By: Michael L. Tan - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | January 17,2023 - 08:00 AM


Next Sunday is the lunar new year, which gives an excuse to those who haven’t given year-end and Christmas holiday gifts yet to catch up.

Then, too, it’s always a topic for conversations around the Chinese zodiac and the animal of the year. Most of you probably already read something about it being the year of the rabbit, which isn’t quite as impressive as a tiger, or dragon, but I’m going to tell you later I wouldn’t mind being a rabbit (I’m a dragon).

Rabbits are intriguing, too, because some people see them as pets and others as food. In fact, they became popular right after World War II, amid food shortages, in many countries including the Philippines.

Many of us think of it as a cuddly little pet, and indeed it is always tempting to buy them for the kids. But I have memories from childhood of having had rabbits and their dying quickly, with older people blaming it on the grass fed to them and on their being prone to gas problems (flatulence).

In veterinary school, I don’t remember classes on rabbits, so I never got to learn about proper care for rabbits.

It turns out rabbits were domesticated quite late in human history, so we’re really still trying to understand their needs.

The origins of the domesticated rabbit have also been the topic of many articles. A commonly propagated myth is that Pope Gregory issued, in the 6th century, an edict declaring that newborn and fetal rabbits were not meat and were actually fish, which meant they could be eaten during Lent. (Remember that the older rule was no meat all throughout Lent.). This then resulted in rabbits becoming massively popular as a food animal, and from a domesticated food animal, it became a pet.

It took an evolutionary biologist, Greger Larsen, to get someone to look through historical archives about this papal edict, and it turned out there was no such document. But Larsen rightly saw this as an example of humans wanting origin stories about everything, including the domestication of different animals.

Larsen then used archaeological and genetic studies to probe into the rabbit and said domestication isn’t a “moment,” isn’t a single event. The rabbit was hunted down for centuries, then yes, was raised by humans for food, but this happened even before the so-called papal edict. Even as pets, it isn’t clear when this started—the Romans raised them outdoors and the idea of the rabbit inside homes is quite recent in human history.

Even in our modern times, we’re still grappling with how to raise rabbits properly. The Swiss, who is the most meticulous about rules on pets, classifies rabbits as a social animal, so their pet laws stipulate you have to raise a rabbit with at least one other rabbit. They have rules on the required living space—6 square meters, preferably outdoors and with structures for the rabbits to run around in, and to hide.

Rabbits reproduce quickly, so they should be neutered if you want to raise them as pets. And we get to the food: avoid grains and go for hay, greens, even fruits. So, it’s not true they develop gas quickly—it’s probably commercial pellet foods that are problematic.

Four Paws International has the best guide for raising rabbits, including prescribing at least an hour a day of quality time for your pet rabbit. Explain that to your children begging for a bunny.

Okay, let’s get to the folklore. The Chinese actually look at the rabbit, and rabbit-born humans (born this year 2023 and compute for previous years in 12-year cycles, e.g., 2011 was the last rabbit year). Rabbits are elegant and artistic. Watch them—they do have poise.

Rabbits are considered wily, too, able to outsmart their enemies. There is a Chinese saying, jiao tu san ku, which means a smart rabbit has three burrows. Translation: always “dig” alternatives. In English, a rabbit hole means a very complicated situation with lots of twists and turns, like a rabbit burrow.

Final piece of information: the Vietnamese lunar calendar is very similar to that of the Chinese but instead of a rabbit year, they have a cat year. I would have loved to write as well about cats, but you already know much more about them than about rabbits.

Happy rabbit/cat year!

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TAGS: animal of the year, Cebu Daily News, cebu news, Chinese Zodiac, dragon, food, rabbits, Tiger
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