“You might,” she says, “call the 4H club.”
According to statistics, says Margo DeMello, rabbits are the third-most euthanized animals in shelters across the country. Raised in Poway, DeMello is an anthropologist/author now based in New Mexico. She’s also the president and executive director of the House Rabbit Society, a nonprofit founded in 1988 that is dedicated to rescuing abandoned rabbits and educating the public about rabbit care. DeMello says that, each year (not counting humane societies or animal shelters), thousands of unwanted rabbits funnel into 30 chapters across the country and into satellite locations in locales as far-flung as Italy and Japan. When we talk by phone, she points out that, while shelter dogs and cats get the lion’s share of publicity, rabbits are the most exploited of all companion pets.
“They are eaten, slaughtered for their fur, and used in experiments,” she says. If you add the word “hunted” to this list, here in San Diego County rabbits are subject to all of the above.
Rabbit-hunting season opens in our backcountry in July; it ends on the last Sunday in January. According to the Natural History Museum checklist of mammals in San Diego County, we have three types of wild rabbits: the desert cottontail, the black-tailed jackrabbit (a type of hare), and the brush rabbit. All are genetically distinct from the strain of European hares we breed for meat, or for pets, or for show.
For non-hunters, fully dressed rabbit meat is available for sale at retail butchers, such as Iowa Meat Farms in Grantville and at Siesel’s Old Fashioned Meats. Rabbit skewers have been offered at the Tractor Room in Hillcrest; ditto for rabbit taquitos at El Take It Easy. But diners at North Park’s Linkery did without rabbit in October due to a late-summer heat wave that affected production at Taj Farms in Valley Center, their rabbit-meat supplier.
Kevin Whaley says that, in the 1970s, San Diego was considered to be number one in the country for rabbit-meat production. Whaley has been building cages for rabbit keepers (among other small-animal enthusiasts) for decades, at his Santee-based KW Cages. KW is featured in an upcoming documentary about the world of show rabbits, titled Rabbit Fever.
Over a quarter-million rabbits are used in laboratories across the country each year, says PETA, as living tests for products and medications. For example, in 2004, researchers at UC San Diego induced strokes in their lab rabbits in an attempt to study the effects of a compound thought to have potential for human stroke victims.
PETA also says that, each year, over a billion rabbits are slaughtered around the world to supply the fur industry. On Black Friday 2012, a local group calling themselves the IDA Fur Free Friday Event marched in Fashion Valley to protest the sale of animal-fur garments, items such as the rabbit vests sold at Nordstrom.
Finally, consider the rabbit’s role as cultural icon, from Bugs Bunny to Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Bunnies to the wearing of a mummified rabbit’s foot as a good-luck token and fairy tales that use the rabbit as a sort-of moral compass. In 1901, a British illustrator named Beatrix Potter wrote and published The Tale of Peter Rabbit, based in part on her own pet bunnies. It became one of the best-selling books of all time. The origin of that most famous of mismatches, Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare,” a children’s classic, dates back to pre-biblical Greece. The Easter Bunny is another thing entirely.
In spring, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus along with the annual return of a rabbit figure with magical properties. In turn, some rabbit breeders ramp up springtime production because baby bunnies at Easter are to the retail pet industry what red roses are to florists on Valentine’s Day: dollar signs. Most of the rabbit advocates I spoke with for this story pointed to Easter as a prime source of eventually unwanted rabbits.
“Easter bunnies grow up,” says Shelly, a San Diego House Rabbit Society volunteer. She prefers not to publish her last name and is private about the number of rabbits she currently fosters for fear of running afoul of zoning regulations in her Spring Valley neighborhood. “When Easter bunnies grow up, they get dumped,” she says.
This is a fact of pet-bunny life that the San Diego Humane Society knows all too well, even going so far as to build a slogan-based campaign intended to dissuade the gifting of baby rabbits at Easter: “Make mine chocolate.”
My calls and emails to three area pet-rabbit breeders were not returned.
“I know whose barn your rabbit came out of,” says Paulette Sauln, the 4H county council president for San Diego. “I’m a volunteer,” she explains. “In the past, I’ve run the small-animal program.” That involves training new 4H club members in leadership and things like showmanship qualities.
She is familiar with my rabbit’s odious ear marking. The animal, she says, was bred by a 4H member in Jamul. “Then it was sold to an El Capitan high-school student. I don’t know the name of the person.” Sauln says she could probably find out if I’m interested. The El Cap student was in an agriculture class and belonged to an organization called the Future Farmers of America. Stoopid, it turns out, was part of a class requirement.
“The rabbit was shown at the Del Mar Fair in 2011 by the student. It was tattooed on the day of the show.” An ID tattoo inside an ear is a condition of showing a rabbit at the fair. “And then,” she says, “it was dumped.”
Dumped? Yes, Sauln says. Dumped. Turned loose to fend for itself. It’s a fairly common solution among students who no longer need a classroom animal or know what to do with it in that circumstance. “I’m pretty sure it was a case of a graduate going off to college.”
Are there best intentions involved — as in, possibly thinking that the domestic rabbit will enjoy living with its wild cousins?