Our complex relationship with rabbits

20 January 2023

Written by Dave Neale, Animal Welfare Director, Animals Asia Foundation

For many people the word ‘rabbit’ conjures up images of happy bunnies hopping around gardens, or wild rabbits munching in grassy fields on a warm summer's evening.

Yet while these idyllic images reflect reality for some rabbits they don’t reflect the whole story. How rabbits live depends on how we classify them.

Rabbits straddle a number of differing societal, ethical and legal positions. One rabbit might occupy a place in a loving home and be legally protected from harm as a companion animal, a second might occupy a place in a research laboratory, destined to be experimented on and live a life of isolation and pain. 

A third may be caged on an intensive farm being raised for its fur or fattened for consumption with minimal legal protections to ensure they don’t suffer, while a fourth in the wild could be considered ‘pests’, the law allowing their extermination with no consideration for the rabbits’ welfare.

The same species can be a companion, a laboratory test subject, food, clothing or a ‘pest’. This multitude of classifications and acceptance of these differing positions presents a challenge as we design our protections (or lack thereof) based on a rabbit's situation.

And how we choose to classify them will determine whether or not they will experience a life of happiness and joy, suffering and pain or outright persecution.

A wild life can offer freedom, but only if you live in an area where rabbits are tolerated. If not, you could face a life of persecution and suffering at the hands of those that wish to rid you from ‘their’ space.

It definitely couldn’t be argued that it would be best to be born into a life of research, or as a farmed animal as all routes will lead to your suffering and to a premature death at the hands of your captor.

Therefore it may just be best to be born into a life of companionship. To be destined to be provided with a loving home, with protection from predators, space to run and exercise, grass and hay to eat and a rabbit friend to bond and spend the rest of your life with. For those companion rabbits that achieve this, this is arguably the best it gets for a rabbit.

Unfortunately this life is not the life of all companion rabbits. Some have miserable lives due to a lack of understanding of their needs with many being socially isolated, fed poor quality diets, not being protected from diseases or being housed in small, damp and cold environments that offer very little in terms of stimulation leading to boredom and depression.

Recognising these different ‘lives’ and the categories that we put rabbits in, it is time for us to take a step back and look at it from a different perspective. If we as a society, during this lunar year of the rabbit, can consider how rabbits would choose to live their lives then maybe we can rid ourselves of our own confusions with regards to how we treat such beautiful individuals.

And more rabbits, whether domestic or wild, could experience the life that they deserve.

Read more: One life - rabbits

Last updated on 6 January 2023