People have a strange relationship with rabbits. Some we love and care for in our homes, others are hunted, poisoned, trapped, tested on, skinned for clothing, and slaughtered for human consumption. This article focuses on the rabbit meat industry, looking at the ethical issues, the environmental impacts, and health impacts of consuming rabbit meat. While you may not eat rabbits, it is important for you to understand these problems!
Despite rabbits being one of the most tested on animals, along with rats, there is limited research on their personalities. Anyone who has quality spent time with rabbits knows that each one is unique and intelligent.
Rabbits are intelligent and sentient
Despite popular belief, rabbits are clever! Being prey animals means they must be aware of their surroundings to survive. They also have a curious nature, which makes them take occasional risks. People who care for rabbits say they can be taught a range of commands and tricks, but will only do them if they want to .
They are social creatures
When given the chance, rabbits will choose to spend time with other rabbits. In the wild they live in groups or colonies, sometimes with up to 20 others in the one warren . They value their companions as much as food ! If confronted by a predator or potential threat they may freeze and then warn others in the warren with powerful thumps on the ground .
Rabbit meat around the world is presented as high-value gourmet meat . Globally around 9,449,000 rabbits are bred and killed for human consumption . The rabbit meat industry in Australia is considered fairly small, however, still kills between 100,000 to 208,000 individuals every year . Over the past 20 years, there has been a significant decrease in the number of rabbit farms in Australia, from 561 in 2002, to less than 10 today, despite steady demand. The decline is largely due to disease and welfare issues .
This section will focus on the Australian welfare standards. Current standards have not changed for years and are vague, with no clear definitions. For example, it says rabbits should only be sourced from “good” farms, with no definition of what this means.
Rabbits kept in cages
Rabbits are considered ‘pests’ in Australia, making ‘free-range’ farming impossible. Being intelligent and strategic animals, rabbits are known to escape enclosures, which means they would breed with wild populations. As a solution, rabbits must be kept inside rabbit-proof cages to prevent them from escaping. The cages are similar to that of a battery hen, suspended off the ground with wire flooring, no enrichment, and overcrowded conditions. Rabbits are given just 0.07m2 of space each (roughly the size of an A4 piece of paper) .
The bucks and does used for breeding are kept in solitary confinement, which is incredibly unnatural for rabbits. On top of this, females are killed after 7-litters or just 56 weeks of life [7 PDF].
Meat rabbits have a drastically shortened life of just 10 to 12 weeks of age when they can live for 8-14 years .
Rabbits have feed withheld for 24-hours before slaughter. They are transported in a covered and ventilated truck in darkness. They are restrained and made unconscious via electrical stunning or other methods, and then have their throats slit or head cut off to be bled out .
This vague description is left open to interpretation in regards to proper handling and differs between each state. This ranges from electrical stunning to blunt force trauma . Undercover investigations found that many farms were conducting on-site slaughter, some with the use of circular saws – which been acknowledged as a suitable method of slaughter.
The Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre (2012), said that rabbits can be stunned via cervical dislocation (separating the brain from the spinal cord) and trauma, followed by decapitation and bleeding out .
Health and Injuries
All rabbits are farmed inside sheds, which can cause health issue. The cages are designed so that their urine and faeces fall beneath them. As the waste is left to build-up it creates high levels of ammonia, which irritates their respiratory systems .
The wire flooring causes burns on their fragile hocks, sore footpads, splay legs, and paw injuries. The sheds are also noisy, which stresses the quiet animals out . Some rabbits also develop a severe head tilt due to the stress, which renders them unable to stand or eat .
In 2016, Animal Liberation exposed two rabbit farms, Tasmanian Fresh Farm Rabbits, Tasmania, and Baldivis Rabbits, Western Australia. Investigators at both farms found the waste piled up underneath the cages and numerous sick and dead rabbits. Multiple rabbits were found to have their paws stuck between the wire flooring, and some had even died from being unable to free themselves. You can find more information about the expose on Aussie Rabbits.
“I recall being taken back by the smell of the place- it was like a burning ammonia smell that made my eyes water. These places are smelly, dirty, and dusty- I wanted to leave immediately. I can’t imagine how horrible it must be for these animals to live there every day.”Investigator
Inability to exhibit natural behaviours
The cages deny rabbits all of their natural behaviours, such as foraging, exploring, sunbathing, digging, hopping, nest building, socialising, and jumping. A rabbit can jump one metre high and 3 metres long! Rabbits are also given no bedding and are forced to sleep on the wire floor [x]. Being intelligent creatures, their barren cages can cause them to become distressed and bored, suffering both mentally and physically. Farmed rabbits are known to develop abnormal behaviours like cage biting, over-eating, excessive body grooming, frequent head shaking, and moving in circles . For the does and bucks, the isolation makes these behaviours even worse. A study on pairs versus isolated individuals found that the pairs enjoyed physical contact with one another .
Lack of protection
Being prey animals, rabbits like to burrow and have protection above and behind them. On farms, they have no hiding areas or protection from above or behind. This causes them stress as they feel open to predators and have an innate need to hide. Mother does find this particularly stressful, as they cannot protect their young .
Rabbits have a high mortality rate as they are sensitive to heat, diets, and disease. They can quickly become infected by several viral, bacterial, and parasitic diseases .
In the wild, a rabbit would eat grass and roots, however, on farms, they are fed a low-cost diet to increase profits. On farms, rabbits are fed a formulated, low-cost diet, to increase economic profits .
Rabbit flesh is sold as a more “environmentally-friendly” meat, in comparison to beef, sheep, and pigs. This is largely because they breed more rapidly and reach their slaughter weight in a shorter time frame. As it is a relatively small industry in the United States and Australia, there are few scientific studies on the environmental impact of rabbit farming. In saying this, they still have an impact on the environment, and the more sustainable solution would be to avoid eating them altogether.
Like all animals, rabbits require food and freshwater. It is estimated that a farm with 100 does and 700 progeny requires 38 tonnes of feed and 73,000L of freshwater every year. This is around 104kg of food and 200L of water a day. In summer, rabbits require 50% more water .
Please note, these amounts do not include the entire process, excluding the amount of water used to grow the rabbit feed, water used to clean sheds, and process the carcasses during slaughter.
Rabbits excrete, and their waste has to go somewhere. It is estimated that 100 rabbits produce around 153kg of faeces plus urine every day, containing 1.95kg nitrogen and 0.9kg of phosphorus . It is recommended for farmers to use the waste for fertilizer, however, many overuse the manure which pollutes the surrounding environment and waterways.
There is little research on the health implications of eating rabbit meat, most likely due to its lack of popularity in the Western world. The farming of rabbits, however, is very similar to that of broiler chickens. Animals are living among their waste in unnatural, confined conditions. Their diets are also unnatural and they have their movements restricted to get them to their slaughter weight in a shorter time frame. These elements, coupled with the ammonia-filled air, causes illnesses, leaving many sick, dying, or dead before they reach the slaughterhouse.
These conditions create the perfect environment for new infectious diseases. Viruses and diseases can mutate and have the potential to pose serious health risks to people, with the possibility of starting the next pandemic starts. We discuss this more in our article, “Are Chickens Really Meant For Eating?”
Health professionals around the world are encouraging people to make the switch to plant-based diets for their health. Plants contain all of the essential nutrients for humans to not just survive, but to thrive. To learn more about where to get nutrients from on a plant-based diet, click here.
It is up to us to create a kinder world for all living beings. While the rabbit meat industry may not be popular, it exists and is hell on earth for the individuals inside the cages. Rabbits are sentient beings who have a will to live, just like us. Together, we can help end their suffering by leaving them off of our plates.