We could go back 55 million years for rabbit history on earth, to the rabbit-like creature that was known to exist called Gomphos elkema. This creature, much like modern rabbits, probably hopped around on its long back legs.
Let’s jump forward in time to the domestication of our adorable bunny…
The domestic rabbit and any of the several breeds and varieties have descended from the European rabbit that has simply been domesticated.
The European Rabbit
Phoenician sailors, ancient people who sailed the Southern Mediterranean sea on galley ships, accidentally discovered the European rabbit on the coast of Spain, around 1200 BC.
They believed the animal they saw was a Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis), an animal found in their homeland. They named it ‘i-shepan-ham’ (land or island of hyraxes). Some say that’s where the name Hispania (Spain), derived from.
Romans And Rabbits
The Romans played a big part in rabbit history. When they occupied Spain in around 200 BC, they cottoned on to the fact that rabbits were great sources of meat and fur.
Servius Sulpicius Galba, a Roman emperor from 5 BC-AD 69, forged a coin where a rabbit sat at the feet of Spain. Semi-domestication started during the Roman era. Rabbits were housed in large pens and allowed to breed freely.
The Romans highly regarded their rabbits and respected their usefulness. They even included them in their artwork, as you can see from the rabbits depicted in this ancient Roman mosaic.
When the Romans invaded Britain in AD 43, they brought their precious bundles with them and that’s how they got to the UK. But what about everywhere else?
French Monks And Rabbits
Catholic monks, living in the Champagne region of France during the 5th Century, were thought to be the first people to tame rabbits. They raised them inside the monastery. The monks lived in seclusion and grew most of the food needed for survival.
During Lent, they took Godly vows to abstain from eating meat; however, they were allowed to eat fish. Fish were difficult to raise in the middle of a monastery. In 600 AD, Pope Gregory I officially classified the laurice (unborn or newborn rabbits) like fish.
By controlling the rabbits’ environment, they successfully carried out selective breeding, changing the size, shape and fur color.
Thus the keeping of rabbits began. Of course, rabbits didn’t live in their homes as pets, but this was a start as it afforded the rabbit the appellation of being a valuable and useful resource to humans.
Domesticated rabbits came to Britain in the 12th Century, and through human development and breeding, evolved to produce long-haired rabbits, thought to be the earliest Angoras.
These long-haired, wooly beauties became very popular for their fur, which could be harvested by brushing and fortunately, eliminating the need for the rabbit’s death.
Rabbits were farmed during the Middle Ages for meat and fur across Europe. There is evidence that some noblewomen kept rabbits as pets.
In the 16th Century, regional breeding produced distinct types such as the Flemish Giant (Ghent Giant). During the 18th Century, France produced a dwarf breed, the Lapin de Nicard, weighing just 3.3 pounds.
The continued domestication of rabbits was a very middle-class pursuit. In the Victorian era, rabbits were used more as show animals, instead of for their meat, fur, or to be used in the laboratory.
The Fancy refers to animals bred to become pets. The term “fancy” applied to long-eared rabbits (”Lops”) – the first exhibition rabbits. They were first admitted to agricultural shows in England in the 1820s.
As the rabbit fancy developed, rabbit exhibitions and fairs were sponsored in Western Europe and the United States. Breeds were created and modified specifically to enhance the exhibitions.
People of English nobility kept rabbits as pets and bred them to show all over the country. Also from a wealthy, upper-middle-class family, Beatrix Potter rose to fame with her animal tales in the 1900s. Among over 23 published books, she wrote The Tales of Peter Rabbit in 1902, inspired by her pet rabbit Benjamin.
Many people incorrectly think that the idea of house rabbits started in the 1980s after linking Sandy Crook’s book, Your French lop: The King of the Fancy, the clown of the rabbits, the ideal pet, with the popular notion of keeping a rabbit as a house companion. This is just not true. While she went a long way to illustrate the bond that humans and rabbits have with each other, rabbits as house pets were actually popular as early as the 18th century and before.
Many of the rabbits during Victorian times were kept in the house or one of the out-houses. Of course many were fattened up for the pot but some were kept as children’s pets and you can see this from the many paintings from that Century of children with rabbits.
And let’s also be clear about the type of rabbit being a house rabbit. Any rabbit can be a house rabbit, as it’s simply a rabbit that has been trained to live in its owner’s house. It’s not a new or recent thing either.
Legendary House Rabbits
The King of France, King Louis XIV (13th), in 1643 had a pet rabbit.
John Lawrence wrote about house rabbits, known then as conies, in 1799…
Napoleon III (3rd) kept a rabbit to keep him company while he was in prison in 1844. In fact, it was from this, that his idea of the allocation of rabbits to smallholders was born.
Also, the Russian revolutionary Trotsky kept a pet white rabbit around 1879.
Take A Leaf From The Old Book…
According to history, England seems to have gone into remission as far as the understanding of rabbits is concerned. Why?
America, on the other hand, is years ahead with their rabbit education, especially about the very real notion of rabbits enjoying and benefiting from living in a domestic environment inside our homes.
The House Rabbit Society believes, as do I and many others, that rabbits should live alongside us, joining in with daily activities such as eating, relaxing, playing and sleeping.
So what happened? Why has our understanding of rabbits come to a standstill? Rabbits were afforded much more esteem in the past.
However you look at the rabbit throughout history, one thing for sure now is, the domestic pet rabbit is here to stay.