Margo with Munchkin, one of her many rescued rabbits.
IT’S NOT SURPRISING that rabbits are the “poster child” for the cruelty-free movement. Rabbits are among the most frequently used animals in chemical and product testing. In 2012, more than 205,000 rabbits were used for laboratory purposes, including medical research and breeding. Putting aside the ethics of using any animals to test household goods, makeup, and other consumer products, and putting aside the barbarity of some of the tests themselves (such as the Draize Eye Irritancy Test), those of us who live with rabbits know how special these animals are. They are capable of emotions such as joy and sadness, jealousy and anger, and affection and greed. They have a decided preference for lazy afternoons, lolling with their friends, and bond closely with each other and with humans. When rabbits are kept alone in a cage, whether in a backyard hutch or in a laboratory, it’s difficult if not impossible to see a rabbit’s true personality—there’s just not enough stimulation or physical space for the rabbit to fully let go, and the person keeping him or her rarely has enough time to really observe the animal’s behavior. In 1991, I received a call from a Northern California humane society. Animal control officers had found six male New Zealand rabbits in the basement of a local laboratory during a routine visit. One officer was so horrified by their living conditions that she charged the lab with animal cruelty, and was in tears when she called. According to the officer, all six rabbits were living in individual steel metal boxes
What Makes Rabbits Special By Margo DeMello in a completely dark room. They had no contact with other animals or humans, except when they were fed. I ended up with three of the rabbits, one of whom, Stimpy, lived with me for four years. When Stimpy first arrived at my house he was curiously stooped, his head hanging lower than normal on his body, and he moved by creeping rather than hopping. During his time with me, he suffered from conjunctivitis and battled countless infections, perhaps because he went from a sterile environment to a normal, less-than-sterile home. But Stimpy was neutered, learned to hop again, and enjoyed the company of rabbits, the joys of toys, and the delight of stretching his limbs for a few good years. Each year, tens of thousands of rabbits in the U.S. alone live their lives and expe-
rience their deaths in laboratory settings. Not all of those rabbits fare as badly as Stimpy and the other rabbits in the laboratory basement; some universities now use group housing with better conditions. But living with (or even meeting) normal rabbits shows what incredible animals they really are. Rabbits have meaningful lives worth living, without pain, and deserve the freedom to experience their “rabbitness.” AV Margo DeMello, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor in the Anthrozoology Masters program at Canisius College. She is also the Human-Animal Studies Program Director for the Animals and Society Institute, an author, and President of the House Rabbit Society (www.rabbit.org), an international rabbit advocacy organization.
Rabbits 101 Rabbits were domesticated about 1,500 years ago by French monks. Because they were domesticated relatively recently, they still retain many wild behaviors. There are 3—7 million companion rabbits in the United States; they are now the third most popular companion mammal. They can live up to 15 years, when housed indoors and provided with proper care and medical attention. Rabbits can give birth to up to 12 babies at one time, and can get pregnant the day they give birth. A young rabbit can easily bear 150 babies by the end of her first year of life. Because rabbits are social animals, they thrive on the companionship of others of their kind, as well as cats, small animals, and friendly dogs. Rabbits are playful, and like climbing (even though they are famously clumsy!), tossing things, rolling things, and snuggling with their favorite stuffed toy. Rabbits do not vocalize except in very rare situations, so they communicate primarily with their body language. When happy, rabbits will purr their teeth, flop on the ground, exposing their bellies, and will even do a crazy dance that rabbit people call “binkying.”