It comes as a surprise to many people that Australia has rabbit farms- after all, don’t we have too many rabbits as it is?
Unfortunately, rabbit farming does indeed exist in Australia and on a scale that few would imagine. Although it is not known exactly how many producers are in business at one time, as many operate unlicensed and unregistered, as of 2007 there were 43 rabbit farms Australia-wide (except in Queensland). The average farm imprisons 300 breeding does per farm.
Rabbit farming is similar to battery hen farming in that it is a highly intensive industry, in which the animals are crammed into tiny cages with no personal space, and locked in dark sheds. These rabbits live in raised wire cages, and are denied their most basic needs such as solid ground under their feet, room to move, fresh air and sunlight, and grass to eat.
Warning! Graphic content below.
Injuries: Injuries on rabbit farms are an extremely common occurence due to the intensive caging system used. Rabbits are naturally territorial animals and fighting will often occur, leading to lacerations, damaged eyes and ears, and even death. Rabbits can also become injured by “falling through” the bottom of the cage- when a toe or limb slips through the wire flooring of the cage and becomes stuck. Injuries on rabbit farms are rarely treated, and when they are, it is usually inadequate care (such as being sprayed with iodine) performed by a farmer rather than a veterinarian. According to industry statistics, up to 50% of rabbits will die before the time of slaughter- often due to untreated injuries and the resulting infection. This statistic is higher than any other form of intensive animal farming, and a reflection of the extreme negligence shown towards these sensitive animals.
Illness: Rabbits have very particular needs in terms of their diet, exercise and temperature. On a rabbit farm with hundreds, if not thousands of animals, sick rabbits are often overlooked and left untreated. The putrid air of the enclosed sheds- heavy with ammonia from the rabbit’s excretions- quickly causes respiratory infections in many of the animals, which causes pain and suffering and best, death at worst. Breeding does often suffer from mammary infections such as mastitis, and uterine infections, incredibly painful illnesses that can cause further secondary infection and death. Rabbit farms are also known to become breeding grounds for diseases such as calicivirus- otherwise known as Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease- and myxomatosis, a disease spread by the government in an attempt to kill wild rabbits.
Breeding: The New Zealand White and Californian are the most common rabbit breeds used for meat, along with Flemish giants, Dutch and on occasion lops. These rabbits are large breeds who grow fairly quickly and reach a large size at maturity.
Once female rabbits are mated they are on an endless cycle of reproduction, being re-mated before each litter is weaned. Many health problems occur as a result of the constant forced breeding, with many does suffering from mastitis, mammary cancer, uterine infections, uterine cancer and even sepsis, if the placenta does not fully pass. Breeding does are used for around 18 months, during this time they will produce 8-15 litters before being sent to slaughter.
Each litter is separated from their mother and placed in fattening cages for 10-12 weeks before they are slaughtered. The death rate among young rabbits is high, as they are taken from their mothers very early and are exposed to extremes of temperature, poor quality air, disease and restricted from any kind of natural behaviours. It comes as no surprise to rescuers, to find freezers full of dead baby rabbits on Australian rabbit farms.
Often overlooked when discussing welfare is the male breeding rabbits, known as breeding bucks. Male rabbits are kept in isolation cages, which is extremely detrimental to their mental wellbeing- rabbits are social animals who form close bonds with others and in many cases will form a “bonded pair” and remain together for life. The male breeding rabbits on farms however, are kept alone in tiny cages, so the only time they come close to another individual is when they are forcibly mated. Breeding males are kept for 2-3 years- when their productivity begins to fall they are slaughtered and sold for low-grade meat
Voluntary codes state that accommodation for rabbits over 12 weeks of age should be no less than 45cm high, sufficient height to allow rabbits to sit upright. For New Zealand white rabbits to perform this behaviour, a height of 75cm would be required. In reality most rabbits are living in cages with a height of only 38cm. Farmers are reluctant to house rabbits in larger cages as this encourage increased movement, using up more energy and resulting in a longer time taken to reach slaughter weight. Small cages restrict their natural movement, which in turn ensures they do not use any energy, causing them to “fatten up” quicker.
Rabbits born onto a rabbit farm will be confined from the day they are born, to the day they die. Born into wire cages, they will never feel grass beneath their feet or the sun on their back. Rabbits kept caged on farms often suffer from physiological problems due to lack of exercise- splay leg, muscle atrophy and hock infections to name just a few. Furthermore, the confinement has negative effects on the psychology of the animals, and many rabbits on farms display abnormal behaviours such as cannibalism and self-mutilation.
Deaths from Injury, Illness and Abuse: Mortality rates are high in the overcrowded sheds used by rabbit farms. On average 25-40 % of rabbits will die before the time of slaughter.This is a far higher mortality rate than in any other commercial animal farming. Rabbits can die due to the complete lack of veterinary treatment, particularly when sufffering from respiratory disease, intestinal problems and infections, untreated injuries, fighting other rabbits, and being roughly handled by farm workers.
Rabbits are very sensitive to heat. In summer the sheds become so hot that entire cages of rabbits will die from heat exhaustion at one time. It is also common for entire litters of baby rabbits to die during the lactation period.
After birth, baby rabbits are often weaned early, causing stress and deadly disorders and illnesses such as pneumonia. On some farms, the dead infants and adult rabbits will be removed from cages and put into a freezer (shown above), but on many farms the dead are simply left to rot in the cage until the remaining animals are removed for slaughter.
Transport to slaughter:
The transport of rabbits to processing facilities raises welfare concerns similar to those of other livestock species. Separation, caging, crating and handling practices, food and water deprivation, noise, temperature, humidity and other environmental changes are all part of the trauma experienced by rabbits during transportation. Transporting rabbits affects the psychological and physical well-being of the animal. Rabbits can be so tightly packed that poor ventilation causes respiratory failure. Broken bones and traumatic lesions are all common due to poor handling.
Slaughter: During slaughter, commercial processors attempt to first stun rabbits by breaking their necks. It is difficult to stun “meat rabbits” effectively this way as they are too large to handle easily. During slaughter rabbits have their heads struck with a blunt object and their necks cut before being hung up to be “bled out” completely via full head decapitation. Most rabbits are still alive and scream out in pain as they move along the production line. Smaller breeders slaughter rabbits themselves and may even shoot them with pellet guns, or break their necks by standing on a broom handle laid over the neck. The entire time rabbits awaiting slaughter watch on, these animals can see, smell and hear the killing of their fellow cage-mates.
Cervical dislocation is a humane killing procedure only if a rabbit weighs less than 1kg. Rabbits are marketed at 2 – 3 kg, thus cervical dislocation is not a viable method during rabbit slaughter as muscles are much thicker, making proper cervical dislocation difficult to do correctly. Brain electrical activity is present for 13 seconds after cervical dislocation is performed. - The American Veterinary Medical Association