While Susan Orlean‘s article The Rabbit Outbreak is about a deadly virus affecting rabbits, it also provides a glimpse into the unusual relationship between humans and hares.*
In the U.S., rabbits were commonly raised for their meat, but “After the Second World War, the demand for rabbit meat began to decline. The number of cattle being raised domestically nearly doubled, and beef, which had previously been something of a luxury, became affordable. … Soon, it became the white meat of choice, and rabbit was marginalized as an occasional dish.”
“Eric Stewart, the executive director of the American Rabbit Breeders Association, also lays the blame for the decline of rabbit meat on Bugs Bunny.”
Rabbits had also been kept as pets, but the nature of the human-hare relationship changed in the 1980s “with the publication of Your French Lop: The King of the Fancy, the Clown of Rabbits, the Ideal Pet. The author … argued that pet rabbits, which were then typically relegated to a hutch in the back yard, made perfect house pets, just like cats and dogs … Many people consider the book the foundational text of the house-rabbit movement.”
Now, rabbits are as likely to sleep in your bed as they are to be cooked in your kitchen.
The virus that Orlean writes about, RHDV2, had seemed to only affect domestic rabbits, but now it has crossed over to wild rabbits and hares in the southwestern United States. A vaccine has been developed, but there are ethical issues involved, at least for house rabbit owners.
All quotes from: The Rabbit Outbreak: A highly contagious, often lethal animal virus arrives in the United States.
* following established Warners Bros taxonomy, I treat rabbits and hares as the same. Using Linnean taxonomy, domestic rabbits are all members of the European species Oryctolagus cuniculus, while the wild American species are divided into rabbits (either Sylvilagus or Brachylagus) and hares (genus Lepus).