Animal Rights

Connecticut Should Let Small Farmers Slaughter Their Rabbits on Their Farms

A cost-efficient and humane method for processing rabbit meat is preferable to the state's current system.


A pair of bills in Connecticut could make it easier for small farmers there to raise and slaughter rabbits and sell their meat. One, a standalone bill, would allow farmers to slaughter, process, and sell meat from up to 1,000 rabbits they raise each year. The other bill contains similar language, along with other agricultural provisions unrelated to rabbits. Both bills also allow the state to inspect the on-farm slaughter facilities.

The need for a mechanism that would allow small farmers to slaughter rabbits they raise on their farms, as a Hartford Courant article detailed this week, is evident. "The system set up to [slaughter rabbits] is inefficient compared to all other species," Connecticut farmer Daniela Larese, who raises pastured pigs, chicken, goats, and other animals on around 40 acres and who supports the bills, told the Courant this week. "We want legal clarification." Larese tells the paper she used to raise rabbits but the obstacles and costs pertaining to slaughter made doing so economically unfeasible.

And while the Courant notes the bills have the support of small farmers in Connecticut and the state's agriculture department, not everyone's on board.

"[A]nimal-rights activists, many from out of state and even out of the country, have crowded hearings on the topic to oppose the bills," the Courant reports.

Indeed, some vocal critics claim rabbits aren't food. And others—including a former Connecticut lawmaker—have completely mischaracterized the bills as some sort of nefarious takeover by large agricultural interests.

According to the Courant, some activists claim "there is little demand for rabbit meat," while others suggest such a market exists but "a caring public will oppose a market for rabbit meat!" A state agricultural extension specialist rightly called such criticisms "ignorant." Restaurateurs quoted in the Courant piece say the demand for rabbit meat generally—and locally raised meat specifically—means they'd add it to their menus if it were available. But the animal-rights activists don't seem to care.

In a separate op-ed in the Courant this week, Diana Urban, a former Connecticut state lawmaker who opposes eating rabbits, contrasts what she characterizes as "a significant national movement encouraging a transition to more plant-based diets" with small farmers in Connecticut raising rabbits for food, which she conflates—either disingenuously or out of sheer ignorance—with "confining and slaughtering animals at factory farms."

Urban concludes with an appeal to data. "I worked hard in my years in the General Assembly to insist on data-driven decision-making so that we wouldn't muddle through by passing inane laws that not only create more bureaucracy but drag Connecticut backward," she writes.

Okay, then.

I suppose I could appeal to hearts—a caring public will allow a market for rabbit meat!—but I won't. Instead, here's some handy data:

  • Rabbit is a common food in many cultures, including Greek, Ukrainian, and Chinese cuisine.
  • Other states, including Indiana, Maine, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, have similar exemptions in place for their small farmers who want to raise and slaughter rabbits on their farms.
  • As the website Beyond Factory Farming notes, allowing farmers to slaughter animals on the farm "is preferred for humane reasons." Prohibiting small farmers from processing their own rabbits means that—given consumer demand—those rabbits are more likely to be raised on those same "factory farms" that Urban wrongly invokes in her criticism of the Connecticut bills.

Additionally, Connecticut currently allows small farmers to slaughter up to 20,000 chickens on their farms under this common exemption. Rabbits, of course, aren't chickens. Other than both species being eminently swappable in the kitchen and competing (cartoonishly and anthropomorphically) for the title of most irritating Looney Tunes character, what do rabbits have to do with chickens? Not a ton. But federal and state regulations have encouraged them to be treated similarly. For example, California's state agriculture department notes that when it comes to on-farm slaughter, it "considers rabbits in the same class as poultry."

Unlike cows and pigs, the USDA labels rabbits (along with bison, ostriches, and other purportedly exotic species of meat animals) as a "non-amenable" species, meaning rabbits raised for food are not subject to the agency's mandatory slaughter and processing requirements. Instead, federal rules state that farmers who raise rabbits to sell for food may (but need not) choose to have the animals slaughtered and processed at a USDA-inspected facility.

Indeed, Connecticut's proposed rabbit exemption is akin to the USDA's exemption for small poultry farmers—a carveout that requires a state to opt in for it to be in force. The poultry exemptions allow small farmers that meet certain requirements to slaughter up to 1,000 birds, 20,000 birds, or some combination (or a modified version) of the exemptions. That's where rabbits fit in.

"Many states, in adopting the federal exemptions from the Poultry Products Inspection Act, include some regulation of the raising and processing of rabbit meat," says Alexia Kulwiec, an attorney who leads the nonprofit Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF), where I serve on the board. "These exemptions allow for the sale of on-farm processed poultry and rabbits without using inspection facilities. Having a clear statute specifically providing for on-farm processing of rabbits would help the economic sustainability of local farms while providing a local source of protein to interested consumers.

As this FTCLDF map indicates, the great majority of states have chosen to adopt both the 1,000- and 20,000-bird exemptions for on-farm poultry slaughter, while only two states—Arkansas and Kentucky—have not adopted any such exemptions. Though slaughtering 20,000 chickens (or 1,000 rabbits) may sound like a huge number of birds to the uninitiated, it's not even a drop in the overall U.S. poultry bucket. Consider, as PETA laments here, that around 9 billion chickens are killed each year in this country for food. (PETA's figure, surprisingly, is conservative.)

Most of those chickens are raised on so-called factory farms. If current (and, especially, former) Connecticut lawmakers are really as concerned about rabbits as they are about those chickens they've rightly allowed to be humanely slaughtered on the state's small farms, then they'll pass one of the two bills before them. And I will order the locally raised rabbit ragu the next time I dine out in Connecticut.