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Rabbits belong to a group of mammals known as ‘Lagomorpha’. It’s thought that the Lagomorpha evolved in Asia at least 40 million years ago. There are now more than 60 recognised breeds of domestic rabbit in Europe and America, which have descended from the European rabbit. Their Latin name (Oryctolagus Cuniculus) means ‘Hare-like digger of underground tunnels’, which perfectly sums up a rabbit’s natural behavior of living underground in a burrow.
The European rabbit evolved around 40,000 years ago. The Romans arrived in Spain around 200BC and began to farm the native rabbits for meat and fur (a practice called ‘Cuniculture’). Rabbits were kept in fenced enclosures whilst they were fattened up before being killed, cooked and served. As the Roman Empire spread, trade between countries increased, and new countries were explored and colonised, the European rabbit was introduced to other parts of Europe and Asia. Wild rabbit populations were able to rapidly grow due to their high rate of reproduction, especially in areas with few natural predators.
It’s believed that rabbits were first domesticated in the 5th Century by Monks in the Champagne region of France, who made the transition from keeping rabbits in fenced enclosures to using cages as a readily available food source. These monks were also amongst the first to experiment in selectively breeding rabbits for weight, fur colour etc.
Rabbits first came to Britain sometime in the 12th Century, when breeding and farming for meat and fur had become widespread throughout Europe. Selective breeding meant that distinct breeds originated in different regions, and by the mid 19th Century, selective breeding of domestic rabbits was a widespread practice, resulting in a large variety of breeds. Until the 19th Century, domestic rabbits were bred solely for meat and fur, but during Victorian times, a number of breeds were developed as a hobby and for shows. It became common amongst the middle classes to keep rabbits as pets, as they were the most practical animal to bring with them as they moved from the countryside to more urban areas.
By the 20th Century, the hobby of rabbit breeding had been popularised across Europe, resulting in more new varieties and colours being developed. Some of these breeds came from fixing or enhancing naturally occurring genetic mutations (eg. Himalayan and Rex), or through cross-breeding. In America, rabbits were mostly hunted in the wild until the late 19th Century, and it wasn’t until around the turn of the century that domestic rabbitry became more popular, when many European breeds were imported and some American breeds were developed.
In both Britain and America, people were encouraged to keep rabbits during the World Wars as a source of food and fur for themselves and soldiers. When the wars ended, many continued to keep rabbits in their garden, making it common for them to be seen as household pets.
Unfortunately, rabbits have always been, and still are, farmed for the above reasons, and medical testing. They may have progressed to being kept as domestic pets, rather than simply food, but they are still viewed as cheap and ‘disposable’ pets. The modern relationship with bunnies is one of the most confusing in all of the human-animal relationships. They have been sacrificed, hunted, bred, skinned, slaughtered, experimented on and consumed, along with worshipped, cherished, represented in countless myths, folk tales, children’s books and art work. Despite this, they are rarely considered as an animal interesting enough to warrant investment, which is partly due to their long history as a food animal, and that even when kept as a companion animal, they are housed in outdoor cages which are far too small, where they sit on display for people to come and coo over like an ornament or water feature. They’re never given a chance to show how interesting they can be, or to move around freely, they are there to sit and look pretty.
The idea of the hutch originates from Victorian times, where rabbits would be kept in crates as a temporary holding place before going in the cooking pot. These crates often had legs to raise them off the ground for convenience, just like a traditional hutch you see today. It would come as no surprise then to learn that the word ‘hutch’ comes from the French word ‘huche’, meaning a chest on four legs.  So in effect, a hutch is the equivalent of a fridge, a place to sit with little movement to fatten rabbits up to be eaten.
Our attitudes towards rabbits have since changed to view them as pets, yet somehow, this concept of the hutch as their living accommodation still remains today. One of the main reasons for this is lack of education and understanding of what rabbits really need.