It’s hard to know exactly how many pet rabbit breeders exist in the United States today. One 1998 ARBA survey noted that 66.5 percent of its 30,000 members raise pet rabbits, but not all rabbit breeders belong to ARBA, and some meat breeders sell some of their kits as pets. What we do know is that today pet rabbit breeders range from the small backyard or hobby breeders to sophisticated show breeders (with an extensive knowledge of genetics and selective breeding), to very large commercial rabbitries, some of which we could call “ rabbit mills.”
These large commercial pet rabbit breeders sell large numbers of rabbits at wholesale prices directly to pet stores, or through wholesalers who act as middlemen. They usually end up with a low price for each rabbit (generally from $3 to $5 per rabbit) in order to keep enough of a profit margin for the wholesaler and the pet store, which will try to sell the rabbits for upwards of $25. Many smaller breeders do not have the facilities for such a large-scale operation, so they sell directly to the customer (via advertisements in magazines like Rabbits Annual) or to small, local pet stores. But customers who purchase a rabbit at a chain pet store like Petland are most likely buying a rabbit who was bred at a rabbit mill, and sent to the store via a wholesale middleman.
Whether or not a rabbit breeder is a rabbit mill depends very much on who’s doing the analysis. Animal protection groups generally go for a broader definition (e.g., a large-scale
breeding operation where rabbits are kept in unhealthy conditions, bred frequently and without regard to their own welfare, and sold at low prices to pet stores or wholesalers.) Breeders tend to have a different standard.
That rabbit mills exist can’t be denied—many breeders complain that other breeders are selling three- and four-week old kits to pet stores (because pet stores, and pet store patrons, want “cute” baby animals) and that many sell mixed breeds that are passed off as purebreds, keep their females pregnant all the time and have poor husbandry standards.
Getting solid information on these mills is nearly impossible. Any commercial breeder making an annual profit over $500 automatically qualifies for USDA licensing and must provide care consistent with the Animal Welfare Act. However, periodic visits by USDA inspectors notwithstanding, rabbit mills, like puppy mills, are largely unregulated. As Marshall Smith, a former USDA inspector points out, funds are so tight that inspectors can barely cover their regions.
The majority of rabbits in pet stores come from larger wholesalers or brokers—also licensed by the USDA—who buy and sell rabbits, as well as other animals, on a weekly basis. Breeders generally don’t have a large enough market in their own areas to make a profit, so they sell to brokers, who can transport their animals to stores around the country. According to some breeders, this is where the inhumane treatment begins. Because the rabbits purchased by the dealer are so young, and conditions during transportation so difficult, dealers and pet stores generally assume that twenty to thirty percent of the babies will die en route.
Brokers who buy and sell a number of species for a number of markets are known as Class B (or random source) dealers, and obtain their animals from sources as divergent as shelters, breeders and animal auctions or trade and sale days, and sell them to pet stores, research institutions, and for food and fur. Many dealers even buy back the rabbits (and other animals) who are returned to pet stores and then re-sell them at animal auctions and stock sales.
Pet stores place their animal orders with their dealer about once a week. The dealer then arranges to have all the animals shipped to the store in a large truck. Like commercial breeders, the dealers’ facilities are subject to USDA inspections, but as with breeding facilities, this is no guarantee that the animals in a dealer’s control will be treated humanely, as inspections are just as patchy, and enforcement as light, as with breeding facilities. In addition, there is very little oversight during the transportation process, the period during which deaths will be highest.
A baby rabbit who survives first the breeder facility and then the long truck ride to a pet store is not guaranteed a healthy or happy life. Pet stores that sell live animals are generally not known for excellent attention to their charges. And baby rabbits at pet stores rarely face any kind of quarantine procedure, which means that any disease one rabbit has may very well spread to the others. Anywhere up to twenty percent of all baby rabbits may die during the first week at the store, most likely from enteritis—if you add this to an estimated twenty to thirty percent mortality rate during transit, this means that almost fifty percent of all baby rabbits die before they can be sold. The surviving babies spend their time at the store being handled by large numbers of people and most likely will be cared for by staff untrained in rabbit husbandry. Rabbit lovers across the country have reported dozens, if not hundreds, of instances in which rabbits in pet stores have no water, or no toys, or are in too-small cages, or are on wire floors, or have the wrong kind of food or are clearly sick, stressed or both.
What’s harder for consumers to see is whether or not animals have received adequate veterinary care, whether they’ve been weaned prematurely, whether they are housed with animals of opposite sex—and how the unsold animals die.
Often the staff cannot give even the most basic care information with the rabbits that they sell. Pet stores don’t provide pre-sale counseling, nor do they refuse to sell rabbits to people who seem irresponsible.
To make matters worse, animals kept at pet stores are not protected by the Animal Welfare Act, which means that once they leave the breeding facility, no rules regulate their care. While many states have enacted laws that cover humane care for animals kept in pet stores, only nineteen of the laws cover rabbits.
Selling directly to customers
Breeders who either won’t or can’t afford to sell to pet stores, but who still sell to the pet rabbit market, sell their rabbits directly to the consumer via advertising and word of mouth. According to ARBA, the majority of pet rabbit breeders do sell this way. Rabbits purchased from breeders generally fare better than do those rabbits sold through pet stores, because the breeder can better control who the rabbits will end up with, and what kind of care information the buyer gets. The typical price will range from $15 to $25 per rabbit (as opposed to the $5.00 the breeder might get from a dealer or pet store.) These breeders often provide care information for their rabbits, and some will screen potential buyers to ensure that the rabbit will go to a good home.
Other breeders, who breed primarily for show purposes, use the pet market as a way to get rid of their “culls,” or their undesirable rabbits who might otherwise be killed. As all breeders know, not every rabbit born in their facility will qualify for show purposes, and few breeders are able to keep every rabbit that they breed. This means that there will be “excess” rabbits for the breeder to dispose of. Some breeders simply kill these undesirable rabbits; others sell them for meat or as pets.
The busiest season for selling pet rabbits, of course, is during Easter, when many parents, especially, buy baby rabbits for their children. (Many of them buy dwarf rabbit breeds.) But because few of those parents are given good care information, they often end up with rabbits who become sick, aggressive, shy or downright horny when their hormones kick in at four to six months of age. A great majority of those young rabbits are then either surrendered to animal shelters (where they are most often euthanized) or released in the wild. In 1998, for instance, the Montreal animal shelter noted that it euthanizes ninety-eight percent of the 350-500 rabbits it receives each year after Easter.
The Breeding Process
In order to be successful, rabbit breeders need to worry about a number of factors that pet rabbit owners generally do not. “Selecting” stock, for instance, involves looking for does or bucks (called “earning units”) who have proven that they can deliver large litters, can produce heavy amounts of milk, can be bred frequently, are resistant to disease (given the difficult environment) and have desirable shape and color. “Replacing” stock ensures high levels of production. According to Manna Pro (a rabbit food producer), most successful breeders replace fifty percent of their breeding does every year in order to keep production as high as possible. Breeders must also decide which breeding bucks, and which baby rabbits, to keep and which to “cull.”
“Culling” doesn’t always mean killing. Sometimes baby rabbits that are deemed unacceptable for the show table are sold—or given away—as pets.
But most often they are sold to meat processors, killed for home consumption or sold as snake food. According to many small breeders, only those with genetic defects are killed (yet what constitutes a genetic defect—a tooth problem, for example—does not necessarily preclude a happy and healthy life as a pet). Large commercial breeders tend to kill all of their undesirables, whether the rabbit’s markings aren’t right, his shape isn’t perfect, he’s not easy to handle or he has a runny nose.