Some facts about rabbits
There are several answers to the question ‘what are rabbits?’. Rabbits are pets to some, a source of food and clothing to others and even regarded as a pest, often being all three in the same society. This is what makes them such a fascinating animal – most pets in the UK would never be considered as food. The domestication of rabbits can shed some insight into why rabbits can be considered so many different things within the same cultural circle. In this article, I will briefly talk about the history of rabbits, their habitat and biology and ultimately what they are to us humans.
What are the Rabbits’ History? History Of The Rabbit
Today’s pet shop rabbit derives from the European rabbit. Whilst there are several different species of rabbits, such as swamp rabbits, cottontail rabbits etc., the European rabbit is the only one to be domesticated. All those colourful breeds came from the European. Hard to imagine how that could happen when you consider patterns in breeds like the Dutch.
Rabbits began life in this world as wild and free but very soon, when Romans discovered them, they were captured and kept as a source of meat. At first, rabbits were able to dig themselves out of these Roman pens but soon after, fenced of warrens were made to contain them. It was also the Romans who introduced the European rabbit to the United Kingdom. Those wild rabbits you see in the fields were the work of Romans.
The domestication of the rabbit did not occur till a bit later in the Middle ages. French monks were responsible to this as they searched for a meat they can keep within the monastery. Newborn rabbits were not considered as meat so were fine to eat during lent. It wasn’t long before rabbits were being bred by the monks for certain traits and colours, this was the beginning of selective breeding for rabbits. There were some suggestions that some of the richer ladies during this period had kept rabbits for colours and traits.
Then in come the Victorians who started breeding some of the fancier breeds of rabbits available. Since rabbits were easy to keep in towns and cities, they soon became more than a source of meat and were considered pets for children and families.
Interestingly, rabbits were kept in people’s gardens during the World Wars in both US and UK, where people were encourage to keep them for their meat and for their fur to make clothes. After the war, more people had rabbits for pets. With even more breeds being developed all over the world, rabbits were increasing in popularity for both families and rabbit fanciers.
Today, rabbits are the third most popular pet.
What are the Rabbits’ Biology and Habitat
Contrary to popular belief, rabbits are not rodents. Rabbits belong to an order known as Lagomorph whereas rodents belong to the order Rodentia. The main differences are that Lagomorphs have two more incisors in their upper jaw in comparison to the two that rodents have and are herbivores. Most rodents are omnivores.
In terms of appearance, most rabbits have upright long ears, used for detection of predators. These can swivel around to focus on certain noises. Some breeds have ears that flop, these are known as lop eared rabbits and are most likely not a natural wild rabbit trait. Some rabbits have a lop and an upright ear, an interesting combination. Lop eared require more care for their ears.
Rabbits have very energetic noses. They breathe through the nose, although in some cases, breathing through the mouth is possible but not preferred. If you ever see a rabbit’s nose twitch at an extremely slow pace, they are probably sleeping – even if the eyes are still open! Rabbits have eyes on the sides of their face. This gives them a wide field of vision. These eyes are used to scan for predators, both on the ground and in the sky.
Rabbit fur can be extremely soft and nice to touch, which is why rabbit pelts are used in clothing in some countries. The angora rabbit is bred for its fur in some places, this fur can be harvested rather like a sheep.
The hind leg of a rabbit is quite powerful and can deliver some strong kicks. Their strong legs enable them to escape predators by hopping in fast zig-zag movements. Legs are also used as a form of defense. In fact, rabbit kicks are so strong, rabbits are known to break their own bones from kicking.
What are rabbits like in the wild, their habitat and their diet?
The habitat a rabbit resides in can vary greatly, depending on the type of rabbit. Generally, rabbits live in moderate climates in forests, meadows, woods, fields but they can be found in places like deserts and swamps. For instance, the swamp rabbit is a strong swimmer and has been known to hide from predators in shallow water, with only the nose above the water line for breathing. Desert Cottontails reside in the dry grasslands of Southwest America. The endangered volcano rabbit lives in Mexico, on elevated land. Since all domesticated rabbits came from the European rabbit, that will be the habitat that will be described here. The European rabbit spends daytime in places with taller grasses and bushes to hide from predators and then spends nightfall in open fields. Perhaps heavily vegetated areas provide better cover from birds of prey during the day and open fields at night means nocturnal predators like the fox and badger would be easier to spot. Wild rabbits mainly eat grass but their diet also includes herbs, barks, leaves and buds. Interestingly enough, they might raid a carrot patch but not for the orange part of the vegetable. Wild rabbits will happily eat the green leafy tops but would not dig up the carrot itself.
This species of rabbit prefers to live in colonies. They live in burrows that they dig and these are known as warrens. Around ten rabbits live in a warren and these tunnels can be quite extensive, providing many exits and rooms. When they are not eating, they are in the warren. Female rabbits rear their young in a separate burrow to the one they live in. They only feed their young once a day, giving them the appearance of being lazy mothers but this might be a tactic to ensure the nest would not be found by predators.
What is the Relationship Between the Rabbit and the Human
Our relationship with rabbits can be extremely mixed. At one end of the spectrum, they are seen as adorable fluffy pets, to be spoilt and loved and at the other end, they are seen as pests that are so hard to control, chemical warfare had to be brought in.
Before domestication happened, rabbits were primarily a meat and a material. They made decent food as the ratio of meat to bone was high, meaning the meat percentage in a rabbit was high, making them a worthwhile animal to farm. Rabbit is still a source of food around the world and whilst it might be less popular in the UK, it is still obtainable. Strange to imagine that in the UK, you can pop to the local pet shop and buy a baby rabbit to keep and then head to the local butchers and purchase some rabbit for a stew. As rabbit fur is quite soft, their pelts are used in some clothing.
Farmers consider rabbits to be pests and rabbits also had a terrible effect on Australia’s ecology. Rabbits in large numbers can seriously damage crops leading farmers to look for ways to control their population. In Australia, things were so bad that rabbits were attacked with biological warfare. As the European rabbit was introduced, it had no true predator and within a century, twenty four rabbits turned into six hundred million. Local species, both animal and plant were suffering under these huge numbers of rabbits. Erosion of soil and ringbarking trees are just some the problems caused by rabbits. It reached a point where diseases were brought in to control numbers. If you own a rabbit then you would be familiar with two vaccinations that protect your rabbit from myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD). Myxomatosis was first released in 1950 and was so effective, the rabbit population was reduced to a hundred million.
However, genetic resistance meant that numbers started rising again several decades later and RHD was developed. Rather than being introduced to the rabbit population, this disease actually escaped quarantine. Whilst these measures were effective in the control of rabbit numbers, they are devastating towards those who kept rabbits as pets. Vaccinations are not 100% effective and rabbits tend not to survive if they catch these diseases.
Finally, what are rabbits to many people? They are beloved pets and companions. Third most popular pet with their popularity on the rise, rabbits have a very special relationship with many humans. With more people being educated on the needs that a pet rabbit had and more people owning house rabbits, the lives of domesticated rabbits has never been better. Their inquisitive
and stubborn nature make them interesting pets with personality and whilst looking after rabbits require a lot of time, money and effort, it is worth every second.
They do make dangerous pets if a non-neutered male and female are placed together. Due to their fast reproductive rates and large litter sizes, backyard breeding can occur quite often, sometimes accidentally when pet shops have not ascertained the gender of the rabbits. Even with experience, it can be difficult to figure out the gender of a young rabbit.
Whilst they do make great pets for both the old and the young, they are not for everybody. If you enjoyed this article, want to know if you would like a rabbit as a pet, then read this: ‘is a rabbit the right pet for me?‘.