First, thank you for having me here and for taking the petition seriously. I am not the most confident speaker, so I will try not to rabbit on too much.
I know that people’s views of rabbits are not always great. We have seen a million recipes for rabbit stew; people hunt them; and they are a pest in the wild. However, domestic rabbits exist in large numbers, and the fact that there are no breeding controls has a knock-on effect on welfare standards. The breeders are unlicensed, and no one visits them to see what their set up is like or to ensure that they are providing a proper diet, veterinary treatment and so forth for the rabbits. Overbreeding and crossbreeding cause health problems; there is a lot of disease and there are even genetic defects, with dental issues, for example, becoming a big problem.
Although the European Union is introducing an animal health law that will ensure that breeders and sellers are registered from 2020, it does not mention rabbits. Scotland could set a standard by implementing new legislation or including rabbits in the existing legislation—the Licensing of Animal Dealers (Young Cats and Young Dogs) (Scotland) Regulations 2009—to give them welfare protection. There should also be a ban on pet shop sales similar to the ordinances that protect rabbits in northern USA and Canada. It is not that we want pet rabbits to disappear from pet shops, but the selling of them is out of control.
People view rabbits as cheap, easy, cuddly and child friendly, but they are far from that. They are one of the most difficult pets that I have ever had. They have needs specific to their species. They are neither cheap nor cuddly; in fact, they do not even like being picked up. Of course, they look cute but, to be honest, they are just like little furry monsters wrapped in fluff.
Basically, the pet industry is doing very little to change people’s views of rabbits. Recently, a Kilmarnock pet shop has been using Facebook to advertise rabbits for sale—I have included a picture in my submission—and it is just one of many companies doing so. A lot of companies use Facebook and suchlike to advertise their businesses, but the owner of this pet shop is basically saying on his Facebook page, “Rabbits are great for kids. Kids would love a bunny for Easter.” That is like advertising puppies for Christmas. Why is it still allowed? Such an attitude leads to high levels of neglect.
People do not realise that rabbits are driven by their need to breed; they are constantly breeding, because of the predators out in the wild, and domestic rabbits are no different. Depending on the breed, they can reach sexual maturity from around 16 weeks. In other words, you are taking a highly agile, active animal that is raging with hormones and sticking it in a hutch. People say that rabbits are aggressive, but that is not the case; they are just being denied their natural behaviours. Basically, you are locking them in a prison. They are fearful of the humans that come near them and they get mishandled. Kids are noisy. As I have said, they make a good family pet, but they are not for kids—certainly not on their own.
It is estimated that there are about 1 million rabbits in the United Kingdom. According to the website Pet Business World,
“Rabbits ... have maintained their numbers at one million”.
That figure comes from pet shop sales alone and does not take into account private adverts and online sales. If those are taken into account, we are looking at approximately 1.3 million rabbits.
There are a lot of surrenders, because people misunderstand what they are taking on, and pet rescues are struggling. The issue is not just the financial burden of taking the animals in; they also come with health problems, because they have been fed the wrong diet. They might have muscle wastage, they have not been to the vet or they have dental issues such as abscesses. The waiting lists are excessive. It is hard to find homes for them. Rescues have to ensure that people can provide the correct welfare and give the rabbit a good home; after all, they do not want to send it back to another situation of neglect. All the while, pet shops, online traders and so on are continuing to breed and sell rabbits or even give them away.
Around about last September, Pets at Home began a microchipping scheme; already, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is seeing microchipped rabbits in its care and assumes that they have been chipped at Pets at Home. In America, the House Rabbit Society believes that chipping works well and tackles the welfare issues, although the practice varies from state to state and from city to city. The society would like the practice to be spread out further.
As for the issue of minimum standards, I have a picture of a hutch that I bought not long ago in order to make a point. The company has ignored my complaints; the box was supposed to be 3 feet long but internally it is only 2.7 feet. Because it slopes down, it is 1.4 feet high at one end and 1.1 feet high at the other, and it is only 1.4 feet wide. I put one of my rabbits in it just to get a photo of him; even though he is of average size, he could not sit up properly. Your average-sized rabbit needs at least 2 to 3 feet to fully stretch out and lie down to rest, and 2 to 3 feet again just to stand up fully and stretch its body. Rabbit welfare studies for the a hutch is not enough campaign estimate that about 6 to 7 feet is needed for one rabbit just to take three hops. It is cruel to confine such a highly agile animal.
We need to set standards. The minimum recommendation is a hutch measuring at least 6 feet long, 2 feet wide and 2 feet high that is attached to a run of at least 8 feet so that the animals can come and go as they please and carry out their natural behaviours. They are most active in the mornings and evenings, so it is not just a case of remembering to let them out to give them a wee run around. It is not enough just to give them a couple of hours of exercise.
Hutches can be even smaller than the one that I have described. Even if you buy one that is 4 or 5 feet, it is still not enough. Rabbits get lonely, bored and frustrated; in fact, they have been shown to develop osteoporosis after only six months of being kept in a small cage. Because of their light and fragile bone structure, they can get thinning of the bones, which can break and fracture more easily. Muscle wastage is another issue.
We need to improve welfare and ensure that good products are available, and the same goes for the dietary stuff. There is too much overfeeding on commercial foodstuffs. Rabbits’ mainstay diet should be hay and grasses, but they are eating pellets and commercial food; because those things are soft, they are not wearing down their teeth, which grow unnaturally as a result.
People who go into pet shops see bad standards all the time. For them, such shops are supposed to be the main experts, and when people see the bad examples and products, they think that that is just normal. Basically, we are being sold neglect with regard to rabbits, because not enough knowledge is being passed on to customers. It comes down to the kind of licensing—