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Rabbit reality far from eggcellent | Victoria Shroff

Tuesday, April 21, 2020 @ 2:53 PM | By V. Victoria Shroff

Victoria Shroff %>
Victoria Shroff
As a long-term animal law lawyer and adjunct professor of animal law, I’ve been asked by various media in the past few weeks about COVID-19 and the impact on animals (Where your pets fit into COVID-19 crisis). 

We’ve talked about protections for domestic animals, wild animals sold as food in “wet” markets. Aside from the obvious animal welfare concerns, my main point is that we need to bring a global halt to the wildlife trade worldwide to try to stop the next epidemic from taking root.

I've also spoken about having vets, pet stores and animal shelters being declared essential services for animal well-being. But taking a break from COVID-19, it seems like we have a seasonal moment this April to think about rabbits, an overlooked animal.

Like many B.C. residents, I appreciated the recent amusing proclamation by B.C. Premier John Horgan, declaring the Easter Bunny as an “essential service” in B.C. “As premier of the province of British Columbia, I hereby authorize The Easter Bunny to travel freely into and throughout the province of British Columbia for the essential service of spreading Eggs-ellent Cheer...I want to thank you for sharing your positive spirit and happiness with kids and families across the province” was written on the signed proclamation by the premier.

Similar proclamations were made in Ontario and New Zealand. Fun thought, but unfortunately, rabbits are not living a very good life themselves, and it’s not just a COVID-19 thing, it’s all the time.

Sad life of a rabbit

I cannot think of another animal quite like the unfortunate rabbit who is at the intersection of science (as lab test animals), agriculture (intensely farmed rabbit meat), fashion (fur garments and trinkets), entertainment (show rabbits) and vermin (pests). The sad roles that rabbits have been forced to play by humans for many years makes them uniquely tragic in their assigned non-speaking roles. Seventy plus years ago, Life magazine summarized their unfortunate situation: “Domestic rabbits are one of the few pets that can be enjoyed dead or alive.”

One of the worst uses for rabbits has been cosmetic testing. The Draize Eye Irritancy Test (DEIT) used on rabbits measures how chemicals affect eyes, which means that a rabbit has his or her head forcibly clamped and an eye forced open with a firm clip while the test chemical is placed in the eye.

Tissue damage and irritation is then measured and often the animal is put to death following the test. Despite the fact that there are many viable and proven ways to test for cosmetics using discarded tissue from surgery and computer modelling, rabbits are still used in labs across Canada for various uses from medical testing to cosmetic testing. [For further information see High time Canada banned cosmetic testing on animals

From pets to abandoned  wildlife

Rabbits are often brought into the home as impulse pets around springtime with very little care as to their needs or their welfare. After dogs and cats, rabbits are the third most-popular pet in the western world. Popular for a short time, that is.

Each year, thousands of rabbits are abandoned in parks or surrendered to shelters and pounds. Reasons for abandonment include loss of interest, no time, don’t want any longer, making a mess, reproduced, etc. Some folks who acquire rabbits think they have a short lifespan of a year or two, but they actually live from 10 to 12 years if treated properly.

There is a huge overpopulation problem and yet there are breeders akin to puppy mill producers who churn out rabbits for commerce either as pets or as food. Municipalities need to ensure that they have bylaws to prevent the sale or adoption of rabbits.

Fortunately in the last decade, many municipalities have banned the sale of rabbits. Richmond, B.C. became the first municipality in Canada to ban the sale of rabbits in April 2010. Seven years later, in June 2017, Vancouver city council unanimously voted to ban rabbits, along with cats and dogs, from pet stores. Surrey, North Vancouver, Delta, Victoria, Kelowna, Coquitlam, Ottawa and Toronto are amongst the other municipalities that banned the retail sale of rabbits along with cats and dogs.

With very short gestation periods and commerce-driven breeders, large- and small-scale private breeders are still in business. Small or sickly rabbits are culled by breeders or sold as bait to hunters or for reptile food. Others are shipped inhumanely and die en route in transportation. SPCAs throughout Canada seize rabbits kept in horrible conditions and others are surrendered or brought into shelters. Instead of living in the wild and scampering about like the happy fluffy bunnies in cartoons and storybooks, rabbits are confined to live in small hutches or abandoned in green spaces.

In case you need the law to stop you from abandoning your rabbit in the weeks following April holidays, it is a Criminal Code offence and an offence under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act to abandon domestic rabbits into the wild. Please don’t do it. Also, please don’t feed a rabbit in a park as it exacerbates the problem. Many municipalities prohibit the feeding of rabbits (same for raccoons and squirrels).

Abandoning rabbits in parks and elsewhere is a problem because many of these rabbits cannot fend for themselves and become easy prey. Rabbits once established in the wild become recognized and regulated under the B.C. Wildlife Act.

In B.C., animals that fall under the Wildlife Act’s Schedule C, including two species of rabbits, are considered invasive and therefore can be killed. However, in reality the vast majority of rabbits one sees roaming in urban parks are domesticated pets that someone discarded thinking that their once loved pet will now roam free like Peter Rabbit, or maybe they just didn’t care.

Rabbits freeze when frightened or they bolt. Flight or freeze, they often end up dead. The ones that don’t die breed repeatedly, creating new colonies in the space of a few weeks and leading to a population explosion and alteration of local ecosystems.

Diseased, starving or injured animals do not receive health care, get run over and die. Not fair to the fluffy bunny who started out as a family pet. Some rescue groups in B.C. would like rabbits removed from Schedule C and new regulations instituted so that rabbit rescue societies can help curtail municipal rabbit problems.

The key is to have bylaws preventing the adoption or sale of unsterilized animals and to have programs in place to manage domestic animals that have been released and are then classified as feral. Bear in mind, however, that animal rescue organizations are overburdened and COVID-19 has made it worse as many are seeing their charitable funding dry up.

Rabbits need and deserve better treatment by humans, from being lab test victims, over bred and used for commerce and consumption to being abandoned pets. Buy and eat chocolate bunnies instead. Please don’t add to the bunny’s burden.

V. Victoria Shroff is one of the first and longest serving animal law practitioners in Canada. She has been practising animal law civil litigation for 20 years in Vancouver at Shroff and Associates (604-891-0209). She is also erstwhile adjunct professor of law at the Peter Allard School of Law at UBC and has lectured internationally from India to Galiano Island and is frequently interviewed by media. She was recently honoured by the International Society for Animal Rights with a SEEDS award for her animal law work. Follow her at @shroffanimallaw or on LinkedIn.

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