Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.
All contents are copyrighted.
Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.

back issues


November 2006
Battery Bunnies
By Mark Hawthorne


Despite being one of the most popular companion animals in the country, rabbits are among the most exploited. Domestic rabbits—cherished for their playful, gentle natures—are skinned for their fur, blinded to test cosmetics, bred for show, drugged for science, clipped for wool products, pulled out of magicians’ hats, killed in vivisection labs, sold as food for pet snakes, and raised and shipped by breeders. To add insult to all this injury, we chop off their paws and tout the rabbit’s foot as a “good luck” charm.

But the exploitation doesn’t end there. A 2002 rabbit industry report by the USDA suggests that 8.3 million rabbits are raised and slaughtered each year in this country to be served in restaurants and sold in grocery stores. Recent media coverage asserts rabbit meat is a growing U.S. industry, especially in southern states. With members in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, the Tri-State Rabbit Growers Association was formed in 2003, and its goal is to become an economic force in the food industry. “It’s alarming to see the growth of rabbit meat production in the South, where heavy development of chicken meat currently exists,” says Christine Morrissey, whose organization East Bay Animal Advocates (EBAA) investigates the rabbit meat industry. “Like chicken, rabbit meat is gaining popularity as an alternative to red meat.”

Rabbit meat production mimics the inhumane practices of poultry and egg industries, often keeping animals packed in small wire battery cages that afford each rabbit the same amount of floor space as a sheet of legal-sized paper. Such confinement can cause a host of health problems, yet sick rabbits are routinely denied veterinary care. EBAA’s recent investigation of a processing facility in California found rabbits living in overstocked, unsanitary conditions, and a subsequent medical examination on several of these animals revealed respiratory and skin infections, diarrhea and urine burns.

“ Meat” rabbits are sold live to commercial processing plants, who market them to retail groceries and restaurants. Although a processor may first attempt to break a rabbit’s neck prior to slaughter, rabbits raised for their flesh are generally large and difficult to handle; consequently, they are killed using a number of other cruel methods, including a blow to the head, decapitation, and slitting their throats.

According to the USDA, with intense competition from China, which exports frozen rabbit meat at low prices, commercial rabbit meat groups in the U.S. are struggling to improve the supply, consistency and market outlets for rabbits. (Neither the Professional Rabbit Meat Association nor the Rabbit Industry Council would comment for this article.)

Do Rabbits Have Feathers?
In July 2005, the Humane Farming Association (HFA), Animal Rights International, and the Animal Welfare Institute placed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times criticizing the USDA for classifying rabbits as “poultry,” giving them the same protection as chickens and turkeys—which is to say none whatsoever. The clever ad depicts three young rabbits above the headline “Please help these chickens” and details some of the suffering rabbits endure, including struggling to survive as they’re skewered with meat hooks. By grouping rabbits with poultry, the USDA avoids having to include them in the 1958 Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA)—standards that exclude poultry. Among other things, this means rabbits may be fully conscious while being slaughtered.

“ The Animal Disposition Reporting System clearly classifies all rabbits as poultry,” says Gail Eisnitz, Chief Investigator for HFA and author of Slaughterhouse. “In addition, all edible rabbit products are stamped with the mark of inspection that is used on federally inspected poultry products.” The USDA’s Animal Disposition Reporting System divides animals into two groups: livestock and poultry. It defines livestock as large animals and poultry as “chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, capons, rabbits, and other,” with a footnote explaining that because rabbits and poultry are nearly the same size, it is common practice to slaughter rabbits in poultry establishments; therefore, to simplify reporting from inspectors, rabbits are grouped with poultry.

Unfortunately, the USDA seems reluctant to discuss the issue. Although I could never get anyone at the agency to definitively answer my question “Are rabbits protected under HMSA?” I did get a reply to my query about how they classify them. Rex Barnes, Associate Deputy Administrator of Poultry Programs for the USDA, attempted to clarify the matter by emailing this response: “While we do not classify rabbits as poultry, rabbit quality standards and grading are organizationally operated in the USDA, AMS [Agricultural Marketing Service], Poultry Programs.”

Humane Protection for All
Whether or not the USDA regards rabbits as poultry, agribusiness certainly treats them that way. In November of 2005, the Humane Society of the United States and EBAA filed a lawsuit against the federal government challenging the USDA’s exclusion of poultry from HMSA. When reminded how evasive the USDA can be about the status of rabbits and their protection under HMSA, Jonathan Lovvorn, Vice President of Litigation for HSUS, isn’t surprised. “USDA is being purposefully vague,” he says. “They’re playing a definitional game with us, and that’s at the heart of our lawsuit against them.”

Nothing good can be said regarding the distressing combination of inhumane treatment and intensified efforts to market rabbit flesh for food. Ironically, their popularity on dinner plates coincides with an increase in our appreciation for them as companions. Like dogs and cats, rabbits are full of personality, thrive indoors and form deep bonds with their human guardians. We would be appalled to see Fido or Fluffy on the menu. So, why should Thumper be any different?

What You Can Do:
• Don’t patronize restaurants that serve rabbit; better yet, ask them to stop.

• Ask the USDA to protect rabbits under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. Contact: Secretary Mike Johanns, USDA,1400 Independence Ave, SW, Rm 200-A, Washington, DC 20250; phone (202) 720-3631; fax: (202) 720-2166; email

• Read Stories Rabbits Tell by Susan Davis and Margo DeMello (Lantern, 2003).

• Visit and watch the film Rabbits: Pets or Poultry?

Mark Hawthorne is a California-based writer, animal advocate and rescuer of bunnies.