A Note for Naysayers
Nobody, even the most avid animal-rights fanatics, needs to worry about depriving caged rabbits of their liberty. Those born in confinement don't know what liberty is; they are not deprived of anything.
Also, you will note I advise housing rabbits only in wire hutches. If you house them this way you and the rabbits will do just fine. But if you let a rabbit out, you are asking for trouble ... That goes for pet rabbits, too. The wire hutch is ideal. Keep them there, except perhaps to hold and pet them.-- Bob Bennet, Storey's Guide to Raising Rabbits
We are now wabbit wanchers.
I'd been looking into this for some time. We raise the pastured meat chickens in the summer and fill the freezer, make a little money selling them. We hunt, and a friend is raising pigs, one of which we'll buy a whole or half-interest in. Hair sheep and perhaps a feeder steer are in the works.
In addition, I wanted to explore a fast avenue to fresh meat in the winter and year-round, something that wasn't dependent on freezer storage. And a varied diet is important for us and the dogs, yes? Americans eat way too much chicken and beef.
I am not sure whether we are okay with my devoted-to-pet-rabbit friends. I am respectful of their sensibilities. I hope we can all come to an understanding about animal welfare, and the touchy problem of pet v. livestock within a species.
I've had pet rabbits in the past. The archetypal bunny-in-a-backyard hutch as a child. A house rabbit as an adult. The latter demonstrated the range of a rabbit's social capacities, and the species' need for enrichment. I've also delivered several abandoned bunnies to house rabbit rescue folks, in the days before Pittsburgh shelters accepted them, and acquaintances who found pets dumped in the park would call the crazy animal lady to take this thing out of their bathtub.
I don't care whether it is livestock or pet, solitary living in a backyard hutch is not species appropriate.
What do all animals need? Fresh air, sunlight*, wholesome food and clean water, general hygiene, and the opportunity to move about freely.
What do rabbits need, specifically? The opportunity to dig and chew, social interaction with other rabbits, including the chance to play and groom, hidey-holes, enough space so that they don't feel driven to fight one another.
Bob Bennet can join Frank Perdue, Salmonella Jack DeCoster, this knuckle-dragging gap-toothed hick -- and the rest of the livestock abuse industry -- in kissing my shiny white ass. My rabbits are going to get what they need.
I guess I am rather broad in my definition of "need." Obviously, animals survive, grow, and reproduce without any of those things. Cattle put on weight in feedlots, hens lay while their feet have grown into the cage like a tree grows into a fence, and rabbits breed like bunnies while their hocks rub raw on wire floors. A bitch in a puppymill pumps out little lurve-objects for cuteness consumers while eating rancid food, drinking filthy water, living in solitary confinement in a cramped cage, never seeing the sun or breathing fresh air, covered in shit and shot through with parasites. Biologically speaking, hope springs eternal. A plant that is barely hanging on -- a tomato languishing in a nursery six-pack, unplanted, or a weed in a sidewalk crack -- puts everything it's got into producing a few sickly fruit and seeds. Things could get better for my descendants, so I better make sure I have some toot sweet.
99% of rabbit breeders keep their livestock / petstock in individual wire-bottomed cages. It's orderly, takes little room, easier to keep somewhat clean, and easier to control breeding. The good breeders -- the ones who care about animal welfare -- use larger cages, provide resting boards, give the does roommates when they can get along (bucks are either fighting or fucking in a cage situation), make sure the cages are high enough that the rabbits can stretch out vertically, meerkat-like, which is something rabbits really like to do.
I got my four foundation rabbits from a breeder who has a locally excellent reputation. Her cages were large, and all the animals are in good condition.
They are Californians, one of the two most common meat breeds. I asked for animals that had excellent production conformation, without regard to fancy points such as "correct" coloration. I got a buck and three does that are of good production quality and unrelated. (I also considered cross-breeding to increase hybrid vigor, and will probably do this when I start breeding this buck's daughters -- buy a New Zealand buck to breed to them.) I do like the Californians, though, because their dark points are just variable enough that I can tell individuals apart by markings, without checking ear tattoos. This will become important, as you'll see.
I'd read about colony-raising of rabbits, and am going to try it.
The Brandywine freewarren. The walls are either block or wire-covered wood. The floor is concrete covered with rubber stall mat and thickly bedded with sawdust topped with straw. There is a high window for daylight, which doesn't open, but I'll be replacing it with one that does. It took the rabbits about five days to really start digging; they now have a nice labyrinth around the bales. It took them perhaps three days to recognize fresh greens and fruit as food, and a week or so to become comfortable with the space and climb the bales a little. I haven't seen anyone binky yet, but that doesn't mean they aren't doing it when I'm not there.
Although rabbits come in quite a few breeds, and artificial selection for functional traits and fancy points has obviously worked many changes on them, I don't consider them a truly domestic animal. Demi-domesticated, like white mice, ferrets, budgerigars, and, in a rather different way, my knuckleheaded African guinea fowl. They've lived among humans for too short a time, and too peripherally for most of it. They can't be managed in flocks or herds the way chickens, goats, cattle, etc. can.
Romans used to keep colonies in
Rabbits became "domesticated" some time in the Middle Ages. When Pope Gregory I designated laurices as fish for the purposes of Lent and other fast days, monks and others were motivated to propagate rabbits under closer husbandry.
A laurice is a fetal or newborn rabbit, eaten guts and all. A "delicacy."
Yeah, I know. Moving along ...
In early medieval England, rabbits were introduced from the Continent and managed in open colonies established by landlords who purchased charters of free-warren from the king. The charter gave the holder the right to manage and kill rabbits, hares, pheasants and partridge in specified game preserves -- warrens. Warreners were hired to protect the colonies, create artificial earths for the rabbits, and catch them (usually with ferrets and nets) for the table or sale. It took hundreds of years of protection under extensive husbandry for the Iberian rabbits to adapt well enough to the British climate and naturalize. At the same time, warreners in some places practiced some selection for fur color in their colonies, presumably by culling the common-colored animals and preserving the eye-catching sports.
I have not been able to come up with a word in English that describes animals (or plants) occupying and evolving in this limbo between managed wild game and domestic livestock. Commensal is not right. Yet it must have been a stage in the domestication of many species, though it would look different depending on the ethology of the species and the point in technological and cultural history at which it happened. No haughty monarch was presuming to grant or deny the right of freewarren when the chickens came home to roost and the sheep joined the human fold.
Neither will the modern efficiency experts who see sentient creatures as units of meatwidget production dictate the "right" way for my stock -- livestock -- to live.
* Unless one is, say, a naked mole rat.
** The Romans reserved that fiction for the arena.