Ethical Eating and Rabbits

Once upon a time (okay, so like two weeks ago), I traveled north to learn about rabbits.  My effort to more fully understand and recognize the consequences of my choices conveniently coincided with a rabbit processing class organized by Annette @ Sustainable Eats. One of the easiest to raise and most sustainable meat options, rabbits are more or less the urban or suburban homesteader’s dream.  They are easy to raise, and can be humanely kept in a backyard.  They are also easy to process quickly and humanely with – let’s face it – minimal mess (no feathers is what I’m getting at here).  Because they are so easy to process, they’re a good animal for a beginner to start with.

I’m not going to lie to you.  This was hard for me.  At first it was hard, then it got harder, then I did it, and it felt easier.  But over the last week I have found myself intermittently unsettled by my rabbit experience.  I imagined that processing my own rabbit – or failing to process my own rabbit – would be the final piece of the puzzle for me.  If I could do it, it would confirm my conclusion: it is ethical to eat meat that is locally sourced, sustainably raised, and humanely and compassionately handled and killed.  If I could not kill this rabbit, then as far as I was concerned, I’d have no business eating meat at all.  Back to being a vegetarian.

Why is it that just when you think you’ve reached some degree of peace within yourself, something comes and messes it all up?  Something like a rabbit processing class in a backyard in Seattle.  And why is all of this so freaking complicated?

People Need To Eat

People need to eat.  I get that.  All creatures need to eat.  Humans are naturally omnivorous, and while it is certainly possible to be vegetarian or vegan, neither has proven to be a healthy solution for me on a long-term basis.  It just didn’t go well, even when I was careful and meticulous about it.  I have pretty much resigned myself to eating some amount of animal products, but sourcing them as sustainably and humanely as possible.

But since the class, I’ve been seriously questioning the ethics behind raising domestic livestock for human consumption.  And I hate that, because 1) I really like meat, 2) these are complex doubts, and 3) it’s downright inconvenient to be questioning these things.

broiler chickensPhoto CC:

In retrospect, I sort of saw this coming.  The other day when I visited my CSA farm and saw the Cornish Cross chickens hanging out with the laying hens, pastured in a chicken tractor.  But they were kind of just lying there.  No, not kind of.  They really were just lying there.  Eating and lying around, like a couch potato, reality TV watching, junk food eating version of real chickens.  A thought flickered past me that maybe, just maybe, the very act of breeding animals like these was inhumane.  I quickly pushed it aside but it never completely went away.

So what about wild meat?  I have eaten venison.  In fact, during my most recent bout of vegetarianism, I made an exception for some venison stew.  (I recently read somewhere that it is easier to tell someone that you are a vegetarian than it is to explain to them that you eat meat, just not their kind of meat.  I guess that’s the kind of “vegetarianism” I was practicing this last time.)  This deer was shot by a friend, killed quickly and humanely.  The bread bowls were baked from scratch.  It was real food to the very core.  I don’t remember having any qualms about eating this venison.  But I also didn’t kill the deer myself.  Perhaps that is the difference?

A Fighting Chance

I don’t think the difference is that I killed the rabbit and not the deer, but I won’t know for sure unless I go hunting myself.  That may very well be the next step for me.  (Anyone mind if I tag along on a hunting trip?)  But I think it has more to do with the fact that the deer had a life outside of feeding my needs.  And the deer had a fighting chance.  The rabbits (and the chickens) were conceived, born, and raised to be eaten.  Their whole existence revolves around becoming food or being reserved for breeding to create more food.  And while I am almost positive that the rabbits did not understand what was about to happen to them, even if they had, they would not have had a chance.  They were victims, ultimately vulnerable and powerless.  And that has been bothering me.  Not the cost of a life.  I think I am ultimately okay with that.  But the lack of risk on my part and the lack of a chance on behalf of my “prey” bothers me.

In case any of you are interested in details about the rabbits, Annette has written a post about the class and what it means to process your own rabbit.  If you don’t want the details, I’d still encourage you to jump down to the last four paragraphs and the ensuing discussion in the comments.  It has been interesting to see that even people who understand, are conscious and actively care about these issues struggle with this kind of food.  I actually killed not one, but two rabbits.  The first I kept, and the second went my lovely neighbors – gardeners, real foodies, fellow CSA members, and kindred spirits in so many ways.  It was hard, they said, eating this rabbit and knowing where it came from.  I know how they feel, even though I don’t entirely understand why we feel this way.  It seems like it should be the other way around.

I haven’t eaten my rabbit yet.  While it was a shame to freeze what was undoubtedly the freshest meat I have ever seen, it feels shamefully decadent to eat an entire rabbit by myself, even over a period of several days.  I’d end up freezing it anyways, so into the freezer it went.  I just hope DH won’t be too perturbed by where it came from to help me eat it when he returns.

21 Responses to Ethical Eating and Rabbits
  1. Sustainable Eats
    June 18, 2010 | 2:47 pm

    Jess I’m having a hard time with the chicken tractor thing too. I had already paid for a chicken package for 2010 for us but that may be the last one. I completely get this. I really struggled with the pig and that prepared me for the rabbit. I’m ok with raising meat for consumption so long as the animals live a decent life. After reflecting more about the rabbits I’ve come to the conclusion that those cages are not a decent life. I’m now back to eating pastured, roaming meat such as lamb and beef just like people have for millenia. But I’ll be eating less of it than we have and we’ll be eating more legumes and eggs and dairy to compensate.

    I hope you are feeling better!

    • Jess
      June 20, 2010 | 1:33 pm

      Thank you! I’m much improved – nice to not feel quite so useless any more.

      I think I agree with you on the rabbits. Were it possible to pasture them, that would be different, but I don’t feel like I could purposely breed a creature to live in a cage for eight weeks and then process it for food. It just doesn’t sit well with me.

      Thanks so much for arranging this for us! It turned out to be a really… essential experience for me.

  2. NorCal Cazadora
    June 18, 2010 | 3:44 pm

    Nicely done post (I came here via Twitter from Tovar Cerulli). I think these are questions that all conscientious eaters face, whether vegetarian or not.

    I grew up in a family that raised animals for food (rabbits, chickens, pigs and goats), then became an adult consumer of factory-farmed junk, then became a hunter who now gets most of her meat from hunting, supplemented a little bit by pastured animals.

    What I’ve concluded at this point is we meat eaters have a choice: We can eat domestic animals that don’t have any chance of survival or freedom, but that are afforded a very quick and merciful death. Or we can eat wild game that lived exactly the life it was supposed to live, and may have suffered a less-than-instantaneous death. I’ve decided I’m comfortable with both, provided I’m happy with the domestic animals’ treatment.

    Cornish cross, though? Birds bred to be so big-breasted that they can’t walk? Not interested in raising them.

    And rabbits? I can’t bring myself to raise them again because you can’t pasture a burrowing animal, and cages are not a good life – they’re restrictive, and the animals get sores on their feet way to easily. At least chickens can walk around and be counted on to return to the roost at night.

    And by the way, having been a hunter for four years now, I still feel pangs when I kill – nothing can make it pretty, and if you’re a really thoughtful person, those pangs may never go away.

    • Jess
      June 20, 2010 | 1:13 pm

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment!

      It is interesting to hear the hunting perspective from someone who does it from a similar perspective. I hadn’t thought about the less-than-instantaneous death factor, as I have never hunted and have no real experience with that.

      I agree with you on both the Cornish Cross chickens and the rabbits. The more I consider the kind of life I would want a rabbit to have, the less appropriate it feels to raise meat rabbits in cages.

  3. Tovar
    June 18, 2010 | 7:12 pm

    What Holly (NorCal Cazadora) said.

    I’d hoped to get here earlier to leave a comment, Jess. As I think you know, I was a vegetarian for a long time, a vegan for most of that time. After I returned to eating flesh foods, I, like you, wanted to confront that.

    I don’t kill the domestic meat animals I eat (mostly poultry), which are raised locally, some of them by fellow ex-vegetarians.

    I have killed a few deer. I feel good about how those animals lived. And I feel good about succeeding in making their deaths very swift. But, as Holly said, the deep pang is still there: not guilt, but a deep feeling of another kind. Grief, perhaps.

  4. Tovar
    June 18, 2010 | 7:27 pm

    P.S. Though uncomfortable, the direct confrontation is, I think, important. When buying meat, it’s so easy to dissociate from the killing of the animal. That dissociation is exactly what some folks want. (I did a blog post on rabbits this winter, based on a story told to me by one of my ex-vegetarian friends who raises meat animals: a customer shied away from stopping by for some meat when he realized that the rabbit was still alive and would be killed specifically for him.)

    As I realized late in my vegetarian years, when buying vegetables and grains it’s also easy to dissociate from–or not know about, or pretend not to know about–the impacts of crop production on land, water, and animals. Such confrontation would be good (and humbling) for a lot of vegetarians. It was for me.

    • Jess
      June 20, 2010 | 1:20 pm

      Yes! Thank you for pointing that out. I think it is so easy to forget that there is a very real and, in many cases, high cost to our vegetables and grains. Perhaps it’s a dissociation similar to that which we experience with commercial meat.

      And would you mind sharing the link to your rabbit post? It is so interesting how we respond to that…nearness of responsibility for our actions.

      And I agree with you – I think it is grief. And what Holly said makes sense – if you are a thoughtful person, that pang of grief will forever be part of taking a life.

      • Tovar
        June 20, 2010 | 1:26 pm

        Hey, Jess, thanks for the follow-up. I so prefer blogs where authors take the time to engage with and respond to folks who comment!

        Here’s a link to that rabbit post:

        • Jess
          June 20, 2010 | 2:06 pm

          My pleasure! I feel so lucky to have such a thoughtful and insightful group of people taking the time to post comments :) .

          And thanks so much for the link to the post – both yours and the post of Holly’s about the duck hunting photos. Our cultural weirdness is so bizarre and fascinating!

  5. Good indoor rabbit hutch? Please read!?
    June 19, 2010 | 4:51 am

    [...] Ethical Eating and Rabbits | Openly Balanced [...]

  6. Rabbit Industry Council, Director
    June 19, 2010 | 8:55 am

    I want to inject myself into this conversation as a rabbit-raising professional, and perhaps clear up some misconceptions.

    I’ve raised rabbits for almost 30 years. I’ve had them on the ground (‘cage free’ or ‘colony’) and off (cage raised).

    IF the cages are well-designed and built, AND the rabbits are selected for health rather than sentiment, there are rarely if ever any foot issues. A good cage contains a happy rabbit sprawled out snoozing, or dancing around doing little heel kicks. No, it’s not the wild–but they’re actually much safer, healthier, and I think content.

    Colony raising is not the idyllic life one might think. Rabbits fight over territory; disease can linger in the ground; and predators just love the idea. On the other hand, a well-managed semi-colony setup *can* be made to work, but your costs are higher and risk to the rabbits is still far higher than a caged setup.

    The average ‘colony’ usually turns out to be a disaster in short order. Poor husbandry is very common. You cannot simply enclose an area and expect the rabbits to thrive–they won’t.

    If the owner isn’t willing to put the work into keeping their chosen setup clean and maintained, they shouldn’t be raising at all.

    A quick note on Cornish crosses–it’s not inhumane to breed such animals (although it does seem like overkill)–when they become overage/overweight is when it becomes inhumane not to slaughter them.

    Slaughter is never, ever easy, nor should it be. Shooting a free animal seems more sporting, more ‘humane’ to us because it’s not hands-on. When a rabbit or any animal is meant for food, it is our obligation to ensure that it leads the best life we can offer it–caged or colony–and that it dies swiftly and humanely when its time comes.

    Laying your hands on a living creature to end its life is incredibly intimate. Its heartbeat, its breathing, its weight and warmth lies in your hands, and your purpose is to make it all stop.

    Did you know that most people who butcher their own animals, either apologize or pray for them when the time comes? I know I do, and others have said the same.

    In other words, it’s normal to feel awful about putting an end to a life, especially one you’ve raised.

    The feeling continues as you store, prepare, and consume the animal, and there’s no shame in that. It shows that you have respect for the magnitude of the actions required for us to live knowing our food.

    If killing ever becomes a pleasure, something is very, very wrong.

    • Sustainable Eats
      June 19, 2010 | 1:13 pm

      Hi RICD – I’d love if you could copy & post this same comment on my blog entry as well. It’s great to read all the various sides of this argument. I love NorCal and Tovar’s comments as well.

    • Jess
      June 20, 2010 | 1:41 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment. It is wonderful to hear from someone with this level of knowledge about rabbit raising in particular.

      The farmer running the class for us told us a bit about the disease risk involved with colony raising, as it is one of the reasons he chooses to raise in cages. He didn’t mention the territorial and behavioral downsides of the colony, but that makes sense – rabbits will be rabbits, and act accordingly.

      My thought on Cornish Cross is similar to my thought on pugs (no offense, pug owners!) and other brachiocephalic breeds of dogs, etc. It does not seem humane to me to breed an animal for traits that will make it physiologically unsound, prone to severe health problems and incapable of living a comfortable (full) life, no matter how cute or advantageous we find those traits. However, I agree with you about allowing Cornish hens to develop overage/overweight issues – that is a whole other level of cruelty.

      I love your words on intimacy – what a poignant way to describe the depth of the full experience. Even fuller, I would imagine, for those who raise the animals themselves. And absolutely on the prayer/thankfulness/apology – I can’t imagine ever being able to do it any other way.

  7. NorCal Cazadora
    June 19, 2010 | 8:12 pm

    RICD, all good comments. But I’m still not sure it’s for me. Hunting has changed my view of everything – the way I see it now, before hunting, I was not much better off than an animal in a cage myself, waiting for food to come to me (though unlike domestic meat animals, I have to work harder for it because it cost me money). Now that I know a life of ranging free to get my food, I want my domestic animals to have the same chance. I’m totally fine with pastured domestic animals, and if I could effectively pasture rabbits, I would do that. Rabbit is yummy, for sure.

    • Rabbit Industry Council, Director
      June 19, 2010 | 10:29 pm

      The nice thing about obtaining/choosing one’s own foodsource is that yours doesn’t have to be mine, and vice versa. :)

      • Jess
        June 20, 2010 | 1:50 pm

        It’s incredible to me how personal, individual, and emotional food is.

  8. Rachel Wilmoth
    June 19, 2010 | 10:02 pm

    @ RICD “If killing ever becomes a pleasure, something is very, very wrong.”

    I certainly don’t disagree with you on that point. My question is, what about when killing becomes mundane? I would imagine that for many of those who work on feedlots and slaughterhouses, they don’t get any sort of perverse pleasure of killing animals, but I wonder if those feelings of guilt/sorrow/awfulness/what-have-you have been replaced with indifference due to the nature of factory farming. As time goes on at the job, does the animal stop being a living, breathing creature, and instead, merely another part to move down the line, due to the nature of corporatized agriculture? These aren’t rhetorical questions–I’m genuinely curious if this happens.

    • Rabbit Industry Council, Director
      June 19, 2010 | 10:25 pm

      I think there is much out there in the way of research which shows that humans can become accustomed, even comfortable, in almost any circumstance.

      Yes, I think it is possible for those who kill as a job to become casual, even calloused–not out of heartlessness, but out of necessity to remain sane. If you cannot achieve a certain degree of separation from what you do, you will simply go insane–or not be able to do your job effectively enough to keep the job.

      Just as a pediatric nurse must be able to work with screaming, painful infants; just as a vet tech must be able to deal with the emotional trauma of euthanasia; just as almost anyone in an emotionally wearing job becomes either calloused or crazy, we adapt. Black humor. Blowing off steam by risky behavior such as drinking, drugs, etc. And yes, sometimes, stress can manifest in anger or even abusive acts against animals or humans–who or whatever is in the way at the time.

      I do not feel that it is because of the nature of factory farming; you can get the same kind of emotional response working a small home herd, and for some people, it only takes one or two animals for killing to become either unbearable or boring. Most feel the impact with every animal but have managed to get a balance between the two extremes–this, I feel, is the most common position.

      Hope that helps…

    • Jess
      June 20, 2010 | 1:55 pm

      I would agree with the D of RIC that it is certainly possible to become accustomed out of adaptive necessity. The people who are able to hold these jobs for long periods of time can do so because they adapt. I don’t know if I personally would be able to do it, but if I felt it was my only choice to provide for myself and my family, who knows?

      It is interesting to know that the same thing happens with a small herd though. I guess that makes sense – you have to find a balance no matter the scale.

      I would be very interested to know if repetitive killing results in some actual neurological changes in how the brain processes grief or if people working in a slaughterhouse facility develop any level of PTSD surrounding killing, suffering, and death. It seems like that might be the case, particularly in situations where the killing and handling process are not designed to minimize the animal’s suffering.

  9. Megan
    June 20, 2010 | 7:01 pm

    Thank you for opening this discussion.
    It was difficult for me to eat the rabbit, because of what it must have cost you to kill it. It made the dinner more valuable, precious.
    I feel that way often now that I am more connected with my food sources. I know the farmers who pray for sun and labor daily to grow my vegetables. I’ve met the bakers who bake my baguettes. I’ve spoken to the butcher about how to cook my pastured beef. Food is worth more now.
    The other day I sat down to pray before I ate my lunch and realized that I was no longer praying an obligatory prayer. I was overwhelmed with thankfulness for my food.

    Breeding animals for food seems almost necessary these days. The skills of hunting and gathering are nearly lost in the modern day US. I think that is why it is so important to have a relationship with the farmers and breeders. You have to be able to trust them like you trust a doctor or a teacher to do the job you are asking them to do. They know animals and should care for them enough to act if the animals are stressed- if the chickens are pecking at each other or themselves for example. It is hard to let go, but until I can run my own farm, it is my only option.

  10. Why I Feed My Pets Raw | Openly Balanced
    June 25, 2010 | 12:31 pm

    [...] starting points for me was my pets.  (Incidentally, they were also part of what motivated me to learn to process rabbits.)  While I was still living off a diet largely composed of takeout and fast food, my dogs and cats [...]

Leave a Reply

Wanting to leave an <em>phasis on your comment?

CommentLuv badge

 Get 7 Days of Conscious Living, FREE! 

Trackback URL