by Margo DeMello
After the “fryers” (ie the baby bunnies; Whole Foods’ supplier slaughters their rabbits at just 8 weeks of age) arrive at the slaughterhouse, or “processor,” in Jewell, Iowa, from the “growers” who raised them, they may wait in cages for a few days to a week before they are slaughtered, or sometimes they are killed right away.
(Note: Some die during transport from the farms where they were raised in Iowa or Missouri, and some die while awaiting slaughter. Others are too sick to be slaughtered, so they are killed and their bodies discarded. For more information, click here.)
Because rabbits are not covered under the USDA’s Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, they (like poultry) don’t have to be stunned like other animals classified as livestock before they are slaughtered, so they can be killed in any fashion at all, without the benefit of stunning first. But many processors do try to do something to the rabbits before slitting their throats; the smaller processors usually try to stun them through two methods: by either breaking their necks by pulling down on the rabbit’s head while simultaneously pulling back on their hindquarters or by smashing them on the head with a pipe. Neither method is foolproof, and rabbits often end up screaming in pain during the “stunning” process.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals (2013), cervical dislocation is only a humane method of euthanasia (or stunning) for rabbits who are less than 2.2 pounds, because in larger animals the muscles are much thicker, making proper cervical dislocation difficult to do correctly. Rabbits who are sold as fryers, which is the smallest rabbit available for meat, are typically four and a half to five and a half pounds; stewers are six pounds and up and a roaster can be more than eight pounds, or four times the weight that the AVMA recommends for cervical dislocation.
The larger commercial processors usually use electrical stunning followed by throat slitting or decapitation. Electrical stunning, too, has problems—if the voltage is too low, or the rabbits do not have their throats slit or heads removed immediately, they will be conscious upon slaughter.
Because of these problems, according to Whole Foods Market Associate Team Leader in Customer Information Rachael Gruver, Whole Foods has asked that its processors use a non-penetrating captive bolt before slitting the rabbits’ throats and hanging them “on the line” to be bled out.
A penetrating captive bolt instrument delivers a bullet-like object directly into the brain of an animal, either rendering the animal unconscious or killing him or her immediately. A non-penetrating captive bolt instrument, like the Zephyr (known as the rabbit stun gun), or the Rabbit Zinger (pictured on this page) uses compressed air and has a flattened mushroom type of head which strikes the surface of the head with enough concussive force to render the animal unconscious.
The reason for the use of the captive bolt method is that it is supposed to render the rabbits unconscious and unable to feel pain. And indeed, this method does appear to be the most humane of all of the stunning methods developed for rabbits, when used properly by trained operators.
But captive bolt methods, whether penetrating or non-penetrating, are only as good as their operators, the equipment being used, and how they are used.
For example, where the shot is aimed affects how long the rabbits will stay under. In one study (Holztmann and Loeffler 1991), rabbits who were shot between the eyes were stunned, but when their throats were cut they began screaming and thrashing; the same thing occurred when the rabbits were shot in multiple other areas in the brain; only one area resulted in a long lasting stun—if the gun was positioned in such a way that the concussion would damage the brain stem and the cortex. In a study just a year later (Schuett-Abraham et al 1992), the difference in proper aiming meant the difference between 100% of the rabbits being properly stunned and only 63% being properly stunned. Another problem the authors noted was that in some cases, the gun moved because the rabbits’ skin slipped.
In a Masters Thesis on the subject of rabbit euthanasia methods, Olga Szczodry discusses the issue of skin slippage:
For effective use of the technique, the correct positioning of the captive bolt is crucial. To achieve this, restraint is unavoidable. Operators must therefore master the restraint technique of the specific species, have sufficient knowledge about the species’ specific skull features, be experts in the device manipulation and be psychologically well-prepared to the non-aesthetic result of the method (Szczodry 2013, 30).
Not all stun guns work the same way; different manufacturers’ weapons work differently, so different studies turn up different results with different locations on the rabbits’ skulls. And some instruments’ tips are shaped in such a way that on certain planes of the head they can slip and cause a faulty shot as well. This means that the operators have to be trained properly with the exact instrument that they will be using.
In addition, according to animal scientist Temple Grandin, non-penetrating captive bolt guns require more accuracy and skill than penetrating captive bolt guns, and, because the bolts do not penetrate the animals’ brains, the animals are much more likely to regain consciousness while their throats are being cut (Grandin 2012).
Another question is how pain and insensibility is measured in animals. For example, Close et al, in their research of captive bolt as a method of euthanasia for laboratory rabbits, found that EEG readings lasted for one minute after being shot (Close 1997). Does this indicate continuing consciousness?
In another study, Dennis et al (1988) looked at a study of 5 New Zealand rabbits who were shot by a penetrating captive bolt; while all five appeared to become immediately unconscious, “vocalization” occurred in one rabbit, respiration occurred in one rabbit for a full minute after the shot, and all rabbits had movement of their legs after the shot. Did the scream, the breathing, and the leg movements indicate consciousness or pain? Dennis and his co-authors did not say. In Schuett-Abraham’s 1992 study, 8 rabbits (or 17%) screamed during the shot; the authors dismissed this as being an unconscious reaction rather than a painful one. Indeed, in a 2005 Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare from the European Food and Safety Authority, in a summary of the literature associated with captive bolt slaughter, the authors state, “a single ‘shriek’ at the moment of the shot seems insignificant” (AHAW Panel 2005, 31).
How do we determine pain in rabbits? We know that rabbits only vocalize in two very severe situations: extreme pain and extreme fear. And yet the studies conducted on the subject of the effectiveness of captive bolt slaughter (or euthanasia) in rabbits, published in laboratory science or veterinary science magazines, completely disregard the idea that vocalization while being essentially shot in the head might be an indicator of pain. In a 1997 essay, veterinary ethicist Larry Carbone discussed the issue of how scientists determine pain in laboratory animals, when they themselves have a stake in minimizing or understating that pain, using the example of decapitation of rodents. He wrote:
Scientists whose work relies on easy access to the rodent guillotine have had an obvious stake in establishing the necessity of decapitation and refuting its potential to cause pain (Carbone 1997, 246).
Carbone showed that to the scientists conducting and evaluating the decapitation studies, it was clear that, even though many of the studies showed that rodents often remained conscious for up to 14 seconds after decapitation, and continued to have brainwave activity after decapitation, severing the brain from the spinal cord must mean loss of consciousness and therefore no pain; thus the outward signs of consciousness can be ignored.
The same thing can be said of the captive bolt studies that show vocalization, movement, and other signs of consciousness after the bolt has been delivered; the scientists have a very good reason to assume that the rabbits are unconscious, because the pain-sensory pathways entering the brain from the spinal cord have been severed. But we can also say that those same pain-sensory pathways have been stimulated from the shot and therefore, in accordance with the visual signs, at least some rabbits are experiencing pain.
So is the captive bolt method a humane method for slaughtering rabbits? That depends on whether one believes that there is a humane method for slaughtering rabbits (or any other animal, for that matter). But if there is, and if the captive bolt is to be considered humane, the following criteria must be met:
- The rabbits are restrained properly by someone trained in proper rabbit handling
- The gun is aimed at the correct part of the rabbit’s brain
- The equipment is maintained in good working order; an unmaintained gun will not work properly and will cause the rabbits to suffer
- The gun does not slip
- It is clear that the rabbit is indeed completely unconscious (i.e. no breathing and absence of corneal reflex—the latter, however, could simply indicate severed reflex pathways and may not indicate lack of consciousness!)
- The rabbit’s throat is slit immediately afterwards, before the rabbit regains consciousness; according to the AVMA, the captive bolt method by itself is not a humane method of slaughter
Clearly, there are some serious disadvantages to this method. These include:
- The fact that the rabbit can (and will) struggle while being restrained
- Rabbits’ skin is very loose on their heads, which easily cause the muzzle of the gun to slip
- The difficulty of hitting the rabbit in the exact spot needed to stun them perfectly
- The difficulty of detecting lack of consciousness and insensibility to pain
- The working conditions of the gun: if the concussive strength is not strong enough, the rabbit will not be stunned
- Higher failure rate than penetrating captive bolt
Finally, who oversees the slaughtering process to make sure that the rabbits do not suffer even more than might be expected by being shot with a captive bolt gun, whose effectiveness largely depends on the operator’s knowledge of handling rabbits, knowing their skulls, being able to detect whether they are conscious, and knowing (and caring) whether they are in pain before they cut their throats and hang them on the line?
Since USDA inspectors are not federally mandated to inspect rabbit processors, technically no one. However, Liz Burkhart, Global PR Support Specialist at Whole Foods has said:
While the USDA does not require rabbits to be inspected before they are sold, Whole Foods Market mandates USDA-inspection. This means a USDA-inspector is on-site during the entire slaughter process.
The reality is, since Whole Foods is now using growers and processors in states that are outside of the states in which they are now selling rabbit meat, which means that the meat is being trucked across state borders, the meat would have to be federally inspected anyway. So with or without Whole Foods’ “mandate,” there would be a federal inspector (this time from the FDA) to inspect the meat before it is sent over state borders (USDA FSIS).
Still, whether or not the meat goes across state borders, rabbit processors can request voluntary USDA inspection, which according to Ms. Burkhart, Whole Foods is mandating that its processors do.
Does this mean that those inspectors are there to protect the rabbits from harm? Not exactly.
While the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act (which again, rabbits are exempt from), originally passed in 1958, calls for “humane” slaughter of livestock (ie stunning before slaughter), in 1979 it was updated to give USDA inspectors the right to both inspect slaughterhouses and stop the slaughter line if cruel practices were observed. Today, however, this happens infrequently because of the cost to processors when the line is stopped.
In addition, the inspectors themselves work for the branch of the USDA called the Food Safety Inspection Service. In other words, they are actually there to inspect the food itself for safety—not to inspect the slaughterhouse for violations of the Humane Slaughter Act. That means that they work at the end of the slaughter line, after the animals are killed, not at the beginning, so they are unlikely to see cruelty violations.
According to USDA meat inspector Dave Carney:
The way the plants are physically laid out, meat inspection is way down the line. A lot of times, inspectors can’t even see the slaughter area from their stations. It’s virtually impossible for them to monitor the slaughter area when they’re trying to detect diseases and abnormalities in carcasses that are whizzing by (Eisnitz 2009, 189).
In other words, USDA inspection is not only not a guarantee that animals will be treated humanely during slaughter; it actually has nothing to do with humane treatment whatsoever.
Ultimately, Whole Foods has created a nice set of PR materials with buzzwords like “animal welfare standards” and “humane” to roll out their new program to encourage more people to buy rabbit meat. But the truth is, their standards, whether they have to do with the living conditions that the rabbits will live in before they are slaughtered, or the methods of killing themselves, are hardly different from those used in the wider rabbit meat industry.
Take it from this rabbit meat breeder who posted on a rabbit slaughter list in 2009, about using the Zephyr stun gun, the most modern and “humane” of all of the stun guns:
I find a whole lot more twitching going on with the stun gun rather than the cervical dislocation, but less blood from the nose and ears and no bruising of the neck or shoulder area.
Close, B., K. Banister, V. Baumans, E.-M. Bernoth, N. Bromage, J. Bunyan, W. Erhardt, P. Flecknell, N. Gregory, and H. Hackbarth. (1997) “Recommendations for euthanasia of experimental animals: Part 2,” Laboratory animals, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 1–32.
Davis, Susan E. and Margo DeMello. (2003) Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature. New York: Lantern Press.
Dennis Jr, M. B., Dong, W. K., Weisbrod, K. A., & Elchlepp, C. A. (1988). Use of captive bolt as a method of euthanasia in larger laboratory animal species. Laboratory animal science, 38(4), 459-462.
Eisnitz, Gail. (2009). Slaughterhouse: The shocking story of greed, neglect, and inhumane treatment inside the US meat industry. New York: Prometheus Books.
European Food and Safety Authority Animal Health and Welfare Panel. (2005) “The welfare aspects of the main systems of stunning and killing applied to commercially farmed deer, goats, rabbits, ostriches, ducks, geese and quail.”
Grandin, Temple. (2012) “Recommended Captive Bolt Stunning Techniques for Cattle.” http://www.grandin.com/humane/cap.bolt.tips.html
Holtzmann, M., and Loeffler, K., (1991) Welfare aspects of the use of captive bolt guns for the pre-slaughter stunning of rabbits. Tierärztliche Umschau, 46: 617-620.
Reilly, J. and A. Blackshaw. (2001) “Euthanasia of animals used for scientific purposes.” ANCCART, p. 98.
Schütt-Abraham, I., Knauer-Kraetzl, B., and Wormuth, H.J. (1992) “Observations During Captive Bolt Stunning of Rabbits.” Berliner und Münchener Tierärztliche Wochenschrift, 105: 10-15.
Szczodry, Olga. (2013) “Euthanasia methods of Rabbits vary between different contexts: A Review of Welfare and Ethical considerations.” Masters Thesis, Utrecht University.
USDA. (2009) Terrestrial Animal Health Standards Commission Report September, Chapter 7.5. Slaughter Of Animals.
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. (ND) “Rabbit from Farm to Table.”
Welty, Jeffrey. (2007). “Humane slaughter laws.” Law and contemporary problems, 175-206.