Book Review: Stories Rabbits Tell

You might be forgiven if you picked up this book expecting another More Tales from Watership Down. But, Stories Rabbits Tell is instead human-rabbit history, an encyclopedia of human engagements with rabbits over time, organized into the categories humans use to think about rabbits. As such, it holds up a mirror that reflects back to us who we are from what might imaginatively be construed as the rabbit perspective.

Many will know Margo DeMello as the Executive Director of the House Rabbit Society. She has long lived with large numbers of free-roaming rabbits in her home. She has a Ph.D. in anthropology, and her book on the American tattoo community was published by a distinguished university press. Susan Davis is an HRS educator whose work has appeared in high-profile national magazines. Together, the authors have researched everything anyone knows about rabbits. One of the book’s great pleasures is that it is just such a compilation. Finding out how many droppings a day the average rabbit produces is worth the price of the book.

Divided into three major sections, the book begins with a broad look at domestication. It opens as a compendium of biological facts about rabbits and then describes their history as they spread from Spain to all parts of Europe, largely due to human activity, particularly keeping rabbits as food animals in rabbit gardens and hunting them. Then, as today, hunting interests increased animal populations while claiming to control them. As rabbit populations exploded, humans responded to the “pest” that they themselves created with brutally ingenious but largely futile measures. The authors show how these are pertinent to control agendas used against rabbits today. The section ends with house rabbits from the HRS point of view, with many new insights. For example, rabbit aggression is at last frankly discussed, including Susan’s experiences with a rabbit so aggressive that she wore rubber boots to protect herself. Margo’s theory about the structure of rabbit societies is, well, brilliant.

Part Two treats cultural representations of rabbits: ancient myths, rituals, folk tales and contemporary images. The persistent theme is the link between rabbits and women in human thought, often to the detriment of both. As the authors show, in ancient belief, the rabbit expressed fertility, the meaning behind the pervasive rabbit-moon-woman cluster. But the rabbit also became the repository of fears about female sexuality, and, unfortunately, a symbolic way to control those anxieties. The authors go on to explain that folk tales depict rabbits as cowardly or arrogant or both. They end the chapter with a fine discussion of Brer Rabbit, including his subversive role in slave culture. “The Rabbit as Contemporary Icon” discusses rabbits in literature, television, and film, both for children and adults; rabbits in advertising; bunny collectibles. It concludes that rabbits today are excessively infantalized, generally located within a sentimental version of women’s culture, and still deployed to degrade women.

I really did not want to read the third section, which covers rabbits used in the meat, fur, laboratory and pet industries. I do not eat or wear rabbits-or any other animal-nor do I buy products from companies that experiment on them. And all of my animals were rescued. So why should I subject myself to this unpleasant information? I felt differently after I finished the section. I felt as if I had enacted an important witnessing of the miserable conditions of rabbits hidden away in exploitation industries; I felt that intellectually I did not turn my back on them, even though they can never know this. More practically, the section provided me with the information I might need in the future to be their advocates in conversations, public statements, letters. Indeed the authors are to be commended for their courage to face and filter much disturbing material. My guess is that they found, as I did, solace in deep fellowship with their rabbit companions.

If I have any complaint about the book, it relates to my own ambivalence about representing non-human animals. At times I found the descriptions too detached, as if the authors were oddly anxious for an impossible “objectivity.” For example, I failed to understand why the Playboy bunny was treated with sustained disapproval because it devalued women, while brutal practices and degrading attitudes toward rabbits sometimes were not. These included, for example, the ritual sacrifice of rabbits in ancient times, the excesses of the founders of the Bunny Museum, the “sensitivity” of breeders looking for a way to slaughter rabbits that won’t sicken them. More than once the authors seemed to adopt, temporarily but strangely, the point of view of whatever human they were representing. This objectivity struck me as residual anthropocentrism (human centeredness). Elsewhere, I felt an overly familiar tone, an implied confidence in human capacity to fully explain rabbits. I think we should remember, as one British historian has said so well, that our perceptions of animals are “based upon our limitations, and . . . that their lives exceed our abilities to think about them.”1 For me the fluctuating attitudes in the book created “dissonant voices.” I expect that the authors were trying to negotiate multiple perspectives. Perhaps they wanted to criticize exploitation by juxtaposing it against more nurturing attitudes rather than through direct critique. Happily, the conclusion treats the “rabbit issue” from a consistent, self-aware, point of view that acknowledges competing claims but establishes the authors’ advocacy for rabbits within the larger question of human treatment of all animals.

This book is a great achievement: a huge amount of information about rabbits presented in a well organized, highly interesting way, and a historical portrait of human beings as they enact their obsessive agendas on the rabbit body. The book documents the fiercely held ideas about rabbits that humans have, showing that some of them are more sane than others.

Julie Smith, PhD

House Rabbit Journal Fall 2003: Volume IV, Number 9