Rabbits

Peter R Cheeke. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Rabbit production is significant in several countries, especially France, Italy, Malta, and Spain, where there is a long tradition of consuming rabbit meat. In the past, great numbers of rabbits were raised by subsistence farmers, who fed them locally collected forages such as weeds, grasses, and vegetable by-products. But with the intensification of agriculture, particularly in the twentieth century, and the decline in “peasant farmers,” rabbit production as a cottage industry declined. However, because the tradition of eating rabbit meat endured in western European countries, an intensive, commercial, industrial-scale production of rabbits has developed to meet continuing demand.

Both the origins and the evolution of the domestic rabbit are difficult to trace. Rabbits are in the order Lagomorpha, which dates back about 45 million years in the fossil record to the late Eocene period. Modern lagomorphs (rabbits and hares) belong to two families (Leporidae and Ochotonidae) consisting of 12 genera. They range from the highly successful hares and rabbits of the Lepus, Oryctolagus, and Sylvilagus genera to several endangered genera and species. Although rabbits and hares appear to have originated in Asia, all breeds of domestic rabbits are descendants of the European wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and are Mediterranean in origin. There are more than 100 breeds of domestic rabbits, ranging in size from dwarf breeds with an adult weight of less than 1 kilogram (kg) to giant breeds weighing in excess of 10 kg.

The first recorded rabbit husbandry has been dated to early Roman times, when rabbits were kept in leporia, or walled rabbit gardens. They reproduced in these enclosures and were periodically captured and butchered. During the Middle Ages, rabbits were similarly kept in rock enclosures in Britain and western Europe. True domestication, which is believed to have taken place in the Iberian Peninsula, probably began in the sixteenth century in monasteries. By 1700, several distinct colors had been selected. There are now many different coat colors (for example, agouti, tan, brown, white, blue, black, and red) and coat types (such as angora, normal, rex, satin, and waved), which provide for great diversity in the color and texture of the fur. (The coat-color genetics of rabbits have been reviewed comprehensively by McNitt et al. 1996.)

Domestic rabbits are now raised in virtually all countries, although, in some notable instances, feral rabbits have become major pests. Beginning in the Middle Ages, sailors introduced these animals into islands along various sea lanes—to be used as a source of food—and wherever rabbits were released, they increased greatly in number at the expense of indigenous plants and animals. In 1859, a single pair of European wild rabbits was taken to Australia, and within 30 years, these had given rise to an estimated 20 million rabbits. Feral rabbits also became a serious problem in New Zealand, which (like Australia) offered a favorable environment, abundant feed, and an absence of predators.

Periods of peak interest in rabbit production have coincided with times of economic hardship or food scarcity, both of which have encouraged people to produce some of their own food. In the United States and Europe, such periods during the twentieth century have included the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II. A few rabbits kept in the backyard and fed weeds, grass, and other vegetation can provide a family with much inexpensive meat, and keeping them is practically trouble-free. Not only do they eat homegrown feeds, rabbits do not make noise and are easily housed in small hutches. When economic times improve, however, the interest in home production of food wanes, and those who ate rabbit meat under conditions of deprivation tend during better times to regard it as a “poor people’s food.”

Rabbits have a number of biological advantages when raised for meat production (Cheeke 1986, 1987).They experience rapid growth, reaching market weight at 8 to 10 weeks following birth. Their rate of reproduction is high: Theoretically, with immediate postpartum breeding, females (called does) can produce as many as 11 litters per year. And, as already noted, rabbits can be raised on fibrous feedstuffs, forages, and grain-milling by-products (such as wheat bran) and thus do not require high-quality feed grains.

Rabbit meat is a wholesome, tasty product. Compared to other common meats, it is high in protein and low in fat calories, cholesterol, and sodium (Table II.G.19.1)—properties that are related to the animals’ low-energy, high-fiber diets. Because they are not fed much in the way of grain, rabbits do not have excess energy (calories) to store as body fat.

Total world production of rabbit meat is estimated to be about 1 million tonnes per annum (Lukefahr and Cheeke 1991). On a per capita basis, the major rabbit-consuming nations are those already mentioned as leading producing countries—Malta, France, Italy, and Spain—where rabbit has traditionally been an important meat. But in spite of many attempts to develop rabbit production and consumption in other areas, such efforts have largely been unsuccessful, which is especially unfortunate in developing countries, where consumption of good-quality protein is generally low. Moreover, the diet that rabbits consume in no way places them in competition with humans for food. They can be raised in simple structures, and the carcass size is small, so that meat storage with refrigeration is unnecessary.

Nonetheless, despite numerous rabbit development programs in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, there are few if any examples of permanent success following their introduction into local farming systems, with a number of factors accounting for this lack of success. Rabbits are quite susceptible to heat stress, so their performance in tropical countries is poor. Their Mediterranean origin has best suited them for hot, arid climates (for example, northern Africa) rather than hot, humid areas (such as equatorial Africa). In addition, because of the tremendous problems with rabbits following their introduction into Australia, many countries are reluctant to promote rabbit production out of fear that they will encounter similar problems. Concern is also often expressed about zoonoses—diseases that might be transmitted from animals to humans. In the case of rabbits, this fear is especially acute because of the disease tularemia, which humans can acquire when handling wild rabbits. In fact, however, tularemia is not a significant hazard with domestic rabbits. Finally, there is the usual cultural resistance to a new source of meat. Although there are no religious taboos against eating rabbit meat, there is the common perception that the animals are “cute” or “warm and fuzzy,” which initiates an aversion in many people to rabbit consumption.

Another problem with disease has to do with myxomatosis. In Britain as well as in Australia, the hunting of wild rabbits and their sale in butcher shops was formerly widespread. But then, in both countries, the need to control the animals led to the introduction of myxomatosis, which is a devastating viral disease causing grotesque facial lesions and swelling, oral bleeding, and a generally distressing appearance. The sight of large numbers of wild rabbits dying with these symptoms hardly whets the appetite for rabbit meat, and needless to say, the traditional marketing and consumption of this meat in countries where myxomatosis was introduced has fallen drastically.

The principal U.S. market for rabbit meat is gourmet restaurants, where it is served as a traditional French specialty. In addition, ethnic markets patronized by European immigrants of French and Italian origin also are significant in large metropolitan areas, especially on the East and West coasts.

By way of conclusion, rabbit production is significant in several Mediterranean countries, where the domestic rabbit originated and was particularly well suited for small-scale production on subsistence or peasant farms. Even in these countries, however, with the introduction of fast-food restaurants and more American-style eating, there is a definite trend of decreasing rabbit consumption, especially among young people, suggesting that the importance of the rabbit as a meat animal will continue to decline. In the United States, strong interest in animal rights and vegetarianism among young people probably means that backyard rabbit production, with home slaughter of the animals, is unlikely to have much appeal. A small rabbit industry, with the production of meat for specialty or gourmet restaurants, is likely the main future of rabbit production in most countries.