Rabbit History

Understanding Rabbits - Facts ~ Genetics ~ Anatomy ~ Behaviour ~ Rabbit History

Old Hopper

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 was surprisingly similar to our modern rabbits and probably hopped around on its elongated hindlimbs.

A more detailed overview can be found here...

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 have simply been domesticated.

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The European Rabbit

Rock Hyrax

I'll take rabbit history back to the European rabbit, which was accidentally discovered on the coast of Spain, around 1200 BC, by Phoenician sailors, an ancient civilization that sailed around the Southern Mediterranean coasts on Galley ships.

They thought the animal they saw was the same as their homeland Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis), and gave it the name '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.

The Roman emperor Servius Sulpicius Galba (5 BC - AD 69), issued a coin on which Spain is represented with a rabbit at her feet. Although semi-domestication started in the Roman period, in this initial phase rabbits were kept in large walled pens and were allowed to breed freely.

Roman Rabbits

The Romans held their rabbits in high regard and respected their usefulness. They even included them in their art work, 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

Rabbits in time

In the 5th Century, Catholic monks, living in the Champagne region of France, were believed to be the first people to truly domesticate rabbits, which they raised within their monastery walls. The monks lived in seclusion growing most of what they needed to survive.

In one of their vows to God, they abstained from meat during Lent, (and this is the bit that gets me), they were allowed to eat fish. Fish being difficult to raise in the middle of a monastery, Pope Gregory I (in 600 A.D.), officially classified laurice as fish. (Laurice was unborn and new born rabbit). How handy for them!

By keeping rabbits housed in a controlled environment they were successful at selective breeding, changing the size, shape and fur colour.

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.

British Rabbits

Early domestic rabbits

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.

Regional Rabbits

During the Middle Ages rabbit farming for meat and fur expanded across Europe. Documentary evidence notes that some noblewomen from the time started to keep rabbits as pets.

Regional variations of breeding began to produce distinct types such as the Flemish Giant (first known as the Ghent Giant) which dates back to the 16th Century and the 18th Century French dwarf breed, the Lapin de Nicard, weighing just 1.5kg.

Victorian Rabbits

Victorian Rabbit

The continued domestication of rabbits was a very middle class pursuit. By the Victorian era, new breeds were emerging and rabbits were bred not for their meat, wool, fur, or laboratory use, they were being exhibited as show animals.

The Fancy - was the breeding of ‘fancy’ animals as pets and curiosity. The term ‘fancy’ was originally applied to long eared ‘lop’ rabbits, as the lop rabbits were the first rabbits bred for exhibition. They were first admitted to agricultural shows in England in the 1820s.

As the rabbit fancy developed, rabbit fanciers began to sponsor rabbit exhibitions and fairs in Western Europe and the United States. Breeds were created and modified for the added purpose of exhibition.

The rabbit's emergence as a household pet began during the Victorian era. These fine art examples show Victorian's being very accommodating...

Beatrix Potter and Benjamin rabbit

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.

House Rabbits

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...

Mad Tame Conies

...The rabbit is a caressing animal and equally fond, with the cat, of having its head stroked. At the same time, it is not destitute of courage...

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...

House Rabbit Society

According to history, England seems to have gone in to 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 along side 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. Find out more about our beloved bunny and how they have become our perfect pet.

If you want to know more about keeping house rabbits, this page is an excellent place to start.

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