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Rabbits Revealed

Published 03/15/05
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 36 Number 1, Spring 2005

In the U.S., rabbits are classic icons of childhood innocence and mischief. Whether it’s the wise-cracking, carrot-munching Bugs Bunny; the treat-delivering Easter Bunny; sweet Thumper from Bambi; the sleepy young rabbit in Goodnight Moon; or Beatrix Potter’s beloved Peter Rabbit and friends, rabbits have long occupied a cherished place in our collective consciousness.

But while we shower adoration on make-believe bunnies, we too often heap terrible abuses on actual ones. A disturbing number of industries — including apparel, cosmetics, wildlife control, and the pet trade — exploit countless rabbits each and every year.

The following pages examine the sad plight of the rabbit, and help readers learn about the ways in which they and API can work to make a difference in the lives of these revered — and reviled — animals.

Meet the Rabbit

As familiar figures as rabbits are, their needs and nature are often misunderstood. So first, a few facts about the rabbit are in order.

Contrary to popular belief, rabbits are not rodents, but are lagomorphs belonging to the order Lagomorpha, which also includes pikas and hares. One of the primary features distinguishing rabbits from rodents is the presence of a second set of tiny peg-like upper front teeth located behind the large front teeth of rabbits.

In the wild, rabbits form social colonies, or "warrens," and seldom stray far from their birthplace. Female rabbits in particular tend to stay in their home territories, usually no larger than three acres, while males may occupy territories of up to eight acres.

The behavior of domestic rabbits is not much different than their wild brethren. According to Rabbit Advocates, an Oregon-based nonprofit organization, domestic rabbits also establish territories, and rabbits housed in groups "organize their warrens according to a specific hierarchy that generally puts the female at the top. ... Even if there are only two rabbits, one will be dominant, although this is not always the female."

In some areas of the world, rabbits are noted for their striking patterns of reproductive behavior; their population cycles are often marked by periods of abundance alternating with periods of scarcity. This trait has led to the rabbit becoming a symbol of fertility and rebirth in many cultures.

Rabbits are very active and inquisitive animals who like to run, jump, and explore. As people who share a home with companion rabbits know, they are intelligent and playful animals who have unique personalities, just like the family cat or dog. And, as is true of all companion animals, rabbits have specialized needs for housing, nutrition, and care of which guardians should be aware.

Unfortunately, proper understanding of the needs of domesticated rabbits is sometimes in short supply, and "pet" rabbits too often end up suffering in unsuitable environments for years, or are surrendered to shelters — where they may be euthanized — or to rescue organizations.

Many people acquire a rabbit under the false impression that a cage is a suitable habitat for the animal. This perception is often perpetuated by retail pet shops, which have a financial interest in portraying rabbits as low-maintenance "pets" that are especially appropriate for children. Because of rabbits’ reluctance to being picked up, their tendency to bite when frightened or aggravated, and their aversion to sudden movements, however, rabbits do not make good companions for young children. Easter is an especially popular time during which people acquire a rabbit as a cute and cuddly "pet," only to discover that they cannot meet adequately the animal’s needs. (See the "Make Mine Chocolate Campaign" sidebar for more information on how activists are working to discourage the giving of rabbits as Easter gifts.)

Providing the proper housing arrangement for a rabbit is a necessary financial and emotional investment. Most rabbits do best with companionship of at least one of their own kind. Rabbits should be kept in the home as a member of the family or in a secure outdoor enclosure. Outdoor enclosures for rabbits should have a fence buried three feet under the ground to prevent the rabbits from digging out and a cover over the top to keep predators out. Rabbits should have a cool place to retreat to on hot days and shelter to stay out of the rain and wind. (For more information about caring for companion rabbits, see the "Rabbit Resources Online" sidebar.)

This Easter, Make Mine Chocolate!

What’s a better Easter gift than an adorable baby bunny? Just about anything!

Yet each spring, otherwise well-meaning people fall prey to the myth that rabbits make a good present, especially for children. But those cuddly-looking bunnies aren’t toys; they’re living beings with complex needs and behaviors.

Each spring, animal shelters and rabbit rescue groups face the inevitable problem of unwanted Easter rabbits. Some rabbits are even abandoned in the country, where they are unlikely to survive. Before being dumped or surrendered, many of these rabbits have suffered serious mistreatment and neglect.

In addition to the suffering experienced by the rabbits, the costs imposed on shelters and rescue groups are significant. To help raise public awareness about this problem, the Columbus House Rabbit Society launched the "Make Mine Chocolate!" campaign.

The Make Mine Chocolate campaign distributes products such as ceramic pins in the form of chocolate bunnies to help discourage the purchase of living rabbits as Easter gifts. These products can be worn or displayed to help encourage dialogue and to discourage impulse purchases of rabbits.

For more information, visit www.makeminechocolate.org.

Rabbits in Suburbia

Ironically, while there is sometimes too great a demand for domesticated rabbits, there are also widespread efforts to rid neighborhoods and communities of wild rabbits. Although many homeowners tolerate, and even enjoy, the presence of wild rabbits, others perceive them as nuisances because they may eat garden or ornamental plants.

Conflicts between people and wild animals have increased throughout the recent years, due largely to human population growth and suburban sprawl. Historically, the "solution" to such conflicts has been to kill the animals, regardless of the degree of threat they present to humans or property.

That’s the situation currently in several gated communities in Orange County, California, where rabbits who have dared to munch on ornamental shrubbery have been threatened with death. The charge to kill the rabbits has been led largely by homeowners’ associations, as well as "pest" control companies, who make a significant income off the poisoning and trapping of rabbits and other animals.

Until April 2003, the "pest" control operators’ preferred method of killing rabbits in California was a poison called diphacinone — even though California law did not actually permit the use of poison for controlling rabbits. Under the California Fish and Game Code and Regulations, cottontail rabbits are classified as "small game" animals, and the regulations that set forth the allowable methods of take for small game animals do not include poison. Repeated violations of this law throughout the state spurred API to file a lawsuit in 2001 against the California Department of Fish and Game, which resulted in a federal label change for diphacinone that made it illegal to use the poison to protect ornamental shrubbery from damage by foraging animals in residential areas.

Diphacinone is a powerful toxin that can pose serious threats to public health and safety. It is a restricted-use rodenticide, applied in and around sewers and landfills, and in agricultural settings. An anticoagulant, diphacinone causes internal bleeding and blood-thinning after being ingested, resulting in a prolonged and agonizing death that can take as many as three days. Warning signs are in abundance on the diphacinone label; it can be extremely hazardous to non-target animals and to humans.

Most poisons used on rabbits and on rodents pose a significant hazard to both humans, particularly children, and to non-target wildlife, including threatened and endangered species and companion animals. In recent years, biologists in California have documented cases of San Joaquin Kit fox — a species listed under the both the federal and state endangered species acts — bobcat, and other native carnivores being poisoned from rodenticides even though these animals were not the primary intended target of the poison. Allowing poisoning of animals in areas densely populated by humans and companion animals, such as gated communities, in order to kill rabbits eating roses, poses a significant and unacceptable public safety risk.

Using lethal control methods to address conflicts with wild animals, including rabbits, is cruel and unnecessary. There are humane ways to live peaceably with rabbits, and many viable alternatives that can be used to discourage rabbits from damaging landscaping.

Animals are attracted to human dwellings for two reasons: food and shelter. Rabbits feed on certain types of ornamental shrubbery such as long, leafy plants and vegetables. Communities experiencing damage to shrubbery from cottontail rabbits have a variety of non-lethal control approaches to choose from. (For more information about alternatives to lethal control of rabbits, see the "Humane Ways to Live with Wild Rabbits" sidebar.)

While these non-lethal solutions will likely reduce, but not entirely eliminate, the problems, the same is true of lethal methods. Lethal controls generally fail to resolve human-wildlife conflicts because when animals are killed, they leave behind a habitat vacancy that new animals eventually fill, as long as access to the food (such as lawns and shrubs) is available. Thus, lethal methods are not the solution to the perceived problem the homeowners’ associations proclaim to be experiencing with rabbits.

API is working actively to end the needless killing of rabbits. During the 2004 California legislative session, two bills were introduced that would have expanded lethal control of cottontail rabbits. Existing law allows a landowner or tenant to kill cottontail or brush rabbits when damage to crops or forage is experienced on that land. These bills would have expanded existing law to also allow rabbits to be killed for landscaping damage. According to the Senate Committee analysis of one of the bills, "it appears that the main purpose for this bill is to allow homeowners to once again use a poison called diphacinone to control cottontail rabbits around their homes."

Through lobbying and testifying, API successfully defeated these two harmful bills. This is only a partial victory, however, as the bill proponents obtained a legal opinion from the Attorney General that ultimately places the rabbits in jeopardy. API will continue to fight the lethal control of rabbits, and will keep members posted about new developments on this issue.

Humane Ways to Live with Wild Rabbits

The following are time-tested methods of preventing rabbits from damaging landscaping or gardens without relying on cruel lethal control:

  • The most effective solution is exclusion. To exclude rabbits, fence garden or sensitive areas with one-inch wire mesh, or "chicken wire." Make sure the fence is at least three feet high and is buried at least one foot below the ground.
  • One-liter soda bottles that have the bottoms cut out can be placed over seedlings to protect them until they are large enough to endure mild browsing or are no longer desired by the rabbits.
  • Protect trees from rabbits with commercial tree tape or by surrounding the tree base with wire mesh.
  • Commercial repellent sprays made with hot peppers or capsaicin can protect ornamental plants but are not recommended for plants to be used for human consumption. Homemade rabbit repellents include puréed garlic and water mixed together and sprayed on garden plants.
  • Scare devices such as reflective tape, balloons, or small pinwheels may help to frighten rabbits away from protected areas.

The Ugly Truth about Beauty Products

Despite widespread belief that the testing of cosmetics on animals is a relic of the past, this abhorrent practice remains an ugly reality of the beauty industry. Laboratories continue to inflict needless suffering on countless animals worldwide, and rabbits are often the victims of cosmetic testing. Conservative estimates of the number of animals used currently in research worldwide may exceed 100 million.1 It is further estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the animals used in laboratories are the subjects of safety testing of chemicals and consumer products.2 It is impossible to know, however, exactly how many animals are used for such tests in the U.S. today because federal law requiring that animals in laboratories be counted excludes mice and rats, who are indisputably the most used animals in the industry.

A 1999 USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Animal Welfare Report listed rabbits as the second most used species, after guinea pigs. Rabbit use exceeded that of other species, including hamsters, dogs, pigs, nonhuman primates, and cats. Common tests conducted for both cosmetics and household products typically involve using rabbits to test substances for observed levels of eye irritancy as well as for measuring irritancy and corrosion effects on skin.

The eye irritancy tests — commonly referred to as the Draize test, for its inventor, John Draize — came into practice in 1944 and has had little development since. The test’s aim is to assess the irritancy of a substance when applied directly to the eye. Test substances can range from cosmetics ingredients to oven cleaners.

Adult albino rabbits are the typical Draize test subjects, chosen for their large, unpigmented eyes in which inflammation and irritation are more easily observed. Once a rabbit is rendered immobile through confinement in a stock or other head-holding device, the test substance is placed into one of the rabbit’s eyes, in most cases without anesthetic, while the other eye is used as a control. Irritation is observed for up to 21 days (3 weeks), and scores are assigned by technicians’ (arguably subjective) observations of damage to the eye.3 To say simply that the Draize test is painful is an understatement.

And to what end is such pain and suffering inflicted? Anatomical differences between the rabbit eye and the human eye make data obtained from the Draize test questionable, at best. Key differences between the species include substantial dissimilarity in corneal mean thickness and in the percent of the eye’s surface area covered by the cornea. Significant differences between humans and rabbits also exist in tear flow, thickness of the Bowman’s membrane, and the structure of the eyelid, not to mention the specific immune, physiological, and genetic qualities unique to each species. Not only are these tests torturous for animals — they are of questionable utility for humans.4

Rabbits are also commonly used in skin irritancy and corrosion testing. These tests are used to measure the toxicity/corrosive effects of a chemical applied to the skin. Patches of a rabbit’s fur are shaved off and the test substance is applied to his or her exposed skin. The degree of irritancy is scored by checking against a control patch of shaved skin not exposed to the chemical substance. Technicians observe the rabbits for reactions such as reddening, swelling, inflammation, and ulceration. Once again, not only are such tests objectionable for the pain and suffering they cause animals, but the anatomy and cellular makeup of rabbit skin differs in different species of rabbit, thus leading to variable results and raising considerable doubts about the value of test results for humans.

What makes the continued use of the Draize test, skin irritancy, and skin corrosion tests additionally problematic are that these cruel procedures are redundant and unnecessary. The use of alternative strategies and testing methods could alleviate this senseless suffering. Known safety data exist for many product ingredients and formulations, and continued developments in in vitro (non-animal) testing, chemical assays, artificial skin systems, human volunteers, and computer models, if utilized, could end animal testing for cosmetics and household products.

Compassionate consumers can take a stand against animal testing by purchasing cosmetics and personal care products certified by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC), chaired by API. Companies that sign the CCIC Corporate Standard of Compassion for Animals pledge that their products — and the products’ ingredients — are 100% free of new animal testing. For more information and to see a list of CCIC-approved companies, go to www.leapingbunny.org.

Savage Style

Another instance in which rabbits suffer in the name of "beauty" is in the fashion industry — particularly the fur trade. As the fur industry seeks to promote the self-serving notion that "fur is back," the marketing momentum for more affordable fur has placed rabbits in dire circumstances. Rabbit fur sales are, regrettably, on the rise. According to the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, an estimated one billion rabbit pelts are produced globally each year. France, one of the world’s leading rabbit-producing countries, has annual rabbit skin production topping 70 million.5

Among the "advantages" of rabbit fur is that it is cheaper to produce as compared to the fur of other animals, and is easy to dye and trim. Thus, rabbit fur is making its way onto a wide range of items such as boot cuffs, ear muffs, cat toys, collars, and coats.

Many who sell or wear rabbit fur attempt to justify the practice by claiming that the fur is actually a byproduct of the meat industry. This is rarely the case. The reality is that few rabbit skins are obtained from slaughterhouses; more often, the pelts are simply thrown away. "Meat rabbits" are typically slaughtered at an early age (usually 10 to 12 weeks), when their fur is in its infancy and has yet to completely develop, effectively making their pelts unsuitable to the fur industry. Furthermore, molting — the seasonal changes in the coat where hair is naturally freed for the emergence of new hair growth — makes the meat industry’s seasonless slaughter incompatible with the fur industry’s demand for the preferred "winter coat" that follows the autumn molt.6 Moreover, furriers and meat processors prefer different rabbit breeds, based on the breeds’ unique characteristics as they relate to meat quality or fur worth.

Rabbits exploited for their fur live in misery and confinement. While the natural life of a wild rabbit would include roaming and living in complex underground warrens, "farmed" rabbits are housed in cramped captivity, offered no opportunities to play, dig, or socialize. "Farmed" rabbits are often kept in small wire cages, which subject their feet to painful sores. Some rabbits are offered no natural light so as to control seasonal molting and keep the fur more marketable. Self-mutilation and psychosis can be symptomatic of the restricted lifestyle of fur-producing rabbits. Death may be a welcome escape for these animals; however, it can be argued that the rabbits experience their last moments in severe pain. To preserve the "integrity" of the coat and to ensure that as little blood as possible goes onto the pelt, rabbits may be strangled, electrocuted through their orifices, have their necks broken or, potentially, be skinned alive.7

The production and sale of rabbit fur has surpassed that of other furbearing animals exploited by the inhumane fur industry. Rabbits offer the fur trade an inexpensive option for delivering affordable fur products to the mainstream consumer. Although not marketed as "extravagant" like a mink coat, the fashion industry portrays rabbit fur trim as a "touch of luxury" on items such as mukluk boot trim, sweater cuffs, or coat collars. API continues to play a leading role in the fight against fur and fur trim, and will keep you informed of our efforts through our magazine and materials.

As we consider how rabbits have shaped our culture or graced our lives as companions, it is hard to imagine the time-constrained White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland held in stocks and forced to endure an eye irritancy test, or to picture the boasting and proud Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh caged and skinned for a fur trim collar, or even to envision the curious Peter Cottontail confined and neglected in a small cage in a lonely backyard. We must remember these beloved characters — and real-life rabbits — when we make decisions about what products we buy and what industries we support. Our choices make a difference in the lives of animals. By forgoing pet shops that sell live animals, supporting humane approaches to conflicts with wild rabbits, refusing to wear fur or fur trim, and buying cosmetics that have not been tested on animals, we can shape a new world for animals.

Rabbit Resources Online


  1. Center for Laboratory Animal Welfare. www.labanimalwelfare.org/overview.htm.</li>
  2. Stephens, M., and A. Rowan. An overview of animal testing issues. HSUS. www.hsus.org/ace/12508.
  3. Langley, G. BUAV. The Way Forward Action to End Animal Toxicity Testing.; Finsen, L., & S. Finsen. 1994. The Animal Rights Movement in America: From Compassion to Respect. Twayne Publishers.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 1986. Production of Rabbit Skins and Angora Wool, Chapter 8 of The rabbit: husbandry, health and production. www.fao.org/documents/show_cdr.asp?url_file=/docrep/X5082E/X5082E00.htm.</li>
  6. Food & Ag Org of UN, and excerpted in The Fur Trade Today, 12/07/04, J. Miele.
  7. Harris, P. "Slaughter of the Boot Bunnies." Daily Mail, December 3, 2004.

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