Rabbits play important roles in nearly every culture, where they are often seen as symbols of fertility, regeneration and ingenuity.
A good friend calls me at the start of every month and says, “Rabbit! Rabbit!” This charming practice originated in the British and New England folk belief that saying “Rabbit! Rabbit!” on the first day of the month brings good luck. This past month, when she chanted her good fortune incantation, I started to think about rabbits, and the history of the human-rabbit relationship.
Fifth-century French monks are credited with the first domestication of the rabbit. Apparently the monks needed another meat source for Lent, and rabbits were easier to keep in captivity than fish (the only meat allowed during Lent). To solve the problem, the monks simply re-designated rabbits as “fish” and began to breed them as livestock. Later, during The Middle Ages, the domestic rabbit was introduced to Britain, where it was bred for meat and fur, and occasionally kept as a pet by women of the gentry. As people left the countryside for more urban environments, with industrialization, they often brought rabbits with them: They were one of the only domestic animals that could be kept on a very small plot of land. At first, most of these “town rabbits” were bred for meat, but eventually it became common to keep rabbits as pets. Over time, rabbits came to symbolize pastoral innocence and childhood.
Rabbits and hares play important roles in the symbolism and mythology of nearly every culture, where they are often seen as symbols of fertility, regeneration and ingenuity. In many Asian, African and Native American cultures, rabbits are trickster figures because they are perceived as paradoxical creatures—courageous, yet timid; clever, yet foolish; and innocent, yet sexually prolific (females give birth to up to 50 offspring a year).
Ask anyone who has shared their environment with a pet rabbit and they will tell you that rabbits live up to their mythic reputations. They are intelligent, affectionate and sociable. They can be trained to use a litter box, play games and respond to voice commands. But they can also be stubborn, territorial and feisty.
We know more about rabbits now due to the fairly recent “house rabbit” trend where people started to keep them indoors in hutches as pets. There are over 60 breeds of domestic rabbits, ranging in size from two to 13 pounds. Different breeds have different needs, but all pet rabbits require exercise outside their hutches for several hours every day. Just watch a rabbit run and jump and you will see that they are built for motion. So before you bring a bunny home, make sure you have a place for him or her to exercise.
Today, there are more rabbits as companion animals than ever before. However, many who bring bunnies home have misconceptions about them. All too often, rabbits join a family as a gift for young children who treat them as plush toys. Contrary to popular belief, most rabbits do not like to be held up off the ground. As a prey animal, a child’s hugging probably feels like restraint to a rabbit, which often triggers a flight response.
However, with patience, it is possible to befriend a rabbit, and once you do, you will share a special sort of bunny bond. She or he will sit next to you, nuzzle you, lick you, play games with you, and maybe even sit on your lap. Now, that’s one clever rabbit.
Domestic rabbits have an average lifespan of seven to 10 years, and there are many available for adoption at shelters and small-animal rescue groups. Call your local shelter and visit websites such as petfinder.com and rabbit.org.
Rabbit Care Information from the ASPCA This ASPCA web resource provides helpful advice about caring for pet rabbits. aspca.org/pet-care/small-pet-care/general-rabbit-care
House Rabbit Society A national, nonprofit animal welfare organization, the House Rabbit Society rescues abandoned rabbits and finds permanent adoptive homes for them. They strive to reduce the number of unwanted rabbits, and to improve the lives of rabbits, by helping people better understand these often misunderstood companion animals. rabbit.org
Belinda Recio, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery (truenorthgallery.net) in Hamilton, MA, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world.