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chinese new year of the rabbit

This Chinese New Year is the year of the rabbit, a symbol of longevity, peace, and prosperity in Chinese culture, thus 2023 is predicted to be a year of hope. Here we provide more details about the social and emotional lives of these fascinating animals.


The Rabbit is any of 29 species of long-eared mammals belonging to the family Leporidae. They are ground dwellers that live in environments ranging from desert to tropical forest, grasslands and wetland.


Their natural geographic range encompasses the middle latitudes of the Western Hemisphere. In the Eastern Hemisphere rabbits are found in Europe, portions of Central and Southern Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Sumatra, Japan and Australia.


The European rabbit is the best-known and most recognizable of all species, it has been introduced to many locations around the world, and all breeds of domestic rabbit originate from the European. The historical evidence of domestication credits the Romans with the earliest written records of rabbits and as being the first to use hutches. The archaeological evidence shows that rabbits were hunted during the Palaeolithic in the Iberian Peninsula and southwest France. By the Middle Ages rabbits were considered a high-status food and regularly transported across Europe, although it took more than 2,000 years for differences between wild and domestic rabbits to be visible in their bones.


Rabbits are social animals and in a domestic situation they form lifelong bonds with each other. Social groups in the wild vary from a single pair to up to 30 rabbits using the same warren. Within large groups there is a distinct social hierarchy, and the most dominant females have access to the best nest sites, with lower ranking does raising their young in more exposed areas of the burrow.


Rabbits are preyed upon by many other animals and in the wild they rely on these social bonds to keep warm in the winter, warn each other if predators are spotted and to provide essential companionship. As a result, isolated rabbits spend much of their time feeling anxious, they have nobody to warn them of danger, meaning they cannot truly relax.

Rabbit friendship rivals that of all other social species. Rabbits groom each other, eat together, exercise together, dig and roll in the sand together and sleep together. In fact, as soon as a rabbit meets its best friend they spend very little time apart.


As social animals, they communicate both their emotions and their intentions to each other in a variety of ways that are understood by other rabbits. Although typically very quiet, rabbits communicate vocally, with varying types of vocalisations communicating different messages and understood by other rabbits. Rabbits emit a low humming sound as a sign of affection towards another rabbit, and a purring noise by grinding their teeth when happy.


They also produce a louder, crunchy type of teeth grinding that can indicate that an individual is in pain.


Scent also plays a predominant role in rabbit communication; rabbits have glands throughout their body and rub them on fixed objects to convey group identity, sex, age, social and reproductive status, and territory ownership to each other. They also urinate to communicate their presence and territory to others.


Rabbits also communicate with facial expressions, although their facial expressions may be too subtle for us to spot, other rabbits can read them and respond accordingly. They will use such facial expressions in conjunction with changes in body postures when they are in pain, stressed or anxious.


Rabbits are believed to demonstrate a wide variety of emotional states including affection, anger, happiness, sadness, fear, dominance, satisfaction, curiosity, cunning, restlessness, boredom, excitement, and amusement. To demonstrate their happiness, rabbits will binky when they feel joy, leaping into the air, twisting their bodies and kicking out their feet.


In addition to their emotional complexity, rabbits can also solve problems learning how to manipulate items in their environment to access tasty hidden treats.


Rabbits’ also have many natural features to be admired. They can rotate their ears up to 180 degrees, helping them to pinpoint the exact location of a sound, essential when avoiding predators. The large surface area of their ears also helps them to loose heat and cool down in hot temperatures.


Rabbits have nearly 360° panoramic vision, allowing them to detect predators from all directions. They can see everything behind them and only have a small blind-spot in front of their nose. They have incredible speed and to escape predator’s rabbits will run in a zigzag pattern to cause confusion.


And finally, rabbits are ecosystem engineers, European wild rabbits are in fact a 'keystone species' that hold together entire ecosystems with their grazing and digging activity keeping the ground in a condition that is perfect for sustaining a variety of plant species that could otherwise move on, and are essential to the survival of other species such as invertebrates.


Rabbits are socially and emotionally complex animals.


Unfortunately despite their rich social and emotional lives, and their positive impact on the environment, their numbers are declining regionally, nationally and globally. The European wild rabbit is now listed as endangered in its ancestral Iberian Peninsula range, and European rabbit populations have declined to as little as 5 percent of its 1950 numbers, whilst white-tailed jack rabbits in Yellowstone are threatened with extinction.


Additional species threatened with extinction due to habitat loss, degradation and global warming include the Annamite Striped Rabbit in Vietnam and the Riverine rabbit of South Africa.


Due to our reliance upon them in many parts of the world, as farmed animals for their meat and fur, many millions are suffering due to poor living conditions, including confinement in small cages often in social isolation, their treatment during transport and slaughter and lack of veterinary care.


Hundreds of thousands of individuals continue to suffer in laboratories across the world where they are used in medical and cosmetics research, and many more suffer as companion animals when they are housed alone, fed poor quality diets or receive little medical care within our own homes.


Millions of wild rabbits also continue to suffer as we wage a war on them as a ‘pest’ species to be eradicated, through the deliberate release of deadly viruses that cause individuals to suffer immense pain prior to death such as the rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus and myxomatosis.


We have benefited immensely from our relationship with rabbits. We now owe them respect and must do all we can to ensure the suffering of these sensitive animals on farms, in laboratories and as pets comes to an end and we can live in harmony with individuals that wish to bond with and protect those they care for.


Photo by MestoSveta

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