Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Rabbits, Buddhism, and Politics of the Fancy

In Buddhism, we respect all sentient beings equally, without distinction. In the context of that universal respect, we also have a corpus of instruction and admonition covering the singular or particular qualities of specific beings.

While it could be fair to say that much of this proceeds at the level of folklore, it nevertheless serves an important purpose. There are countless numbers of beings, but by finding and understanding the indivisibly sacred aspect of just a single one of them, we can introduce ourselves to our own precious buddha nature -- ultimately transcending the myth of liberation and beings-in-need-of-liberation.

So, now I would like to talk about Oryctolagus cuniculus, or domestic rabbits.

It would appear that rabbits share common ancestry that begins along the Iberian peninsula, and from there they spread all over the world. Thus, the rabbits that one encounters in China, for example, originally descend from the Iberian rabbits. Since archaeological evidence indicates the presence of rabbits in China at an extremely early date, this process must have taken place in very remote antiquity.

The degree to which this spread was natural or assisted is something that nobody really knows.  The argument is that it was assisted. I have heard and read speculation that early travelers commonly carried wicker pens of domesticated rabbits, bred for food and fur. Again, there is archaeological evidence that the Roman armies, for example, domesticated rabbits for this purpose.

If and when the question of rabbit domestication is fully and finally answered, it will shed new light on human travel and contact in pre-history or proto-history. In the meantime, if you want to know more, a good book to have is Harry Thompson and Carolyn King, The European Rabbit: History and Biology of A Successful Colonizer (although it seems rather expensive if you are only casually interested). There is also the rather less satisfying Domestic Rabbits and Their Histories: Breeds of the World, by Bob Whitman.

Now, in Buddhism, we have our own stories about rabbits, and for some reason, these stories appear to center on their altruism, self-sacrifice, and unselfishness. How, or even why, we have come to symbolically associate rabbits and the bodhisattva ideal is something that nobody can answer. The common story, that most Buddhists will immediately recall, is of the rabbit who leaps into a fire to offer himself as food for a wandering yogi.

It is interesting to contrast that vision of rabbits with the knowledge of their widespread use in medical research. In the United States alone, over one million rabbits are caught up in research each year, some of it rather less compelling than one might wish to entertain. I am thinking of the use of rabbits in the cosmetic industry, which to my mind is indefensible.

Old Rabbit, as he appeared August 16, 2005.
He passed away at Oceanside, California,
in July 2006, at approximately 15 years of age. 
He was the finest animal I have ever known.

The patriarch of my own dynasty, the late Old Rabbit, was blind in one eye because he had been used for testing cosmetics. He was resourceful enough to bust himself out of the jug, and made his way to my feet -- quite literally -- by hopping along the back roads and suburban lanes, fending off danger at every turn. I immediately gave him refuge, and I can truthfully say that he completely changed my life thereafter. To this day, I honestly believe he was a bodhisattva in rabbit form.

When we examine such matters, it is usually in terms of the five certainties, i.e. the certainty of the teacher, retinue, dharma, time, and place, which accounts for the Samboghakaya, but we often neglect to consider the rather more probative five uncertainties of the Nirmanakaya, viz. the uncertainty of the form of the teacher, manifesting as required, the uncertainty of the form of the retinue, which seems conditioned by particularities, the uncertainty of the form of the dharma, which is conditioned by the requirements arising from the minds in need of dharma, the uncertainty of place, which can be anywhere in the six realms of existence, and the uncertainty of time, which can be past, present, or future.

Thus, if we look at the issue one way, we can say, "Well, these rabbits that are being harmed by medical testing are animals, they do not possess higher reasoning, and they didn't make a conscious, altrusitic decision to sacrifice themselves." Yet, if we look at the issue another way, it is not impossible to think that a Buddha broke off a million fictitious rabbit forms, with the specific intent that they fictitiously sacrifice themselves for the betterment of a million fictitious human forms -- or indeed, that just one form was fictitiously sacrificed by way of illustration. Please be assured that I am not stating this as (1) the case, (2) the correct case, or (3) the incorrect case. I am merely setting up speculative conditions we might all wish to think about -- coloring "outside the lines," as it were. There must be some reason why human experience has come to associate rabbits with altruism.

What does my heart tell me? My heart tells me that it is a form of suicide to harm or kill any living thing.

This leads us to the great divide between the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA, to which my daughter and I both belong) and the House Rabbit Society (HRS), which I touched upon in Monday's post covering my visit to the ARBA National Convention.

I will confess that I was frequently disturbed, and often, downright astonished when I heard the comments of some ARBA people. These are folks who arguably appreciate rabbits rather more than the average person. Yet, they were able to tell rough stories of spanking a rabbit who peed on them, of "eighty percent culls," in search of a perfect show specimen, and of "processing" rabbits from a litter so that the doe could quickly move on to a future, hypothetically more ideal litter.

What should I say? I do not know what to say. Should I say that friends don't eat friends?

If you do such terrible things, over and over again, feeling satisfaction that you have done them, I will not tell you that you will burn in Hell. I will tell you that you will likely be reborn as a rabbit, in the hands of someone very much like yourself, and you will continue to be so reborn lifetime after lifetime in unequally generous proportion to the number of rabbits you have harmed.

You want to do what to me?

The domestic rabbits one finds these days are universally the product of hobby breeding. To take an example: the New Zealand White, which I fancy, is not from New Zealand, but from an American breeder named W.S. Preshaw, who in 1916 bred them for their meat and fur. (*) The Netherland Dwarfs, which I also fancy, first began as show animals in the early twentieth century. They made it to Britain in the late 1940s, and weren't imported to the United States until the 1960s. These are just two examples. You can study the history of the other breeds, and they all tell more or less the same story. Bunnies are business. To arrive at today's idealized pets, it would seem we have traveled a bloody, callous, and barbaric road. Well, what do you think happens to rabbits that don't "make the grade?"

So, in Monday's post, I envinced sadness that House Rabbit Society, which engages in rabbit rescue and no-kill sheltering  -- to which I also belong and strongly support, affectionately calling them the "Rabbit SWAT Team" -- wasn't overtly represented at the ARBA convention. I was particularly disappointed that HRS San Diego wasn't there, since I direct a fair amount of sponsorship their way, and I fully expected to see them.

I hold out a great deal of hope that HRS can eventually cause the show breeders to knock off the murderous double-standard. I think a logical place to begin is by changing the judging criteria for shows. I think that if ARBA adopts points for humane practices, this will be an important first step. If ARBA is slow, then HRS can start sanctioning its own clubs, and hold its own shows, promoting humane values like rescue, rehabilitation, and education. HRS has already had success with preventing national chain pet supply stores from selling "Easter rabbits" to mindless masses. Maybe someday they can even play a role in eliminating rabbit from the human diet -- bunnies are lovable, but frankly speaking, they aren't nutritious on any level. Now that humankind has invented the wheel, I see no reason to still consider rabbits as edible.

My remarks provoked a number of letters from members of both ARBA and HRS, all with varying degrees of concern lest I misunderstand the matter at hand. Be assured, I do not misunderstand.

As a Buddhist, it is my hope that ARBA and HRS will declare a cease-fire, lay down their arms, and engage one another in useful peace talks that lead to greater understanding on both sides.

As a human being, it is my prayer that this greater understanding will result in fewer rabbit deaths,  mutilations, abandonments, and karmic misery for all concerned.

It should not be about the people. It should be about the rabbits.

These are just my passing thoughts.

(*) As an aside, I consider the New Zealand White to be the quintessential rabbit for Buddhists, but I am told they are the most difficult placements for adoption. This situation needs to be fixed. The NZWs are the ones most frequently in need of rescue and adoption because they are the ones most frequently used in research, and for horrid other purposes. Yet, as companion animals, they really are second to none. My beloved friend, the late Old Rabbit, was a New Zealand White. What we really need is an "alternative" New Zealand White club or affinity group with a whole new set of values. The rabbits can be shown with tags on their cages instead of tattoos in their ears.

UPDATED: Well, my two posts on the bunnies generated a lot of email and list discussion. Good. That is what they were intended to achieve. I would like to add that it seems fruitless for adults to butt heads over these issues, when what we should really be doing is concentrating on the young people. One of the things that struck me about the ARBA convention was the large number of young people, and we will get back to that in just a moment.

What we have here is a clash of values. To an extent, ARBA is expressing the values of a time that is long passed. When this was an agricultural nation, you could get away with all this talk of food and fur, and nobody would pay it any mind. There is almost a kind of nostalgia associated with this. HRS belongs to what we might want to think of as a more enlightened society. I do not know how realistic that is, but this is what we like to believe. HRS people tend to be from urban backgrounds, ARBA from rural backgrounds.

I started keeping rabbits as pets in 1956, strictly on a child's emotional basis, without any interest in animal husbandry. I didn't much care for 4-H, because I knew a lot of kids in 4-H who took what I call the barnyard hatchet approach. That is just how they were taught. I was taught differently, and all of my life, I have been unable to abide any harm being done to animals.

Nevertheless, I always enjoyed the shows. Where else could you go to see a large number of rabbits? In those days, it was common to show rabbits at the county or state fair: just something that younger kids traditionally did. The judging was on the care one gave one's rabbit, as evidenced by the rabbit's appearance. There really wasn't much interest in adhering to a hypothetical ideal, because these were all just farm kids showing off the same common breeds.

Maybe I am a bit hypocritical, because while I enjoyed going to the shows and seeing the rabbits, I really disliked the notion of disrupting them for no good reason. I have written about this elsewhere, and if you use the search function at right, you might be able to find those comments.

At the ARBA National Convention in Del Mar, I was interested to find a new friend for my best friend. I decided to find a rabbit there because I knew they would have "market" animals that would otherwise be killed, and I knew I would get a chance to meet young people. I did meet a young lady who had a rabbit destined to die, and by the time I walked away with that rabbit, I will wager you that young lady's perspective had changed forever. Put quite simply, she had never been exposed to the ideas I shared with her. She had never heard the proverbial "other side of the story."

All human beings have the same nature. On a certain level, we already know what is right and wrong. Our hearts instruct us, but as we go along, the heart's small voice is often drowned out by louder voices and we become confused. This is the nature of samsara.

If you were to go to the ARBA shows and confront the young people there, they would all describe themselves as animal lovers. Yet, in the same breath, they could speak to you -- seemingly without emotion -- about "culling," or "processing," and not wanting to get "too attached" to rabbits they raised for slaughter. This is not because they are inherently bad people. This is simply how they have been taught.

So, my gripe is that HRS was not there to teach them. These ARBA kids of today can easily become the HRS nightmares of tomorrow. They can also become the heroes. Do you want to concentrate all of your resources on crisis management? Or, do you want to throw a few dimes at prevention through education? This is an old story.

In private correspondence, related to this post, I asked a reader if she could imagine the impact of HRS members joining ARBA en masse, serving on committees, and most importantly -- voting on measures and elections. I asked her what it would be like if HRS organized its own, non-competitive shows, and started its own, non-competitive specialty clubs.

If the human participants in these new shows and clubs were judged on humane values, don't you think it would make a difference? What if the kid who walked away with the blue ribbon and the big grin got them by rescue work? By rehabilitation work? By education work? What if the youthful exhibitors got a nice certificate when they signed a pledge to regard rabbits not as food or fur, but as valuable sentient creatures to be protected from exploitation? What if the trophy went for kindness instead of competition?

If HRS starts sanctioning specialty clubs, or basically starts taking ethical control of the ARBA sanctioned clubs, instilling a new set of values, I think this will have a big impact. Nobody raising Netherland Dwarfs, for example, even considers the words "food" or "fur," so half the battle is already won. The rest of the battle is responsible breeding practices and basic animal welfare.

As for ARBA, they have to change with the times. Fur production in the U.S. is worthless, so the notion of raising rabbits for fur is just ridiculous. That battle will have to be fought in China and France. The notion of rabbits as food is likewise ridiculous. If you are trapped on a deserted island with a million rabbits, you will still die of malnutrition. I hope ARBA can make these changes by themselves; that it won't take boycotts, or lawsuits, or the other available tools of change. I agree with the reader who suggested that ARBA members should pull shifts as HRS rescue volunteers, so that they can see what the HRS people have to deal with.

When you see what some humans do to animals, you might not like humans very much.

I also believe ARBA needs to fundamentally rethink what they are teaching young people. I mentioned HRS to a breeder at the ARBA show, and he dismissed it, saying, "They're worse than PETA." Well, PETA doesn't condone killing animals, and Buddhists don't condone killing animals, so as a Buddhist, I have to ask: what is so wrong with PETA? Are they a bit strident? Yes, they are. Maybe they need to be. Should ARBA condone killing animals? Is that what they want to teach their 21st century children? That killing is fundamentally "necessary?"

So, what am I advocating? Just a little give and take. If everybody can learn to proceed from their true nature, it shouldn't be all that difficult.

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15 reader comments:

San Diego HRS said...

I wonder, and don't understand, how you align yourself with the breeders, at the shows, when your heart tells you that animals should not be exploited by humans. The HRS philosophy strays very far from ARBA intentions, in that we also believe it's wrong to "show" rabbits. As you discussed, the process of getting to that 'perfect specimen' is a cruel one, and we - I specifically - believe that to subject rabbits to the show circuit in order to win prizes, ribbons, and sell them or their progeny is simply one more method of exploitation.

HRS volunteers often feel that we are left to clean up the messes of breeders; rabbits in shelters, in backyards, from 4-H'ers, etc. but we also feel that even after having done all that, ARBA also expects HRS to do the educating. Isn't this, at least, one area where they can carry some of their own weight? Perhaps members like yourself (who view rabbit spanking as injurious to the rabbit) can educate from within. For perhaps, from among their own ranks, they might be willing to learn.

I too, wish there could be a "meeting in the middle" but I think we are still far from it. Perhaps the day that breeders volunteer daily in shelters, they will come to understand HRS a bit more and we will appreciate their support in the trenches where animals die daily from a simple lack of enough homes.


Editor said...

You need to go back and read what I wrote very carefully. I am not "aligned" with anyone. I am aligned with the rabbits. I belong to both ARBA and HRS because of the rabbits. I dislike ARBA's policies and want to see them changed. But, that isn't going to happen through divisiveness: it is going to happen through dialogue. It won't happen by taking sides, but by taking a stand. HRS should have been there in force even if it meant standing across the street handing out leaflets. You have thousands of people who are interested in rabbits turning up, and where was HRS? This was a missed opportunity to educate at the grassroots level, among the people who are most likely to be the cause of the problems you are trying to correct.
Sorry... but it needs to be addressed.

San Diego HRS said...

Yes, I see now that I missed a point that was made in an earlier post which I had not read.

You make some good points, I agree, and I would still make my point that while we are educating, breeders should try working in the shelters. By meeting in the middle I assume you "do" mean that ARBA folks should do the same.

On one note, however, HRS chapters are forbidden to have a table at any event where rabbits are being displayed as food, fur or fancy. In other words, exploited by humans in some way. So we coudn't have been there anyway, at least not as official representatives of HRS. I wouldn't have endangered that status of our chapter by doing so. Handing out leaflets across the street would seem to be more antagonistic than establishing dialogue.

Anyway, interesting blog and I think your observations show just how wide the path is between HRS and ARBA. That's one tough river to cross.

Editor said...

I think your idea about breeders working in shelters is an ideal step for ARBA: one of many I would like to see them take. I also agree with you that handing out leaflets might seem antagonistic (although I did not mean it in the "picket line" sense) -- in fact, I am a bit self-contradictory on that point, because I wrote back to someone who wrote privately:"Imagine if everybody in HRS joined in the various clubs and groups and educated -- and voted -- instead of standing on the sidelines pointing fingers? What if alternative "shows" demonstrating how to care for and rehabilitate abused rabbits took the place of the ridiculous and barbaric breeding competitions?" So maybe standing on the street passing leaflets could be interpreted as standing on the sidelines, pointing fingers.

What I am trying to express won't fit comfortably here in the comments -- so look for an update on the post above very soon.

I think we can all agree that something needs to be done, and maybe it is going to involve a bit of give and take on all sides.

But again, I want to say -- it is about the rabbits, it is not about us.

San Diego HRS said...

I agree 100%. It's about the rabbits. It has to be, or what's the point?

BTW, your BWB's are fabulous. Like you, they are my favorites too.

Anonymous said...

I remember when Old Rabbit first arrived in Arcadia.

It seems a million years ago.

Editor said...

Well, only the photos of Old Rabbit and Daisy are of my friends. The other pictures are of sly charmers who side-swiped me with their good looks.

They are rascals, but what can I say?

Search "rabbit" in the box at the right column of this blog, and you will find some photos of my other friends.

Editor said...

BTW... the rule about not having an HRS table at events which condone the food fur fancy nexus is a bad rule. That is precisely where you SHOULD be, telling the other side of the story. If people never see or never hear, then what do you expect?

Preaching to the choir isn't very satisfactory, you know?

San Diego HRS said...

Yes, you are right about preaching to the choir. But in reality, HRS chapters all around the world hold monthly and annual events where they invite the public (not just members), and successfully educate many people who never knew a rabbit could be litter box trained and live to run free indoors.

At San Diego HRS, in particular, we hold a monthly speaker series, which we advertise to everyone - not just people on our mailing list - to teach people about housing, diet, advances in medical care, etc. (with many great speakers who come from outside HRS) and we get a lot of new faces. Our Bunnyfest brought in about 600 people this year. With these types of events being held around the world, our organization is making good progress.

We send our education booths into community events at least once a month, reaching people who never thought of a rabbit as a family companion.

Rather than in one large annual event such as the ARBA convention, HRS chapters - around the world - are constantly educating, step by step, little by little.

Maybe, some day, we'll be ready to challenge ARBA on its doorstep, but for now we are taking the non-confrontational method by working within our communities (including young people) and bringing the message of indoor rabbit companions to thousands. We may not "get" them all, but we are offering the "other side of the story."

Don't forget, too, that many of us HRS folks are just like you and others who chose the 'non ARBA' path. We were raised in the environment where rabbits were considered livestock and we turned away from it; it was not for us. We turned to a new message. Even though our organization seems to be an urban one, many of us come from farming and ranching backgrounds and grew to love the animals in that environment first, turning to a no-kill philosophy as we grew old enough and confident enough to make our own choices.

This has been a good discussion and I hope that many will see that our goal - both of us - is to look at rabbits the way they might their cat or dog. As a sentient being, thought of as a family member, and given the opportunity to thrive and to live out its potential 10 to 12 years.

Like you said - it's about the rabbits.

Editor said...

I wholeheartedly agree.

Very well reasoned, very well said, and definitely worthy of everyone's support -- not just rabbit fanciers.

This is just one more reason why Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar makes it a point to publish seasonal appeals for support of House Rabbit Society.

I really do want to thank you for entertaining this dialogue in the spirit in which it was intended, and please be assured I am always praying for your success and happiness.


Maybe I got a little hot, eh? Well.. the overstuffed coward with the red ball cap at the Silver Marten table, who confidently told me of smacking a bunny across the barn for spraying pee, caused the fuse to burn rather close to the powder. As it happens, I have a Silver Marten (Rambo) rescued from a topless dancer (long story) who has seizure issues from being mistreated (the rabbit, not the dancer).

You can pray for the man, and I did and I do, because the rabbit got smacked once, whereas the man has a rather more frequent smacking in store as lifetime follows lifetime.

Anyway... still wish you were there.

Don Croner said...

May I just say a word or two in praise of the lowly wild Cottontail?

Amy said...

Perhaps after years of rescue I am jaded, but my favorite comment in this blog post was about breeders coming back as rabbits in a breeder's care. I really don't think those who exploit these creatures--and breeding IS exploitation, even for pets, let alone culling/food/fur--have stopped to think about the big picture they fuel in tandem with an uneducated public.

HRS (of which I am a part, but I'm speaking from my own personal experiences here) fights battles on several fronts. We are faced with too many homeless rabbits in shelters and as strays. Many came from some hobby or 4H breeding program; others come through pet stores; and then there are all the accidents and experiments that happen in pet owners' homes. Less frequently but still significantly there are abuse/neglect cases, though we respond to requests for help from local animal control agencies and do not 'raid,' 'investigate,' nor 'plot against' breeding facilities, despite what others might believe in the ARBA community. We simply don't have the resources to fight back at every source, since most days are spent treading water and making hard decisions about which shelter bunnies can come home with us and which must stay to be euthanized for lack of space in foster care, available good homes, or funds to pay the vet. The mission is one of rescue and education, not politics and infiltration.

Like Judith, I'd love to see the gap bridged between ARBA and HRS, if only to stop some of the vitriol that poisons those younger members. Trust me, we want to be 'out of business' (but let me be clear we're all going broke doing rescue, despite the hilarious references to us as HR$ in some breeding circles). We don't want there to be rabbits who need rescue! The curious position of rabbits in the Western world as both livestock and pet makes this battle more than twice as hard for HRS than it does for a dog or cat rescue group. Can anyone imagine siding with a puppy mill, or passing local laws that allow one to eat or break the necks of extra dogs from breeding programs? HRS has to focus on the flow of homeless rabbits because that is the most urgent need, the lives lost daily. We are hardly equipped to fight battles of eating/breeding/fur-producing, and indeed that's not the mission. Our education efforts (which are significant) are primarily at the pet-owner level and convincing pet stores to cease the sale of rabbits. As surprising as it may be to some members of ARBA, we aren't out picketing nor are we even all vegetarians!

One of the biggest barriers to HRS having a presence at an ARBA convention (other than policy) is that our mere presence gives the appearance of sanctioning that breeding exploitation. Casual attendees could easily assume we are part of, aligned with, or in agreement with rabbit breeding and showing, which is definitely not the case. Yes, we may post educational materials in some pet stores--but not stores that sell rabbits! That implies that it's ok to buy a bunny, which promotes breeding and the rabbit as a 'product,' something against our philosophy.

I appreciated your thoughts in this post, and indeed if every rabbit-lover were so reasoned, the gap between HRS and ARBA would not be as wide. As it is, we struggle to save lives daily, and the other organization creates and destroys them. I fear never the twain shall meet until breeding and showing - exploitation - are out of consideration on ARBA's part, and that seems unlikely.

Editor said...

Dear Don -- By all means speak up. There is certainly nothing lowly about the cottontail in my book.

Dear Amy -- Thank you for your thoughtful post. For me, the whole show breeding issue falls down to a single question: if you love rabbits enough to breed them, then how can you bear to knock them off in pursuit of some stupid trophy or ribbon? Do you think the rabbits care about trophies? They already know they are beautiful!
While I don't think it can be stopped -- you look at dog breeders for example -- I am hopeful it can become more humane, and that is one reason why I am encouraging dialogue between breeders and HRS. Thank you very much for writing.

mr frodo said...

i only wish to add that i very much appreciate your blogs about the rabbits. while we haven't adopted as many rabbits as cats (simply because virtually all our animals are rescues in one form or another), all our rabbits have been adopted from groups that rescue them or shelters. right now we have one here (i don't know why type he is sorry- grey with perky ears..), but thank you for these posts. i do love them and sorry to hear about the divisiveness between animal rescue groups sometimes it is sad to me, at least that's how i understand it.

Genro said...

I am a practicing zen buddhist, who was undeniably led to this path by a checkered giant who had been dumped in the woods by a local breeder. He was subsequently named "Buddha" by me. I had to leave him to head off on pilgrimage, but since that time, I have found a bunny to be rescued in every locale, even when I was in a Japanese monastery (long story)!

I truly believe these creatures deserve our utmost care and attention, they have suffered so much for us. Thank you for your posts and bringing these issues to the forefront. Thank you especially for being there for "Old" rabbit....many blessings in the dharma.