BUNNYMANIA

by Margo DeMello

 Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology

Rabbits have been important cultural symbols in the myths, folklore, art, and literature of people around the world. In a variety of cultures rabbits have been linked to sexuality, female sexuality and fertility in particular, and were often cited in love spells, as aphrodisiacs, and to aid in women’s fertility.  In eastern cultures as well as in Meso-America, ancient Europe, the Arab cultures, and throughout Africa the rabbit is also linked to the moon, which itself is linked to fertility and childbearing, with lunar goddesses commonly represented with, or dressed as, a rabbit or hare.  Thanks to the rabbit's fertility, rabbits are also used in myths and rituals to signify rebirth, which explains the rabbit's role as a symbol of Easter.

With the advent of Christianity, rabbits lost their sacred associations in the Western world and because of their links to sexuality and to pagan rituals were often demonized, becoming a common witch's familiar in Medieval Europe. Women who were accused of witchcraft, in fact, were often “seen” in the guise of rabbits, leading to court trials and executions.  

Rabbits are also found in the folklore and mythology of people in other areas of the world, and especially among societies such as those in Africa and pre-colonial America. Rabbits play a part in the explanatory tales of many African and Native American peoples, and in the “Just So” stories maintained by enslaved Africans. These stories are used to teach important moral lessons to children, imparting positive values such as humility, bravery, humor, and the value of quick wits over size and strength. 

Representations of rabbits are still found in contemporary society, although largely stripped of their ancient symbolic meanings.  One of the most common ways that humans relate to rabbits today is not through real rabbits. Rather, the enormous variety of rabbit-themed household kitsch – kitchenware, calendars, garden ornaments, figurines, clothing – testifies to the importance of rabbit imagery in modern society, particularly to women, recalling the pre-Christian link between rabbits and women (a link also seen in the modern Playboy bunny).

Images of rabbits are also found in great abundance in the lives of children, in their literature, on their clothing, on their toys, and in the décor of their rooms. Rabbits seem to be (to those who have never lived with one) soft, sweet, childish and cuddly, making them obvious choices to inhabit a child's world.  But the point can also be made that representations of rabbits are commonly found among children because of their ancient associations with fertility and childbearing. 

Some of the most popular literary renditions of rabbits have been inspired by real rabbits. For example, Beatrix Potter, late nineteenth century author and artist of the Peter Rabbit series of children's books, based her characters on her own pet rabbits, Benjamin and Peter.  Richard Adams, author of the classic book Watership Down, on the other hand, based his realistic portrayal of rabbits on naturalist Ronald Lockley’s The Private Life of Rabbits. Watership Down, a tale of a group of rabbits forced to find a new warren when developers destroy their home.  (Unlike Beatrix Potter, Adams was no rabbit lover, advocating the killing of rabbits when necessary.)

In Japanese, the term “kawaii” ( かわいい) means cuteness, and is generally used to refer to popular culture, including people who gain their attractiveness from their childish traits, their fashions, and animal cartoon characters like Hello Kitty, Domo-kun, and Totoro. Some animals are only “kawaii” if they are small, juvenile, or dressed up and/or doing something silly. Rabbits are kawaii all of the time, thanks to the retention of juvenile traits (big ears and eyes, soft cuddly bodies, soft fluffy tails) in adult (and especially dwarf) rabbits.

 

Living with Rabbits

 

Rabbits were originally domesticated by French monks for food about 1500 years ago—long after the dog (15,000 years ago) and the major livestock animals (about 7,000 years ago), but had been hunted for food and for fur for thousands of years before this time.  In fact, rabbits were not seen as anything but an economic resource until as late as the eighteenth century, when the notion of pet rabbits first slowly emerged. Even then, rabbits remained primarily a source of food and fur, and later, medical information. Even though rabbits being raised for food were most certainly kept as pets by farmers' wives and children for centuries, as well as by hunters and gatherers who kept some game animals as pets, the idea of defining rabbits as pets—rather than as strictly food or fur animals— did not gain widespread acceptance until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the fancy breeds were developed. The development of the rabbit as pet coincided, not coincidentally, with the rise of the commercial pet industry and the idea that keeping pets could instill positive values and behaviors in children; rabbits, thanks to their long practical and symbolic association with women and children, became the ultimate “children's pet.”

For at least two hundred years, pet rabbits have been most commonly kept as outdoor pets, living in isolation in wooden and wire hutches, with little protection from the elements, and little to no companionship or comfort. These rabbits were typically fed and watered once a day, and occasionally taken out by the children to play, thus the human-rabbit relationship was hampered and defined by the lack of sustained, intimate contact between human and rabbit. As a result, rabbits, their personality, culture and psychology, remained virtually unknown outside of their storybook representations.

This situation began to change in 1985 with the publication of Marinell Harriman's House Rabbit Handbook, the first ever book on living with a “house rabbit,” a term coined by Harriman and now a common expression to refer to rabbits who live in the home, with a human family. Written to honor the memory of Herman, a stray rabbit who found her way into Harriman's backyard and then home, the book inspired tens of thousands of people to adopt rabbits as house pets, and inspired Harriman to found House Rabbit Society (HRS), the first and only international rabbit advocacy group of its kind. 

In the twenty-five years since the first edition of the Handbook was released, the idea that rabbits could be treated on the same level as dogs or cats--that they could live indoors as part of a human family, that they could receive veterinary care, that they could be spayed or neutered and live with companions of their own species--has gone from being laughable to being almost commonplace.

Thanks to the Handbook and House Rabbit Society, tens of thousands of people who now live with house rabbits have taken the rabbit-human relationship to an entirely new level. Rabbits don't just share our homes--they occupy an enormous part of our lives, and have influenced the creation of an entirely new cottage industry that is dedicated not to the selling of rabbits, but to providing for the needs of the house rabbit, from rabbit toy makers to specialized food and hay producers to rabbit condominium manufacturers to healthy snack companies. Humans now serve rabbits, not the other way around.

Not only have tens of thousands of domesticated rabbits enjoyed the benefits of their new status as “house rabbits,” and their guardians likewise reap the benefits of developing intimate relationships with these intelligent, playful, curious, and willful animals, but we have begun to gain some entrée into the psyche of these once-inscrutable animals. Becoming a house rabbit not only changes one’s living conditions; it alters the way in which rabbits are perceived, and thus treated.  House Rabbit Society and the house rabbit movement have, in creating the concept of house rabbit, given rabbits some measure of personhood, and have changed rabbits from objects used as food or fur to subjects of a life.

Living with rabbits in the home—where they are underfoot in the kitchen, looking for snacks; where they watch television (as much as any companion animal watches television) with the family; where they wake up many a surprised person before dawn, with their demands for breakfast or snuggles—is intimate. While most rabbits do not sleep under the covers as, say, a Chihuahua, and they remain for the most part quite independent, house rabbits lead lives that are closely intertwined with the rest of the household members—human and non-human.

 

 

Cultural Icons

 

Rabbits have been important cultural symbols in the myths, folklore, art, and literature of people around the world. In a variety of cultures in the Old and New Worlds, rabbits have been linked to sexuality, and female sexuality and fertility and were often used in love spells, as aphrodisiacs, and to aid in women’s fertility.  In eastern cultures as well as in Meso-America, ancient Europe, the Arab cultures, and Africa, the rabbit is also linked to the moon, which itself is linked to fertility and childbearing, with lunar goddesses commonly represented with, or dressed as, a rabbit or hare.  Finally, thanks to the rabbit's fertility, rabbits are also used in myths and rituals to signify rebirth, which helps explain the rabbit's role in the symbols of Easter.

After the advent of Christianity, rabbits lost their sacred associations in the Christian world and because of their links to sexuality and to pagan rituals, were often demonized, becoming a common witch's familiar in Medieval Europe. Women who were accused of witchcraft, in fact, were often seen in the guise of rabbits, often leading to court trials and executions. 

Rabbits are also found in the folklore and mythology of people in other areas of the world, and especially among societies such as Africa and Native America, prior to colonization. Rabbits play a part in the "just so" stories or explanatory tales of many African and Native American peoples, and their stories are also used to teach important moral lessons to children, imparting positive values such as humility, bravery, humor, and the value of quick wits over size and strength.

Representations of rabbits are still found in contemporary society, although they are largely stripped of their ancient symbolic meanings.  For example, one of the most common ways that humans relate to rabbits today is not through real rabbits; rather, the enormous variety of rabbit-themed household kitsch--kitchenware, calendars, garden ornaments, figurines and clothing--testifies to the importance of rabbit imagery in modern society, particularly to women, recalling the pre-Christian link between rabbits and women (a link also seen in the modern Playboy bunny).

Images of rabbits are also found in great abundance in the lives of lives of children--in their literature, on their clothing, on their toys, and in the décor of their rooms. Rabbits seem to be (to those who have never lived with one) soft, sweet, childish and cuddly, making them obvious choices to inhabit a child's world.  But a point can also be made that representations of rabbits are commonly found among children because of their ancient associations with fertility and childbearing.

Some of the most popular literary renditions of rabbits have been inspired by real rabbits. For example, Beatrix Potter, nineteenth century author and artist of the Peter Rabbit series of children's books, based her characters on her own pet rabbits, Benjamin and Peter.  Richard Adams, author of the classic book Watership Down, on the other hand, based his realistic portrayal of rabbits on naturalist Ronald Lockley’s The Private Life of Rabbits. Watership Down, a tale of a group of rabbits forced to find a new warren when developers destroy their home.  Unlike Beatrix Potter, however, Adams was no rabbit lover, advocating the killing of rabbits when necessary.

 

 

Icons of Cuteness

 

In Japanese, the term “kawaii” ( かわい) means cuteness, and is generally used to refer to popular culture, fashion, people who gain their attractiveness from their childish traits, and animal cartoon characters like Hello Kitty, Domo-kun, and Totoro. Some animals are only “kawaii” if they are small, juvenile, or, perhaps, dressed up or doing something silly. Rabbits are one of those animals which are kawaii all of the time, thanks to the retention of juvenile traits (like big ears and eyes, soft cuddly bodies, and soft, fluffy tails) in adult (and especially dwarf) rabbits.

But even before the kawaii craze emerged in the 1980s in Japan, rabbits were already firmly associated with cuteness in the West. Rabbits have been long associated with women and children, both because women are most often tasked with raising rabbits and other small livestock and, since rabbits have become popular as pets, they have been considered “children’s pets,” but also because rabbits have been symbolically associated with fertility, female sexuality, and birth and rebirth for thousands of years.

Thanks to these associations, rabbits are one of the most popular animals to be found as children’s toys and in children’s literature in the West (as well as in many Asian countries). From Peter Rabbit to the Velveteen Rabbit to Oswald, Thumper, and the White Rabbit, rabbits have long been popular characters for children, and are often stand-ins for children in the fairy tales and literature of the young. Some of these characters, like Bugs Bunny, have ancient histories, as Bugs is simply the modern incarnation of Br’er Rabbit, who is himself a character in the Uncle Remus stories and is a reworking of the African and African-American slave narratives featuring a trickster rabbit.

It’s not just children, and young Japanese women, who think rabbits are cute and who collect things with their image on them. Adult women, too, have been buying and selling rabbit collectibles—bunny slippers, plush rabbits, baby clothes and toys, rabbit wind socks, rabbit weather vanes, rabbit lawn ornaments, rabbit cream pitchers, rabbit book ends, rabbit clocks, rabbit wind chimes, rabbit musical figurines, rabbit oven mitts, rabbit sweatshirts, rabbit aprons, rabbit earrings, rabbit dolls, rabbit stationery and much more—for years; in fact, coins, artwork, tapestries and other items featuring rabbits have been found that date back thousands of years. While some of these earlier pieces probably featured rabbits because of the rabbit’s symbolic importance, today’s toys, clothes, and collectibles are much more about cuteness, and are largely divorced from either the sacred history of the rabbit in religion or the “real” rabbit. These items, when collected by people with no real contact with rabbits, may not necessarily be good for real-life rabbits.

When humans’ only contact with a species is with its representations, those images become the only source of knowledge about that species, which means that our knowledge base can be very shaky. As Steve Baker notes in Picturing the Beast,

[M]uch of our understanding of human identity and our thinking about the living animal reflects—and may even be the rather direct result of—the diverse uses to which the concept of the animal is put in popular culture, regardless of how bizarre or banal some of these uses seem. Any understanding of the animal, and of what the animal means to us, will be informed by and inseparable from our knowledge of its cultural representation. Culture shapes our reading of animals just as much as animals shape our reading of culture. (Steve Baker, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001, 4).

 

In the case of rabbits, the dominant images produced by the collectibles culture are those associated with women and children. That is, the cute beings depicted in bunny collectibles belong in an idealized female, domestic realm, in which women, rabbits and children are innocent, sweet, passive and forever frozen in a juvenile state.

 

 

Seeing Rabbits

 

The fact that a species is unknown—as the rabbit is—means that we as humans can project all sorts of characteristics on the animals that would deem them unworthy of protection. We can even project a trait of blankness on them; that is, because we don’t understand the rabbit, we assume there is nothing to understand, that the rabbit is a creature with neither sentience nor subjectivity. And once we assume that, creating what in other species we would recognize as “suffering” becomes acceptable. 

Rabbits, prey animals who do not vocalize except in the most extreme of situations, are already voiceless. Because they have been, for most of their history with humans, raised for food and fur (and more recently, as laboratory tool), they have been effectively “disappeared:” removed from sight and kept in backyard cages (or in laboratories); they are considered passive and stupid; and they are silenced—through our ignorance and their lack of voice. 

Rabbits are not pandas; that is, they are not one of the charismatic megafauna to which much of the world pays so much attention. Instead, they are small, quiet animals who have been, for 3,000 years, raised in backyards around the world for people’s pleasure, and kept out of sight, rarely included in animal cruelty legislation that protects either pet or livestock.

Rabbit lovers and advocates must then go out of their way to really see rabbits. In order to understand, and meet the needs of, these long-misunderstood and mistreated creatures, we need to become attuned to rabbits’ body language—the meaning behind the thumps, ear swivels, tail shakes and nose twitches. We must be willing to see them for what they are, and to meet their needs, even when those needs—for freedom, for autonomy, for equality—sometimes conflict our own desires. Seeing the “real rabbit,” in all of his or her messiness, rather than a cultural representation of the rabbit, or a social construction of the rabbit, allows us to accommodate these still-partly-wild animals into our lives in a way that allows them to retain a sense of agency in their daily activities. It involves compromising on where to put the litterboxes, providing large and messy toys throughout the house, and having a living room or bedroom strewn with hay. Ultimately, it requires trying to understand how rabbits see the world and a willingness to take up their culture as part of our own.

 

 

Sentient Beings

 

Unless you live with a rabbit, chances are your understanding of rabbits comes from seeing their representations alone. As we have noted, this alone is not an adequate way to get a sense of who rabbits really are.

If we look at the history of the human-rabbit relationship, we will see that the history of rabbits in human society is a history in which rabbits have been worshipped, sacrificed, hunted, eaten, farmed, experimented upon, and, in recent years, cherished.  Few other animals are simultaneously beloved and exploited as rabbits are, which tells us much about the importance of rabbits in human societies and even more about the treatment of animals by humanity. But it still doesn’t tell us much about rabbits themselves.

One reason that we still know so little about rabbits comes from their relatively limited portrayal in popular culture. The other reason is that rabbits still are not considered as smart, emotional or interesting as other pets, like dogs or cats. That is, most people don’t acknowledge suffering in rabbits because we don’t understand who rabbits are—what gives them pleasure, what gives them pain, of what they are capable, what frightens them, what makes them feel secure and just how deeply the human-rabbit bond can go.

This lack of knowledge is partly because most caged rabbits, like most caged creatures, don’t show a lot of personality, so they are considered both stupid and boring. Karen Davis aptly shows the error in this thinking, however, in describing a similar prejudice against poultry:

Rather than showing that chickens and turkeys are stupid, the fact that they become lethargic in continuously unstimulating commercial environments shows how sensitive these birds are to their surroundings, deprivation, and prospects. Learned helplessness, which may as well be referred to as “learned hopelessness,” is a pathologic adaptation to pathogenic living conditions from which they cannot escape…(Karen Davis, More than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual and Reality, New York: Lantern Books, 2001), p 67.)

 

Since the Victorian period, rabbits have also been associated with children. This has made rabbits seem like childish animals that are not to be taken seriously. But rabbits have also been associated with women for thousands of years.

Today, women tend, in general, to be more involved with all animals than are men. Women are more likely than men to have companion animals; women make up the majority of donors to animal protection organizations (although women take a backseat when it comes to leadership within the movement); women make up the majority of vegetarians and are thought by many to have a greater empathy for animals and interest in animal issues. This gender pattern is especially clear in the rabbit world, where women dominate the show breeding and rabbit rescue communities and are unquestionably the primary consumers of the bounty of rabbit collectibles offered in the marketplace.

Seen as stupid, passive, childish and predominantly female, the rabbit appears to be one of the last “pets” to be acknowledged as a worthy animal. This is true even in an era when it is widely acknowledged that companion animals are not simply diversions but enrich our lives emotionally, physically and mentally.

In recent years, a number of animal rights advocates have constructed complex arguments detailing just what sorts of “rights” should be accorded to which animals. Most of the arguments place a value on modes of animal thinking that match or approach human ways of thinking—the ability to use human language, for example, or the possession of a theory of mind. But these arguments tend to include certain animals (great apes and cetaceans, for example) into that category of species who deserve rights, while excluding far more species, such as rabbits.

We may not yet know of all of the intellectual capabilities that rabbits possess, or those that they don’t, but what we do know is that rabbits are sentient beings who can feel joy, sorry, pain, grief, anger, jealousy, and a whole range of emotions that are quite familiar to us. In Jeremy Bentham’s words, “The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?” (Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1823, Chapter 17, Section 1)

The fact that a species is unknown—as the rabbit is—means that humans can project all sorts of characteristics on the animals that would deem them unworthy of protection. We can even project a trait of blankness on them; that is, because we don’t understand the rabbit, we assume there is nothing to understand, that the rabbit is a creature with neither sentience nor subjectivity. And once we assume that, creating what in other species we would recognize as “suffering” becomes acceptable.

It is only by living with, observing and empathizing with rabbits that we can begin to recognize their subjectivity. But where do we go from that recognition? Do we decide that rabbits deserve the lives that so many thousands of house rabbit people have given them, lives similar to those experienced by millions of dogs and cats: beds, toys, snacks and litterboxes and a home filled with love? Will we recognize that, to paraphrase Karen Davis, there is more to the rabbit than a meal, or a fur coat, or a laboratory resource? Or do they deserve the fate suffered by the vast majority of rabbits around the world today: short, lonely lives that are filled with suffering, and that end with death at a human’s hands, for human profit?

 

 

For more information about Margo DeMello

http://margodemello.com/