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There's More Than One Way to Kill a Rabbit

Whole Foods has recently introduced rabbit meat in a handful of its US stores, and bunny lovers are furious. The fact that Whole Foods is even offering rabbit is enough to set them off, but how those rabbits get slaughtered is another matter entirely.

In Manhattan's Union Square this past Sunday, about 40 bunny-loving activists lined up on two stretches of sidewalk outside a Whole Foods Market. Though they were well-organized and well-stocked with flyers, posters, petitions, and pre-drafted letters, there was something non-threatening about them.

Some wore bunny ears. Others had bunny tattoos and bunny earrings. One protestor, Tracy Nuzzo, actually brought a real live rabbit, a wee brown and black thing called Kelsey, with her in a duffel bag lined with dry newspaper and fresh parsley. "He doesn't like cilantro," she told me. "Go figure."

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This assemblage was one of 45 spread out across the country for a national day of action, organized by the House Rabbit Society, to protest Whole Foods's pilot program to start selling rabbit meat. It is available in seven of the 11 geographic regions where Whole Foods has a presence in the United States.

In Whole Foods' telling, the pilot program, which began earlier this year, is about nothing more than serving customer need. Rabbit is only available in parts of the country where demand is high, according to Whole Foods spokeswoman Liz Burkhart. Some of the country's most populous areas, including southern California, Florida, and Texas do not have rabbit at their Whole Foods locations.

But to Margo DeMello, the president of the House Rabbit Society, the grocery giant isn't simply meeting demand. As she sees it, the grocer's move is more about manufacturing appetite for an animal that had previously existed on the fringes of America's culinary consciousness and, in the process, putting it on a conveyor belt leading to industrialized slaughter.

"Rabbits have never been a mainstream meat before," DeMello says. "I don't think any of us should tolerate yet another animal being artificially turned into an acceptable meat animal."

There are plenty of numbers that support DeMello's claim that rabbit is an acquired taste. The most recent US Agricultural Census reports that in 2012, the total value of all the live rabbits raised and sold for consumption in the United States amounted to a bit more than $15 million. By comparison, the value of all the cattle and calves sold that same year was more than $76 billion. Though stories of rising demand pop up here and there, rabbit simply does not have the same importance as beef, pork, chicken, turkey, or lamb.

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How, then, does one manufacture demand, especially in a customer base as finicky as that of Whole Foods? Humane standards for raising (or, to use the business term, "growing") are a good place to start. The company's standards for rabbit growers, which took four years to finalize, are laid out in a 10-page document that answers those questions asked by the couple in that iconic Portlandia sketch: Whether the rabbits lived in enclosures that gave them the chance to hide or tunnel; whether they were provided with gnawing blocks; or whether they were caught with a minimum of chasing.

What's not addressed, however, are standards and methods for slaughter. The House Rabbit Society has a fairly detailed breakdown of those here, which includes input from Whole Foods employees. The required procedure involves using a kind of stun gun—the non-penetrating captive bolt—to render the rabbits insensible to pain before their throats are slit and they are hung up to be drained of blood.

Non-penetrating captive bolts drive a flattened metal head forward a short distance at a high speed, and the House Rabbit Society allows that they are humane, provided they are used correctly and under appropriate conditions.

But those appropriate conditions, especially for an animal like a rabbit, may be hard to come by in a slaughterhouse. Jacques Gautier, the chef-owner of Brooklyn's Palo Santo, spent many years raising rabbits for his own personal consumption. He says that killing them humanely requires time, familiarity, and privacy.

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"You have to be patient with them," Gautier says, noting that a kicking or squirming rabbit will be harder to stun. Gautier says he often sat with a rabbit for several minutes, petting it and waiting for it to get comfortable, before initiating his own slaughter process.

That extra time is vital. A well-placed shot (or, in Gautier's process, a strike with a heavy object) knocks the rabbit out instantly, minimizing the pain and suffering involved. An errant shot just plunges the rabbit into agony, which in turn makes it all the more difficult to restrain so it can be shot in the right place.

Privacy is another key. Gautier made sure to kill the rabbits out of sight (and upwind) from where his other rabbits were housed. Rabbits are social creatures that live in groups, and the sight or smell of slaughter can induce intense stress among them, which both worsens their quality of life and can alter the taste of the meat.

Patience and privacy are two things not typically synonymous with industrial slaughter, and it will be hard to verify whether they are part of the Whole Foods process. All Whole Foods rabbits are sourced from farms in Iowa, an "ag gag" state where it is illegal for people to take jobs at farms or slaughterhouses with the intent of photographing their goings-on.

In an email exchange, Burkhart mentioned that Whole Foods requires USDA inspectors to be on site throughout the slaughter process, though it is tough to say what, exactly, those inspectors are monitoring. From the perspective of an animal's wellbeing, there is nothing for them to monitor; there is no legislation that specifies how rabbits should be slaughtered. Only cattle, pigs, and sheep are mentioned in the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, the chief piece of legislation governing the conditions of animal slaughter. Burkhart wrote that the USDA inspectors will be checking to ensure that suppliers are meeting the standards it sets.

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Of course, for the bunny-loving crowd in New York, even the most humane method of slaughter still amounts to, well, slaughter.

"We would not find anything satisfactory," DeMello says.

Before Sunday's protests began, DeMello says she knew that she and her organization were fighting an uphill battle. "I don't think we're going to change people's opinions," she says.

What she was hoping for, she says, was for people to tap into the love of environment and animals that drew them to Whole Foods in the first place and use it to pressure the grocer.

"We're just trying to make people aware," she said.