Pets or food? CT could allow farms to raise rabbit meat

Connecticut farmers want to commercially harvest rabbit meat, but they face fierce opposition from animal advocates.

John Craven

Apr 12, 2024, 9:01 PM

Updated 37 days ago

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A battle over bunnies is pitting family farms against animal rights groups at the state Capitol.
Connecticut farmers want to commercially harvest rabbit meat, but they face fierce opposition from animal advocates.
"SUPER INTO BUNNIES"
Ryan Warner sells bunnies as pets at Brooke's Bunny Farm in Oxford. It's named after his daughter.
"My daughter always wanted to be a vet," he said. "So I figured, she's super into bunnies."
Warner said rabbits are smart and sensitive – ideal as pets and therapy animals, but not for dinner.
"The rabbits that we breed here and more for, you know, therapy, emotional support," he said. "A lot of these bunnies are more of pets, right? Like, we look at dogs and cats and wouldn't think of them as food."
FARMERS PUSH
There's no denying rabbits are cute, but they're also considered a delicacy in many restaurants. Some farmers want to meet that demand.
"We need more accessible and affordable sources of locally-raised protein in Connecticut," testified Meg Hourigan, with the Connecticut Food System Alliance. "It will create opportunities for small and mid-size farms to diversify their operations and sustainably raise and process rabbits for meat. While unfamiliar to many U.S. consumers, rabbit meat is a celebrated part of many cultural cuisines, including French, Greek, Chinese, Italian and Ukrainian cuisines."
A bill before the state Senate would let farmers harvest up to 1,000 rabbits per year. The Connecticut Department of Agriculture would inspect farms and processing facilities, just like they do for small poultry producers.
"If there's a demand for rabbit meat, we certainly would prefer to get it from our local farms," said Joan Nichols, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau.
STRONG OPPOSITION
The legislation narrowly cleared the General Assembly's Environment Committee last month, but it faces long odds in the full legislature. Similar proposals failed in 2022 and 2023.
This year, animal rights groups flooded lawmakers with letters opposing rabbit harvesting.
"SB196 moves us in the wrong direction by introducing a new form of cruel factory farming," wrote Annie Hornish, Connecticut State Director of the Human Society of the United States.
Nichols insisted rabbit meat would not be "factory farming."
"These families live there," she said. "They care very much for their livestock. They use exemplary farming practices."
Rabbit rescue groups are also worried about overpopulation.
"There is also currently a crisis of dumped and abandoned rabbits in our state, with all rescues at capacity and fielding dozens of calls and emails daily from people who either no longer want their rabbit or have found one dumped outside," Sara Pereiras, president of Bunlandia Rabbit Rescue & Rehab in Seymour, told News 12 Connecticut.
VIRUS CONCERNS
Animal advocates are also raising concerns about spreading Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus Type 2. RHDV2 can be deadly in rabbits, but does not infect humans.
"Two cases involving domestic rabbits in our area were contained through specific biosecurity measures (New Haven and New York City)," Deborah Galle, with the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, told lawmakers. "Adding populations of meat rabbits to CT while we are attempting to prevent a pandemic and critical alteration of our ecosystems, due to the elimination of a primary food source for our predatory birds and mammals is irresponsible."
But Connecticut Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt isn't concerned.
"We do not believe that any actions as a result of this bill would result in an outbreak of RHDV2 in Connecticut as those farming rabbits for consumption would keep them in secure housing and would not come into contact with wild rabbits," Hurlburt testified in 2022.
Warner understands both sides.
"People have got to eat, you know? It is what it is," he said. But "rabbits can pick up bacterias and they can pick up different diseases a lot easier than a dog or cat can."
WHAT'S NEXT?
State lawmakers have less than a month to take up this proposal before they adjourn on May 8.
In the meantime, plenty of bunnies need a good home.


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