Yesterday, while staying in my home town of Wellington, New Zealand, I visited an historic house constructed in the 1800s. The ‘Colonial Cottage’ had housed children and grandchildren of the original settlers who built it, until it was bequeathed to the city in the 1960s.
As we came down a set of narrow steps and through an old wooden door, our guide informed us that we were now stepping into the ‘wet kitchen’. In the next few moments, I was about to find myself face to face with a dead rabbit, his perfectly preserved body hanging from the ceiling as part of the educational tour.
I’ve written about rabbits before, once when teenaged Petland employee Elizabeth Carlisle killed two of them and was vilified as a perpetrator of animal abuse, and once when NPR celebrated the history of a restaurant famous with local diners for a menu that revolved around rabbit meat. An example of our society’s confusion about animal ethics? I believe so.
Earlier this year, I wanted to write about rabbits again when the animal advocacy world went crazy over Whole Foods selling rabbit meat in its stores, claiming that, unlike other ‘food animals’, rabbits are seen as companions.
Having known rabbits as family members, it’s hard not to feel that the trend toward rabbit meat as the latest ‘sustainable food fad’ is particularly grotesque, but the fact is that we humans are remarkably hypocritical when it comes to the question of which animals should be passionately protected and which we value as nothing more than a source of gratifying flavors and textures.
As this article from The Atlantic demonstrates, there are plenty of people who aren’t any more concerned about rabbits than your average person is about cows, chickens, pigs, sheep, or any of the other sentient and aware individuals who are typically seen as nothing but ‘food animals’.
Mark and Myriam Pasternak are the owners of Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Marin County, California. According to The Atlantic, the Pasternaks ‘process’ 10,000 rabbits a year, to sell to over a hundred high-end restaurants. According to Mark:
“Rabbits are easy to raise and butcher in your backyard, they’re light on the environment, and their meat is lean and low in cholesterol.”
In 2010, when the NY Times published Don’t Tell the Kids, a story about the new trend toward DIY slaughter that profiled a ‘rabbit killing seminar’ held in Brooklyn, the facilitator of the class was quoted as saying:
“Today is a somber day because we are going to be killing rabbits… But I am always psyched after slaughter because I’m like, now I’m going to eat.”
My run-in with yesterday’s taxidermied body came on the heels of a particularly profound experience for me. Last month, as my friends and I prepared for a vegan event and our subsequent departure for our New Zealand location, we watched as our family rabbit Poof came to the end of a difficult battle with various challenges that old age had brought.
After being abandoned by our neighbors nine years ago, Poof had been taken to a local kill shelter. We knew him from the neighborhood, and from the times we had spotted him foraging in our veggie garden after he had been allowed to run free (see picture above… That’s one of our veganic kale seedlings he’s decimating!) When we heard about his new situation, we could accept no other outcome than for him to come home with us. And so he did, becoming Poof the Magic Rabbit, with his very own theme song to go along with the name.
When Poof was young and healthy, he had an exuberance that could make you laugh out loud. Our happiest times with him were when we were all together in a group, and he would get so excited he would jump up in the air, kick his heels, and sometimes even do a twirl in mid-leap. If he was in a particularly good mood in the morning, sometimes he would give some lucky person what we called a ‘bunny blessing’, running around and around him or her in ecstatic circles. And right up until the very end, a gentle rub between the ears or a handful of lentil sprouts could send him into a state of bliss.
Despite a slightly aloof nature, and a lack of interest in being held or caressed (until his later years, when he learned the pleasure of physical affection) he gave us so much joy and laughter that it was hard for us to imagine not having him in our lives anymore. There were times when I would watch Poof hop away, turning his adorable little tush to me, or lifting himself up on his furry little feet to stand on two legs, and I was filled with a feeling of so much happiness and love that it was almost hard to contain.
But time passes, and it passes particularly quickly for rabbits, for whom making it to the age of ten is quite a feat. In his old age, Poof battled some physical challenges that threatened to end his time with us even earlier. But he had the constitution of someone much, much bigger, and despite the prognoses of everyone we inquired of, he beat the odds and survived for another year with amazing vitality.
In his final days, as his little body became increasingly frail, we did everything we could to try and keep him comfortable and cared for while he made his way toward a different stage of existence that we do not yet understand. We bathed him, tended to his physical needs, and tried all sorts of creative techniques to keep him interested in eating and drinking. Our biggest fear was that his ending would be painful, that he would suffer, and that we would be forced to make a decision for him that we didn’t feel was ours to make.
But one of the strange things about caring for a rabbit as a companion is that even the research we did for his well-being was a reminder of the peculiar, ‘dual-citizen’ status that rabbits have in our culture. In amongst information for how to properly care for your rabbit, you can find yourself being informed about how to raise them for food, and a simple search for veterinary advice can lead you to instructions for killing them quickly.
While we were trying our best to ease his discomfort, we were reminded over and over that our special little man, the Magic Rabbit himself, would be seen by many as nothing more than a luxury meal or the makings of a high-end sweater; a bundle of meat covered in the softest fur.
And so it is with everyone who is reduced to nothing more than the sum of their body parts. We may tell ourselves that they’re simply ‘food animals’, but the truth is that each one has a personality, a collection of their own special qualities, and the potential to bring love to a person’s world.
Thankfully we were not called upon to end Poof’s life before it was time, and he went to the other side when he was ready to do so, or so we believe. As for us, we’ve each found our own way to say goodbye, and we just hope that we gave little Poof as much as he gave to us, though it’s hard to imagine how such a thing could be possible.