Adorable pets, cartoon heroes and an intractable environmental scourge: this is the story of the world’s most lovable pest.
Okay, we admit it: ‘rodent’ is a bit mean. While the rabbit was once a card-carrying member of the order Rodentia, it achieved such world-spanning success and biological diversity that, in 1912, it was re-categorised into its own section: the mighty Lagomorpha. (But ‘the world’s most lovable Lagomorph’ just doesn’t have the same ring, you know?)
The fossil record suggests that the first Lagomorphs emerged in Asia some forty million years ago, while much of the world still shared a common land bridge. Then, as now, the Lagomorphs were good breeders and better invaders, so when the continents split into their present configuration, they ended up with a footprint on every single one bar Australia, filling the world with more than forty different species of hare, rabbit and short-eared pika (the little-known inspiration for Pokemon’s Pikachu).
But the rabbit we know best, the European rabbit, is a more recent invention. It emerged around 4,000 years ago on the Iberian Peninsula, and it was sufficiently plentiful in the time of the early Roman Empire that it became one of the primary food sources for Caesar’s similarly plentiful armies. Indeed, the original name for the peninsula, Hispania, is Carthaginian for ‘land of the rabbits’. As conquest gave way to conquest, the rabbit travelled further and further around the world, soon infesting all of Europe as well as most of Asia and America. Australia held out the longest—but the rabbit arrived with the First Fleet in 1788 and, within a century, had spread over the entire continent.
The first record of rabbits being actively domesticated comes from a group of monks living in the Champagne region of France in the fifth century CE. The creatures remained a curiosity, if not also a plaything, of the monks for a few centuries until Europe experienced a continent-wide rabbit frenzy in the Middle Ages. Suddenly, these creatures became objects of fascination in the courts as well as food for the commoners, resulting in an explosion of new region-specific breeds. However, rabbits were still primarily sought-after for their meat and fur until well into the Victorian era, when rapid urbanisation and the rise of the middle class led to the rabbit becoming the pet du jour of those families cramming themselves into less than fifty square metres
of London real estate.
As the reality of life in the city grew ever more Dickensian, rabbits became symbols of a lost English countryside and dreams of childlike innocence. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was the end product of this new sentimentality, and its runaway success set the stage for the pet rabbit’s takeover of the 20th century. When governments in America and Britain encouraged citizens to breed rabbits for meat during the rationings of the two world wars, it resulted in a huge number of families keeping them as pets once hostilities had ceased.
These days, there are more than 300 different recognised breeds of domestic rabbit in the world, a testament to cuniculture’s rapid advance. In America, rabbits rank only behind dogs, cats and fish in terms of sheer popularity, having a place in more than 1.4 million households. The new cornucopia of rabbit-hood spans from the fluffed-up Angora to the velvety rex, from the shy Californian to the gregarious American, from the long-eared lops to the short-eared blanc de Hotot, and from the adorable one-kilogram Netherland dwarf to the slightly intimidating ten-kilogram Flemish giant.
By the way, this last breed achieved some notoriety in 2007 when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il imported six breeding pairs from a farmer in Germany in order to try and solve his country’s brutal famine. However, instead of creating a bounty for his people, Kim and his cronies reportedly ate them at his birthday banquet. While it’s perhaps delicious, we should say that the Flemish giant makes a better pet than it does a meal, offering a relaxed temperament, a dog-like personality and an instant conversation starter: “What in the living hell have you fed that rabbit?”
To an outsider, the appeal of the pet rabbit may seem elusive. Sure, they’re cute, but they’re basically non-responsive bundles of fur, right? Not according to those who know them best: the rabbit owners themselves. Talk to someone who’s lived with a rabbit and they’ll tell you that far from being an ineffectual hairball, the rabbit is a loving, easygoing and occasionally mischievous pet, capable of showing a deep affection for its owners as well as a playful side that can be great for kids. They are also, obviously, tremendously cute, a testament to our scientifically-proven attraction to small things with big eyes, large foreheads and short limbs (i.e., things that resemble babies).
Rabbits are, in general, low-maintenance pets, happy to look after themselves as long as they’ve got a space of their own and some high-quality hay to sleep on/eat. Especially the latter: they’ll eat their own body size in hay each day and will die within hours if starved of food. As an owner-to-be, one of your biggest questions will be whether you want the rabbit to live inside or outside. Inside rabbits will happily share the house with you but require a cage or a specific, walled-off area they can escape to, as well as a separate litter tray. Outside rabbits require a well-secured hutch to shelter in, along with an attached exercise run where they can burn off their excess energy.
The ideal set-up for a pet rabbit is as a bonded male-female pair—properly sterilised, obviously. Rabbits are most at ease when in a couple and will spend their days grooming, cuddling and frolicking together. They are, however, also capable of living by themselves, and will simply transfer some of that attention to their owners, so long as the owner is willing to show them plenty of attention back. Relaxed house rabbits will often poke owners with their nose to get attention, and they love being touched and groomed. Left to their own devices, pet rabbits will happily live for between eight and ten years.
The range of breeds available to the rabbit enthusiast these days is, as discussed, astronomical. Each has its own traits and eccentricities, so a bit of research beforehand won’t go astray. Some won’t handle the attentions of young children (e.g., Beveren, rex), while others require heaps of space (Belgian hare, French lop) or frequent grooming (Cashmere lop, Angora).
Irrespective of breed, it’s important to remember that rabbits evolved as prey, and those instincts still run strong. Making sharp noises and sudden movements can spook them, leading them to flee, fret or, in some cases, have a full-blown heart attack. For this reason, it’s important that rabbits always have a bolthole they can escape to, preferably a tunnel or dark space that only they have access to.
Also, contrary to popular belief, rabbits loathe being picked up and carried. They’ve evolved to stick very close to, if not underneath, the ground, and suddenly finding themselves a couple of feet off the earth can lead to unnecessary stress and injury. This also means no cuddling, unless both of you are on the same level. Respect this rule and your bunny will be purring in your lap in no time.
PETS OR PEST?
Look, there’s no denying it. Cute as it may be, the European rabbit has been an ecological catastrophe for much of the world. Capable of breeding rapidly and adapting to new diets and climates, rabbits are almost impossible to dislodge once they’ve gained a foothold in any given ecosystem, and they are potentially the first invasive species propagated by humans. The earliest record of rabbits arriving somewhere and really screwing things up comes from the first century BC: the Romans released some on the Balearic Islands and the creatures caused a catastrophic famine because they chewed through the year’s crops.
While all areas to which the rabbit has been introduced have suffered significant losses to their biodiversity, perhaps nowhere has been as adversely affected as Australia itself. While rabbits had been in Australia since 1788, it’s thought that the modern infestation was actually the work of a man named Thomas Austin, who, in 1859, released a set of twenty-four rabbits onto his property in Winchelsea, Victoria, so that he might spend his weekends hunting them.
To say the situation quickly got out of hand would be an understatement. Within a decade, more than two million rabbits were being killed each year without any impact on their numbers. By most accounts, it’s the fastest recorded spread of any mammal in history. The milder Australian winter proved a boon, allowing the rabbits to breed all year round—and with each litter containing up to seven kittens (the technical term for a baby rabbit), and these litters coming at thirty-day intervals, the stage was set for a
a mass takeover of the country.
These days, the European rabbit is considered one of the leading causes of both plant and animal species loss in Australia. It’s also a major contributor to our soil erosion epidemic and an ongoing threat to our agriculture industry, with an estimated annual cost of more than $250 million. Finding methods to combat the menace has been a major pastime in Australia since the late 1800s, ranging from large-scale warren destruction through to finely tuned biological warfare; the deliberate use of myxomatosis and the calicivirus as a means of culling the rabbit population are both Australian innovations. (Side note: if you do own a pet rabbit, make sure that its vaccinations for both viruses are up to date. The government released a new strain of calicivirus in 2017, and instances of pet rabbits contracting the disease are mounting.)
It’s hard to blame the pet rabbit for the sins of its wild cousins. A well-bred and ethically sourced, neutered rabbit has very little in common with the creatures running rampant across our landscape. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that a rabbit is actually a comparatively eco-friendly pet choice. Given its vegetarian diet, rabbits produce a much smaller ecological footprint than dogs or cats, not even taking into account the latter’s insatiable appetite for native birdlife. So, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the humble Lagomorph. Have we mentioned how freaking adorable they are?
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