is a weak immune system. What this means is that most non-pet rabbits live on farms like Leaha and Ton’s, where they are—at least according to their owners—happy.
On the topic of these small scale operations, Kenneth from PETA says that even if animals live an idyllic life, his association remains troubled by the idea that any creatures exist solely for human profit—“that their worth is based on what a human can get out of them.”
Apparently, enough people agree with PETA that, according to Leaha, the world of backyard rabbit breeding is “all really quite hush-hush.” Like most other people she knows who raise bunnies, she tries to keep a low profile and is afraid of animal activists. “I feel like I’ve heard all the sides, and I cannot justify what I do to these people,” she says. “They just don’t understand where I’m coming from.” She showed rabbits for a few years, but stopped because she felt rabbit people were too defensive about their hobby. “There’s a lot of death when you’re trying to get the perfect specimen,” she says, and rabbit people are too accustomed to living in a world where others don’t support what they do.
There are, of course, some people who just don’t care what anyone else thinks or says, among them is Bill Rice, who has been raising show rabbits for 65 years in North Carolina, and is one of the most respected and famous show judges in the country. He’s a gruff, old-school rabbit guy who likes to tell stories about the hodgepodge, ramshackle rabbit pens he built when he was eight, and isn’t shy about saying that he butchers the ones not fit for show.
“Rabbits were originally bred for eatin’,” he says. The reality may upset some people, but a rabbit, he explains, “is just like a cow.”
Or is a rabbit more like a puppy?
When it comes to rabbits, you can’t ignore what Leaha calls the “cuteness factor:” that reaction people have to eating animals considered adorable. “People always say, ‘Aww, but rabbits are so cute, how can you eat them?’ And I just don’t get how you can raise one life above another,” she says. “Why is it okay to eat chicken or beef, but not rabbit?”
Well, pets are both de facto and de jure “companion animals,” and as a society, we take it as a moral norm that we don’t eat them—that’s why the thought of having a dog or cat for dinner feels outrageous to most people. Vegetarians and vegans aside (roughly five percent of the population according to a recent Gallup poll), it doesn’t offend most to wear leather or to eat a burger; the USDA estimates that every American will consume 53.6 lbs of beef, 47.1 lbs of pork, and 101 lbs of poultry this year. We scarf down the chicken wings, but feel a little weird about eating rabbits because they don’t quite fit into that farm animal category. So why do we eat some animals and not others?
Hal Herzog, a psychology professor at West Carolina University who specializes in human-animal relations, argues there are two major reasons. The “yuck factor,” is the first. “People in every culture experience the emotion of disgust, and it is often associated with consumption of flesh,” he wrote in Psychology Today. “However, the meat that a culture deems disgusting varies greatly.” This is why you might find dog on the menu in South Korea, but won’t in the United States.
The second reason is compartmentalization, which means we simply place certain “meat animals” in a different moral category; dogs are pets, cows are food. Kenneth from PETA says that the distinction between pets and livestock concerns human utility: we think of livestock as being bred for us to use, and companion animals as being bred for their relationship potential. “I get as much from sharing my life with my cats as they get from me, so there’s a reciprocation,” he says. What an animal gets out of a relationship matters, to put it simply.
But PETA, Kenneth says, “wants people to think of animals they keep as companion animals, not as pets—not as objects you keep in your house like furniture.” So if pets are our companions, then naming them and developing a reciprocal relationship, is psychologically speaking, “humanizing them.” And humanizing an animal, writes Hal Herzog, “means that eating it would be akin to cannibalism.”
So where does this leave rabbits, which are both companion animals and livestock in the U.S.? With the exception of a few people here and there who keep baby pigs as pets, rabbits are really the only animals we keep in our homes and on our farms. Ideally, this shouldn’t be a problem—live and let live, right? But as it turns out, our failure to classify rabbits is fueling the bunny battle. And when you get down to it, it’s an issue that cuts to the heart of our relationship to animals and to each other.
To ensure that the eleven rabbits Cathy is entering into the National Flemish Giant Rabbit Show are on top of their game, she needs to get to North Carolina as early as possible and give her bunnies plenty of time to get used to their new environment. Rabbits that don’t adjust well to unfamiliar sounds and smells tend to lose what’s called “body condition,” and end up looking skinny and lusterless. So early on the Friday afternoon before the show, Cathy’s truck is already parked on the grassy area outside of the showroom—a big warehouse-like building on the Taylorsville fairgrounds—and she’s inside getting her rabbits settled. Cathy is one of forty or so competitors, who have collectively brought 250 rabbits, and many others have arrived early for the same reason.
The next morning, when Cathy walks into the showroom, it smells like a mixture of hay and tree blossoms because the main doors are open. Above her, two rows of American flags hang from the metal rafters, rippling in the cross breeze, overlooking the flurry of activity below. As she makes her way over to the rabbit cages to see how her bunnies handled the night, she is surrounded by people cleaning cages, cradling rabbits like heavy babies, and talking shop—assessing the competition and dropping rabbit lingo – terms like malocclusion (misaligned teeth), broken coats (patches or areas of the wrong fur color), and DQs (disqualifiers).
Cathy passes breeders wearing suspenders and flannel tops, or T-shirts extolling the Top 10 Reasons for Showing Rabbits—including “telling your hare raising experiences.” Though most participants are older white men, and a few use electric wheelchairs or canes to get around, Cathy looks confident and in her element. Plus, she fits right in with her bunny-themed Dark Side of the Moon shirt—a white rabbit entering a triangular prism, and a rainbow of rabbits coming out the other side.
The whole scene looks a bit like a high school reunion. There are distinct groups of friends who stick together, but everyone is friendly, saying hello and catching up with those they haven’t seen since the last show. One of Cathy’s closest friends at the show is a breeder from Maryland named Ginger Walters, who has Flemish Giant tattoos on the tops of her feet, and married her husband during a weekend rabbit show a few years ago—they showed bunnies in the morning, had the ceremony at night, and woke up early to show again the next day. Cathy’s wedding gift to Ginger was a Blue Flemish Giant, and the two often trade or mate their rabbits to diversify the gene pool and improve their herds.
Looking into the cages, Cathy can tell immediately that her prize rabbit, Pandora, had a rough night. Pandora barely touched her food and water overnight, and since rabbits also lose body condition when they don’t drink enough, Cathy begins working to regain her bunny’s plumpness and sheen. You can coax a rabbit to drink by mixing its water with something sweet like apple juice, and Pandora does start drinking, but Cathy knows it’s too late in the day to undo the damage.
As she’s caring for her rabbit, the judging begins. First there are a series of mini-rounds in which each of the seven colors is divided into three age groups (juniors, intermediates, and seniors). One rabbit from each group wins Best in Class (first place) and one from the opposite sex wins Best Opposite in Class (second place). The six rabbits who win either first or second place in Class go on to compete for Best in Variety (color) in the next round, and the top buck and doe advance to the final and most prestigious round: Best in Show. Requiring that animals from both sexes place in the competition is fairly standard in the animal showing world, as is having multiple elimination rounds building up the final one.
When it’s time for the Blues, Cathy brings six rabbits over to holding cages on the judging table, and then stands with the small group of onlookers. Each rabbit is individually scrutinized by the judge who feels and looks at the arch of its back, checks its teeth and toenails, and watches it hop along the table. As the minutes drag on, Cathy’s smile weakens, and she clasps her hands behind her back, shifting her weight from foot to foot. After assessing each rabbit once, the judge begins disqualifying the less perfect ones. Three of Cathy’s are taken out of the competitive pool early on—including Pandora, who never fully recovered. Another round of judging, another round of disqualifications, and the rest of Cathy’s are still up there on the table. When the winners are announced, Cathy’s smile returns. She has three—a senior doe, a senior buck and CJ365, the junior buck who is competing for the first time—advancing to the next round.
Domestic rabbits come in all sizes, colors, and personalities, but not all rabbits make good pets. Take Checkered Giants, a large black and white temperamental breed that is prone to biting; “they’re sort of the pit bull of the rabbit world,” Cathy says. You wouldn’t buy one for your kid, and you wouldn’t have one on your farm because they’re not particularly good meat rabbits. Checkered Giants are instead, pretty much just show rabbits. And, in fact, most of the other forty-seven breeds are too. What this means is that if the breeders lose the bunny battle, most of the forty-eight breeds—and all of their genetic diversity—will likely disappear. It’s a sad thought, but also a strange one when you consider that humans actually created all of this rabbit diversity. A few hundred years ago, when Europeans first started domesticating Oryctolagus cuniculus, an Old World wild rabbit, none of these breeds existed.
It all began in the early years of the Roman Empire, when rabbits were raised in big enclosures called leporariums. The use of these rabbit gardens was standard practice, but not particularly widespread, until about 600 AD. That was the year Pope Gregory decided rabbit meat could be eaten during Lent, and as a result, rabbit meat took off. The practice of keeping domestic rabbits spread to nearby villages, and by the Middle Ages, several distinct breeds had emerged. To maximize space, people began keeping rabbits in smaller and smaller enclosures, until eventually something that looked a lot like a modern cage was invented.
For most of their history, domestic rabbits were raised almost exclusively for meat and pelts. But sometime between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the growing urban middle class in Europe began keeping pets—perhaps because they had so little interaction with wildlife or other farm animals—and by the mid-nineteenth century, exhibiting animals for show (also called fancy) became a popular pastime. This is what inspired breeders to begin selecting for non-utilitarian traits like fur length and color.
The Flemish Giant was part of the European showing scene by the 1860s, having spread from Flanders, the northern part of present-day Belgium, to the rest of Europe. But how they got to Flanders in the first place is a little murky. The breed is closely related to the wild rabbits of Patagonia, and no one knows for certain whether Dutch explorers brought Patagonian rabbits to Europe, or whether they brought native European rabbits to South America where they then became wild. Either way, the first Flemish Giant rabbit was brought to the United States in 1888, just one year before the Great Belgian Hare Boom began and changed the American rabbit breeding world.
Almost out of nowhere, Belgian Hares – an unrelated breed – became the hottest new thing, and top show rabbits were sold for $500 or more (that’s $14,000-plus in today’s currency). There were about 600 Belgian Hares in the U.S. in 1898, and by 1900, there were 60,000 in Southern California alone. Supply soon caught up to demand, though, and within a decade the boom was over—as was the possibility of getting rich from breeding and showing rabbits—so people turned their focus to a variety of other breeds.
When the National Federation of Flemish Giant Rabbit Breeders first formed in 1915, it only recognized three colors of rabbits: Steels, Light Grays and Blacks. Blues and Whites were accepted in 1919, Sandys in 1924, and Fawns in 1938. (Rabbit fur actually falls into two categories: “self” and “agouti.” Self means the fur is one solid color, and agouti means that the coat contains more than one color, or that the individual hairs are banded with multi-colored stripes. Of the seven Flemish Giant fur colors, Fawn, Light Gray, Steel Gray and Sandy are agoutis, and White, Black and Blue are self.)
By the late ninetenth century, rabbits were kept as pets, raised for meat and fur, and bred for show. But then beginning in the twentieth century, laboratories started using rabbits (among other animals) more regularly in experiments, introducing a whole new element to the term “multi-purpose animal.”
One of the biggest rabbit breakthroughs came in 1927 when two scientists discovered that by injecting a woman’s urine into a rabbit’s ovaries, it was possible to tell if the woman was pregnant. To examine the ovaries, they had to kill the rabbit, though it was a common misconception that the animal only died if a woman was pregnant —hence the euphemism for a positive test being “the rabbit died.” Surely people were upset about the number of rabbits killed, but in the era before home pregnancy tests, it’s not that difficult to understand why few people protested this practice.
In fact, few people protested using animals for science until 1975, when Peter Singer published Animal Liberation. His book inspired the modern animal rights movement, and it took only a few years for rabbits to be at the center of a heated debate. At issue was the Draize Test, a process for determining a chemical’s toxicity by dripping it into an animal’s eye. Laboratories used rabbits because they lack tear ducts, and couldn’t flush out the perfume, eye-makeup, householder cleaners, and other products tested on them. Over 400 groups were involved in The Coalition to Stop the Draize Rabbit Blinding Test, including PETA, which had formed in the early 1980s. (Despite decades of protesting, the American Anti-Vivisection Society reports that of all the creatures covered under the Animal Welfare Act, rabbits are still the most widely used in laboratories.)
The animal rights movement remained largely peaceful for another few years, but then Animal Liberation Front (ALF) cells started popping up across the country, having made their way to the U.S. from Britain. The ALF is a radical, decentralized group most famous for its direct action tactics—like the time in 1985 it “liberated” 1,000 animals (including thirty-five rabbits) from the University of California at Riverside, and caused an estimated $700,000 worth of damage.
Rabbit advocacy changed once again in 1988, when a group of friends dedicated to the belief that rabbits are only pets founded the House Rabbit Society. In the last 26 years, the organization has rescued and found homes for over 30,000 rabbits, boasts a membership of 8,000, and operates internationally. One of its biggest successes came in 2008, when it got PETCO to stop selling rabbits in its stores, and it has pushed cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Houston, and most recently, Chicago, to ban the sale of rabbits in pet stores. The organization allies itself with local humane societies and SPCA groups, and together, they represent the driving force behind the busting of so-called bunny mills, and the effort to end bunny breeding and the overpopulation problem.
The gray, squat Manhattan Animal Care and Control building is on a block lined with churches in a relatively quiet area of East Harlem. It’s one of the few shelters in the city that adopts out rabbits, and has that strong antiseptic smell of chemicals trying to cover the old-vet’s-office odor. The rabbits are kept upstairs in a room called The Bunny Bungalow, which is more aptly a Bunny Closet; the walls of the small, L-shaped room are lined with rabbit cages of various sizes, leaving little left over space. The non-wire floors of every cage are covered by a few sheets of thin cardboard, which like the cardboard box in each cage, appears good for hiding under, playing with, or devouring.
The number of rabbits in the room is never static or steady: sometimes there are over twenty, other times fewer than a dozen. But gauging from the Bunny Bungalow, which on a Sunday morning in March is housing only eleven rabbits, it’s hard to see what all the rabbit overpopulation fuss is all about. But Mary Cotter of Rabbit Rescue and Rehab insists it’s a big problem. “Breeders will say, ‘Oh, there’s no overpopulation problem’ because they want to keeping breeding,” she says. But the fact is, rabbits come in and out of shelters every day.”
While most shelters don’t keep figures on rabbits, Animal Care and Control of NYC reported taking in 380 rabbits in 2013, 341 in 2012, and 283 in 2011. “We don’t want breeders to breed,” Mary continues, “because there aren’t enough homes for the rabbits we have now.”
And that’s not even to mention the post-Easter problem. It happens every year: parents buy their children a pet rabbit, and a few weeks or sometimes days later, decide they don’t want it anymore. “Most of those rabbits come from pet stores, and end up here,” an employee of the Animal Care and Control Shelter explains. Rabbit advocacy groups like the House Rabbit Society work to prevent would-be buyers from getting rabbits without first doing a lot of research, so that even more aren’t surrendered to shelters, or worse, just released into the wild where they have no idea how to survive.
It’s in the subtle details that things get a little tricky, where rabbits really get caught between two groups trying to act in the animals’ best interest. One side is best represented by defenders of rabbit breeders—Corinne Fayo of the Rabbit Education Society, and her equally outspoken ally, Janelle Dixon—and the other by the broad umbrella of individuals and organizations that believe breeding rabbits is wrong because there are too many already. Corrine says these animal rights groups just make stuff up and take things out of context. “They say there’s an overpopulation crisis, but they don’t have any numbers.” She has spent years trying to get to the bottom of some of these statistics—like the popular one that “98 percent of all rabbits sold at Easter die”—but she’s had no luck.
Talking about overpopulation is challenging for everyone involved because it’s a fight over anecdotal evidence; shelters, pet stores and breeders are not legally required to track rabbit population numbers or sales. Though, Mary adds, even if they did, the numbers wouldn’t come close to reflecting the actual size of the problem, because many unwanted pet rabbits are just released into someone’s backyard where they die.
Just like the pet-verses-livestock dichotomy is central to which side people take in the bunny battle, so too is the myth-or-fact of rabbit overpopulation central to whether they defend-or-attack breeding rabbits for show. Cathy tells a story about a woman who approached her a few years ago, looked her straight in the eyes, and called her “the spawn of the devil.” The woman then accused her of being the reason for the overpopulation problem. Of course there are some bad and irresponsible breeders, Cathy says; there are always bad people. But in general she just thinks too many people form an opinion with incomplete information, or after only listening to one side describe “the facts.”
When it comes to placing homeless bunnies, Cathy thinks that rabbit rescue groups like the House Rabbit Society do a lot of good work, but, she says, “if millions of rabbits were dying, don’t you think we’d know about it?” Overpopulation and breeding are sensitive topics because both sides believe the other is lying, or at least going to great lengths to conceal the truth.
The rabbit overpopulation debate also touches on some subtle, but important differences in the “types” of rabbit breeders. Cathy calls herself a “hobby breeder,” as opposed to a commercial or wholesale breeder. This distinction may sound trivial, but it’s actually quite the opposite. A hobby breeder breeds primarily for show, and tends to make little-to-no profit—most sell rabbits for a price that will just about, though not always, cover the cost of raising them. And unlike in the showing world of pure bred dogs, where there is money to be made, there is no financial incentive for the rabbit hobby breeder’s work; they do it for the love of the animals and for the thrill and satisfaction of showing them.
A wholesale or commercial breeder, on the other hand, is someone who does over $500 in sales annually, and needs a permit to operate. (As a side note, the market for lab rabbits is completely separate, and is supplied by a largely insular industry.) The two types of breeders are also separated by the existence of rabbit lineage papers: hobby bred bunnies tend to have them, whereas you’d be hard pressed to figure out the family tree of a pet store bunny.
Okay, you might be saying, so there are nuanced distinctions between rabbit breeders, so what? The trouble is in trying to draw the line between being a rabbit breeder and running a bunny mill. Legally, it turns out, there isn’t really one. There’s no clear definition of a bunny mill—the term being an adaptation of puppy mill—and perhaps like pornography, falls into that category of “I know it when I see it.”
Generally, though, a bunny mill is an unregulated operation in which rabbits are packed tightly into small, dirty cages and made to breed over and over again. Anti-breeding advocates frequently post photographs online from rabbitry raids or undercover spying efforts to drive home their disgust with the practice. “The babies are just pulled out at four weeks, put on a truck, shipped over to pet stores,” explains Margo DeMello, president of the House Rabbit Society. And the poop just piles up under the cages.
Bunny mills are certainly a problem, and one that the House Rabbit Society and SPCA groups around the country are tackling head-on, but what about people like Cathy? People who are backyard hobby breeders, in it for the love of showing and raising rabbits, not for a profit?
“Whether they’re just small-time hobby people who love to breed, or whether they’re people who are trying to exploit the rabbits for money, they’re caught up in that same business,” says Margo. “Clearly not all show people are the same—they don’t all have the same motivations for what they do, but the fact that they’re all represented by the same organization,” she says, referring to ARBA, “and that organization is fighting for the right to have laws as relaxed as possible so that the rabbits can be used in any way, shape or form, well, it makes ARBA and House Rabbit Society natural—I don’t know if you want to say ‘enemies,’ but you know, we advocate on behalf of rabbits and they work to use rabbits in various ways.”
Thus, by being an ARBA member and breeding rabbits in an operation of any scale, a person becomes part of the bunny battle. You’re either contributing to the overpopulation problem, or working to stop it; there’s no room, so the House Rabbit logic goes, for a middle ground.
ARBA is strikingly apolitical and detached from all bunny-related debates, but that’s because it “supports anyone who is passionate about rabbits regardless of their views,” says Eric Stewart, ARBA’s Executive Director. “We get the impression,” he continues diplomatically and with a deep sigh, “that we are preceived as the opponents by the House Rabbit Society. We support animal welfare and the commodization of rabbits.”
In an age of rampant puppy mill busts and TV shows about animal hoarders, the underworld of animal abuse is not so secretive anymore. The United States is a country that cares about animal welfare. Who doesn’t want animals that are used for entertainment— orca whales at Seaworld or carriage horses in Central Park—to be treated well? Who doesn’t want the animals he eats to have lived happy lives? Who truly believes there is nothing wrong with dog fighting or rooster fighting or raising animals in factory farms and “mills?”
But even if we can all agree in theory that we care about our animals, what constitutes abuse and inhumane treatment is ultimately subjective. Is someone with a lot of rabbits running a bunny mill? Are they an animal hoarder? Or do they just have a lot of rabbits? These are harsh terms to be thrown around, and ones that come with tough legal penalties, but at the end of the day, we are all still left with two, perhaps unanswerable questions: how many rabbits is too many? And are we at that point?
Everyone at the Flemish Giant rabbit show seems to have a story about animal rights activists.
“PETA and their wackadooness—they’re crazy,” huffs Cathy’s friend, Ginger. “They pass judgment on the hobby, and assume we’re running puppy mills.” Ginger doesn’t let strangers into her rabbit barn because she’s heard too many stories about activists who pretend to be interested in purchasing a rabbit, but then sneak back into the barn in middle of the night and steal all the rabbits or set them free.
As she’s talking, an older man who looks like a short, grizzled Santa Claus—long gray beard, a bit of a potbelly—creeps up and begins to listen.
“PETA come to visit me,” he interrupts. With a thick Southern accent and the confidence of a seventy-nine-year-old tough guy, Forrest Mowbray commands attention. He says that a couple years ago, he received a call alerting him that PETA “was tearin’ the neighborhood.” He watched a man and a woman park a truck near his rabbit barn, and promptly went outside to protect his bunnies.
The woman was preparing to cut the padlock on the barn door when Forrest told her “if you cut it, you die.” He pauses for dramatic effect. “I’m standin’ there with a gun. A big gun. Long gun,” he says, explaining that he gave them the choice to get off his property or get shot. The showdown finally ended when the two activists were arrested, but, he says dismissively, “they got the big shot lawyers to get ‘em out of jail.”
And that was just his first encounter with the group. The second time he heard they were coming, only his son was home. He told him to “just break both their arms, and bust them up with a baseball bat.” Forrest talks a lot about breaking arms, “cause see when you break arms,” he says, “They never forget’cha.”
Not all hobby breeders are as intense as Forrest, though most haven’t been in his situation. “When I hear the word ‘PETA,’ it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” says Roger Hoornbeek, another breeder at the show. He’s been raising rabbits for 20 years in Upstate New York, and says the activist threat has really escalated in the past few. Sitting in an electric wheelchair, wearing a black fedora and glasses that rest on the bulb of his wide, red nose, Roger poetically likens PETA activists to “wind blowing through the trees,” meaning, he explains, that they have poor information. Then switching metaphors, he says it’s a shame that “they think a couple of bad apples should spoil the whole truckload of apples.” He hardly takes a breath before continuing, “you can’t infringe on people that are doing everything right. People that are not doing things right, they need to be dealt with, but don’t pull the whole world down because of a couple of bad apples.”
Placing all the blame on PETA, though, isn’t accurate. Anyone can slap on a PETA shirt and go do something illegal, but that doesn’t make it a PETA action. The group is protective and proud of their 501c3 nonprofit status, which means they were not officially behind, nor would they condone, breaking into Forrest’s rabbitry.
After Forrest tells his story, Ginger brings up the “Colorado Case.” While there have been a few high-profile “bunny busts” in recent years, none rocked the breeding world quite like that one.
In 2011, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department and the local Animal Control unit seized 193 rabbits from Debe Bell’s barn. The eight investigating officers found the conditions “deplorable,” and according to the report, her barn was too hot, smelled foul, and was a mess of ragged or dehydrated rabbits sitting in their own feces. The situation was bad enough to warrant bringing in a helicopter, which Debe says only circled above her house and added to the chaos.
Rabbit advocacy groups call her an animal abuser. Rabbit breeders say the charges against her are inaccurate and misleading. One point of contention, and something breeders still harp on, is the temperature of her barn, which was 84°F. That is certainly warm for rabbits, but it was 97° outside, and according to Debe, one of the first things the officers did upon entering her rabbitry was unplug her swamp cooler and open all the barn doors. Whether her rabbits were in danger of overheating in the barn depends on who you ask. But after the county seized her animals, a few overheated and died in the van en route to the animal shelter.
Debe was charged with fifty-five counts of misdemenor animal cruelty, and found guilty of thirty-five. She was given five years of supervised probation, and prohibited from owning more than twenty-five rabbits. Raids like this have left the breeding community furious, terrified, and at odds with the House Rabbit Society, the Humane Society and PETA, groups they feel are responsible.
At a rabbit show, if you watch carefully, you’ll see some people glance at the open doors from time to time. If activists show up to this show in North Carolina, it certainly wouldn’t be a first. Last year “they came to a rabbit show down in Columbia, Tennessee,” Forrest says. But they didn’t get in, “cause we met ‘em,” he continues. “I was running the show, and I got the other guy who was running the show with me, and the town cop, and we went out and had a talk with them.” His voice trails off, and he smiles mischievously, eying the main door.
The Tomassis are an older couple whose house feels a bit like a geographically out of place, yet quaint anachronism—the sort of place you might expect to find in rural New York, not a few miles outside of New York City. Tables and bookshelves are stacked with trinkets and animal kitsch; old pretzel and juice containers are filled with animal grooming tools, kitchen supplies, and Shredded Wheat—apparently rabbits, like dogs, love it. A thimble collection sits in a glass box near the stereo system, which on this late-March morning, is playing slow ambient music which helps put their English bulldog puppy to sleep.
Adele, whose Italian parents grew up eating rabbit meat, tucks her long white hair behind her ears and places a blue tarp over the flower-patterned plastic tablecloth covering the kitchen table. Her fingernails are bitten short, and her skin is smooth and soft. She’d have that grandmother-y vibe, but her baggy jeans, plaid shirt, and khaki vest adorned with various badges, give her more edge. Pat, whose long white hair has a bit more gray and brown and in it, sits across the table, in a blue waffle-print shirt, a pink and white sleeveless smock, and worn-in slippers.
Sitting by Pat’s foot is a double-carrier cage with two big puff-balls, one brown-gray and the other tan, with matching colored faces poking out, and slightly bobbing with their twitching noses.
“Let’s bring out Coco-Puff,” Adele says. Up on the table, Coco-Puff settles into Adele’s outstretched arms, and she nestles into its fur. “You’re so beautiful,” she says again and again in a baby-talk voice.
“I think it was in 1999,” Pat says, “I started getting crafty. ‘Dell already had the love of the animals.” Pat nods her head at Adele, who smiles sheepishly. “And we decided to get a long-haired rabbit for fiber.” They named it Samson.
“He took Patty as his mate,” Adele adds. “He used to run circles around her.” Both women pause and smile at the memory. “But he wasn’t bred right. His hair would grow two inches and felt. He was one giant felt rabbit.”
Like fiber artists around the world, Pat and Adele raise Angora rabbits, a high-maintenance breed developed for their soft and very warm wool. “And contrary to popular belief,” Adele says—and repeats two or three times throughout the day—“you don’t have to kill them to get their wool.” Angoras are one of the calmer breeds of rabbit, which is necessary given that they require humans to groom them (lest they become a living dreadlock).
“I love this breed,” Pat says. “We promote it, but it’s a commitment. It’s not for the faint of heart.” It’s hard to talk about Angora rabbits without mentioning the video PETA released last November. The three-minute segment of undercover footage shows Chinese factory workers ripping the hair from screaming and bleeding Angoras. The rabbits are tied down, and some eventually go into shock, lying on a table motionless while being de-haired.
“How could you do that to something so beautiful?” Adele asks rhetorically.
“Adele,” Pat says very matter-of-factly, and in a tone of voice that sounds like they’ve had this conversation before, “it’s commercial production,” which is to say, not a world they’re familiar with.
Adele nestles her face in Coco-Puff’s fur again, breathing in deeply for a few seconds. She sits back up and begins to gently pull apart small knots of hair. “You just work these out, and look,” she holds up a little clump, and goes back to work. While Pat talks about their entry into the rabbit showing world, the pile of loose wool by Adele continues to grow.
“You have to be really careful,” Adele says, changing the subject, “because when you pluck you can accidentally pull out the hair follicle too. Especially with the English Angoras.”
“The English are the ones you can’t tell the front from the back,” Pat adds. “They’re a smaller rabbit, good for wool.” French Angoras, on the other hand, have a larger, commercial body. Same with the Giant Angoras—“both are good for meat. But the English,” Pat continues, “well, they make a good sauce.” Adele smiles, but doesn’t look up from grooming Coco-Puff.
The Tomassis live in a residential area where if “you talk about having the bunny for lunch, people go, ‘ahhh!’ People get upset about eating rabbit because they’ve never had exposure to it,” Pat pauses, “but we don’t eat our rabbits,” she clarifies. For them, the few rabbits they own are just for wool and companionship. But their bunnies also blur that line between pets and livestock and show animals, particularly if you consider utility to be the distinguishing factor.
Unless you’ve seen it yourself, it can be difficult to believe that domestic rabbits can get along with dogs and cats. The Tomassi’s rabbits, for instance, are unfazed by the cats and dogs who live under the same roof. Cathy has a pet cat who lives in her rabbitry, and who appears to be friends with (and tries to stand guard over) all of the rabbits inside. Cathy’s cat will regularly reach its paws into the cages to play with the bunnies, and likes to nap on top of the cages too. Rabbits are notorious for their skittish behavior, but if introduced properly to new animals and humans they can form lasting bonds.
Rabbits can be litter-box trained, and can even learn their names, explains Margo DeMello of the House Rabbit Society. “I mean,” she says, clarifying, “if they want to.” When comparing rabbits to dogs, she points out, we have to remember that they’ve only been domesticated for a couple thousand years, a fraction of the amount of time dogs have. New evidence is actually leading many scholars to conclude that humans began domesticating dogs anywhere from 45,000 – 90,000 years ago.
“Dogs were domesticated to be human partners,” Margo says, “so they co-evolved along with humans, learning to read our cues, learning to read our facial expressions, and learning everything they needed to know in order to be effective hunting partners and then guard dogs.” Rabbits, on the other hand, were domesticated for fur and meat, and had very little interaction with humans during the vast majority of their history living with us. They are much more independent and “have so much of their wildness left in them,” Margo says, “which makes them very different from a cat or a dog or so many of the other domesticated animals that we’re used to interacting with.”
Given the incredible advances in calm temperment that humans have already achieved with breeding domestic rabbits—look no farther than Coco-Puff, who sits docily on the Tomassi’s kitchen table, or some of Margo’s rabbits that know their names and cuddle with her while she watches TV—it’s entirely conceivable that given enough time, rabbits could become a regular feature in our households, as common and dogs and cats.
And like dogs and cats, domestic rabbits have distinct personalities—some are curious, some are cuddly, some are shy, and some have an overabundance of energy and love to jump in the air and wiggle around. They have the capacity to “teach us that animals don’t have to be the distant Other,” Margo and her journalist friend Susan E. Davis write in their book, Stories Rabbits Tell, “but can be creatures who connect to us in very real, very profound ways.”
Rabbits may connect to us in profound ways, but they are also the source of much disconnect between us, particularly when it comes to those who devote their lives to rabbits and to rabbit causes.
“Most of my experience with animal rights activists is from online,” Janelle Dixon, a Michigan-based rabbit breeder and outspoken advocate for the disemination of accurate rabbit breeding information, wrote in an email. “Most of the rescue workers I have met personally have been pretty civil. When I discuss rabbits with them, their general response is, it doesn’t bother us if you raise them, we don’t see them in our rescues.” But the people she engages with online are a totally different story.
Janelle started having problems with people affliated with the House Rabbit Society and other rabbit rescue organizations sometime around 2004. “They have gone out of their way to steal pictures off my Live Journal and Facebook accounts, to ‘prove’ that I abused my animals, and lied about them,” she wrote. “I have been called a backyard breeder, a bunny mill, a factory farmer, a bunny killer, a bunny murderer, a hoarder, and an animal abuser because I breed them, and don’t do things ‘their way.’” She’s been told that she knows “nothing about rabbits,” and that she doesn’t love her animals or deserve to own any.
“They are very vocal. They are very rude. They are obnoxious.” But still, she, like Corinne Fayo of The Rabbit Education Society, is a regular presence in the online rabbit community, engaging opponents with long, detailed, and thorough responses. Janelle does it to educate, because much of the information put out there about rabbits, she writes, is inaccurate. “The mudslinging starts when it’s pointed out to them that they are wrong. Usually they are the first to start in with the name calling and accusations.”
The most recent fights have been over Whole Foods’ decision to launch a pilot rabbit meat program in some of its stores:
“Good morning! We know some of you have experienced a backlash on social media from a handful of bunny breeders/killers,” writes one anti-rabbit meat activist on the popular Rabbit Advocacy Network Facebook page. “Adversaries are posting horrid things on Whole Foods’ pages about how they are going to kill and eat a baby bunny if we comment one more time (**waves to Janelle Dixon**).”
The writer goes on, berating the “handful of people who feel it is their right to keep bunnies caged up, bred, with poor diets, and cruel endings,” and adds that “by posting nasty, vindictive and ignorant posts these rabbit breeders are sending a clear message that it is they who are ‘fringe,’ they who are ‘radical’ and they who kill and torture animals for spite. (*Waves again to Janelle and Corrine*)”
The vitrol can be humorous: “they think rabbit advocates are their enemy because we feel bunnies should be treated kinder and with more respect. I know that sounds like super bizarre science fiction, but unfortunately, it is true.” But sometimes it borders on creepy: “they think they have an eye on rabbit advocates, but they are being watched a lot closer. Reports are being filed, authorities contacted, evidence gathered.”
In their book Stories Rabbits Tell, Margo DeMello and Susan E. Davis write “the wild rabbit, like most any wild creature, displays a variety of behaviors and characteristics that make it a fascinating creature in its own right: complex social systems, intricate communication methods, odd biological quirks and a tenacious ability to survive and reproduce despite the worst of odds.” Though they are describing wild rabbits, not necessarily the domestic ones of the bunny battle, their conclusion that “the wild rabbit can teach us plenty about how we as humans can simultaneously love, hate and be totally ignorant about one species of animal, and how those opposite reactions can lead to wildly contradictory human behaviors,” can be said—and perhaps should be said—to have much broader implications when extended to all of bunnyland.
To the untrained eye, the six blue-ish gray rabbits sprawled out in cages on the judging table competing for Best in Variety at the National Flemish Giant show all look the same. But those who spend years poring over genetic books and analyzing bunny family trees can see how these six Flemish Giants are obviously unique. And with three of them belonging to Cathy, the odds are in her favor.
“Decent head, decent ears, fails in the depth of body, carries good bone condition,” the judge says, examining a rabbit. “I’d like to see her round-off a little more. Pretty good intensity of color, just in-between coats today, just starting to break—kinda fails to balance in those areas.” In a flurry of furry Blue bunnies, the judge moves from animal to animal, methodically narrowing down the group. Cathy looks tense as she watches, but finally relaxes when the winners are declared. Someone else’s Blue doe took Best in Variety—“shucks,” Cathy says—but CJ365, her Junior Buck, came in second, which makes him a contender for Best in Show.
By late afternoon, bits of hay litter the floor of the showroom, floating around everyone’s shoes. There are small piles of rabbit droppings, and evaporating puddles of urine under the judging tables—earlier in the day, one animal gave an impressive show with a stream of projectile pee. Five-gallon buckets for disposing manure and soiled bedding chips sit near the rabbit cages, waiting for a lucky local farmer to pick them up.
“Time to bring out your Best in Breeds,” someone announces loudly. Fourteen rabbits, a buck and a doe from each color variety, are put into the cages on the judging table, forming an earth-toned rainbow of round, furry backs and twitching noses.
“It’s addictive,” a woman in the crowd says, “they’re like M&Ms. You want one of every color.” Yet Cathy has eyes for only one: her young Blue buck, a mere four-and-a-half months old, but up there with the best of the best.
Everyone gathers in front of the table, and one by one, the judge takes out a rabbit and runs his hands over the arch of its back. Just like earlier in the day, he flips the rabbit over, checking for disqualifiers and other flaws. Are all the nails the same color? Are the teeth straight? How does the rabbit move? If it hops properly, the two front paws switch-off like bi-ped animal feet, and then the back ones move in-sync to catch up.
“Alright, well I guess let’s get started here,” the judge finally says, trying to drown out the chitchat of the onlookers. “I have four outstanding bucks, and to narrow it down—I don’t know the last time I’ve seen bucks this good.” Cathy knows her chances are slim, and that the likelihood of a Junior rabbit beating so many more developed seniors rabbits is very, very low. But still, so many years of breeding, so much careful dedication to the Standard of Perfection, so much—
“The Best Opposite goes to the Sandy senior buck,” the judge says, announcing the second place winner. And The Best of Breed,” he says slowly, pausing to smile and build suspense, “goes to the Fawn doe.”
If Cathy is upset while watching the congratulatory commotion, it doesn’t show. She knew winning was unlikely. “He was a baby,” she says, “but he was up there anyways.”
“Let’s see,” Cathy says, opening the official ARBA Standard of Perfection Guidebook, and flipping through the pages. “The Silver Fox is going to go away because people want the little ones or the really big ones—apartment pets.” But Netherland Dwarves, one of the smaller breeds, are difficult and don’t make good pets. “Palominos, Crème D’argents, Champagne D’argents, Satins—they’re already almost extinct.” And the list goes on and on.
“I can’t see ever giving them up,” she says of her rabbits. And she is a Master Breeder because she’s spent years reviving a variety that nearly went extinct. What scares her is that what almost happened to the Blue Flemish Giants could happen to a lot of other rabbits if the anti-breeding groups get their way. Those groups talk about loving all rabbits equally and the problems of overpopulation, she says, but what they overlook is the fact that some rabbits are more equal than others.
Thinking about losing all of the genetic diversity saddens her, especially because she knows that the other side only vilifies people like her because they truly believe most breeding operations are abusive. Certainly there are breeders who run rabbit mills, and breeders whose barns should be busted, but for most that’s just not the case.
“Some people lose sight of the fact that most of us do this out of love for animals,” Cathy says. “It’s not a get rich scheme.”
Her view is echoed by ARBA’s Executive Director Eric Stewart, who says a lot of the criticism and hatred that comes from the House Rabbit Society stems from a good place. “I think they believe strongly that they’re doing the right thing,” he says, but just because you believe something very strongly doesn’t mean you’re correct.”
Cathy doesn’t have a problem with people who disagree with raising and showing rabbits, just with the ones who maintain a “my way or the highway” attitude. She knows there are people who think showing is cruel, exploitative, and inhumane, “but,” she says to an imaginary audience of opponents, “none of the rabbits are mistreated—please go to a show and make your own opinion.”
She takes a deep breath and continues, “if you take a step back, it’s counterintuitive for us to be fighting. I respect people who feel strongly on the house rabbit side, but I think there is room for both of us. Humans tend to overreact, and have a terrible tendency to swing too far to one side and then there is no common ground.” It all comes down to fundamentalism, she continues, “it’s kind of the root of most problems, whether it’s animals or religion or anything else.” She pauses, “I would love nothing more than that a balance be struck between so-called ARA people and breeders.”
But what would that take?
“An act of God,” she says without hesitation. “An act of God.”
The threat to the future of domestic rabbit diversity and showing seems far from anyone’s mind as the Flemish Giant show comes to a close. While other competitors dismantle their cages and haul their rabbits out to their trucks, Cathy takes one of her Blue bucks, Rome, and her friend Ginger takes one of her Blue does, Courvoisier, over to an empty judging table. There’s one thing left to do before going home: ensure the existence and genetic vitality of future Blue rabbit generations.
It’s no secret that rabbits are prolific reproducers and breed like, well, rabbits, but there is an art to mating them. Do it wrong, and things turn deadly. The first rule, Cathy says, is to always bring the doe to the buck. If you do it the other way, the doe will guard her territory and attack. The threat of violence is an ever-present reality of mating rabbits—she could turn on him at any moment—so the bunnies need to be guarded closely.
Cathy gently holds Courvoisier still and allows Rome to approach and sniff her rear end. It sounds cute, but it usually pisses off the does. Female rabbits are known to growl, kick, bite and maul their suitors. It’s not always like this, but you never know.
At first, Courvoisier wants none of Rome’s wooing. She doesn’t growl or look angry, just indifferent. But eventually she lets him mount her, and with his little front paws on her back, he pushes her flat on the table. Rome begins moving his pelvis in a way that looks a lot like twerking; his puffy tail vibrates as he balances on his hind legs, and he lets out a few grunts. After about thirty seconds, he finishes and sort of falls off Courvoisier, seemingly exhausted. What bucks lack in stamina, however, they make up for in persistence. Courvoisier, no longer flattened against the table, gets up and starts to hop away. Her suitor perks back up and hops after her. Cathy blocks her escape route, and Rome mounts her again.
“Did it take?” Ginger asks. Rabbits are on-demand ovulators, which means they have no fertility cycle, and all it takes is the presence of a handsome buck for a doe to drop an egg. Cathy flips Courvoisier over to check. If the mating process was successful, there will usually be a little bunny-making material on the doe’s underside. Even if you see it, though, it’s best to let them go at it like rabbits a couple more times—just to be sure.
After they’re done, Cathy and Ginger are quick to separate the bunnies—lest she turn on him. Cathy brings Rome back to his cage, and Ginger cradles Courvoisier, explaining that even just a day after a rabbit gets pregnant, it’s crucial to keep bucks away because she could get pregnant again—a doe can carry two litters simultaneously, but it’s stressful on her body, and increases the likelihood of premature births.
With that, the two women join the other competitors in packing up their bunnies. The show may not have had the outcome Cathy was hoping for, but a new batch of rabbits means that there’s always next year. It also means the bunny battles are far from over.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.