In 2013, the photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur, the founder of We Animals Media, and investigators at Animal Equality infiltrated rabbit farms in Spain, two with direct links to restaurants in the UK. During this time, she saw newborn rabbits thrown alive, mouths still working and legs pumping, into dumpsters, where they would slowly die. This practice of “culling” animals who are smaller or weaker is standard in the industry.
On one farm, McArthur and the investigators discovered a young rabbit, dying after being tossed into the garbage. “One of the last things we do as investigators when leaving a farm is look inside the dumpsters,” she remembers. “There, we usually see piles of bodies and sometimes dying animals in the mix. Such was the case of Garu, who was slowly being asphyxiated inside a clear garbage bag, mixed with dozens of deceased rabbits.
“We almost missed him, but we saw movement and investigated further. When we reached for him, he was scared and tried to bury himself deeper between the bodies of the dead rabbits. It was unbelievably sad. We did manage to pull him out and tuck him into a t-shirt until we got to the car, where he endured several hours quite sleepily, probably in pain. After veterinary care, he lived another week but then succumbed to his injuries.”
Rabbits are factory farmed for their meat and fur. “Some rabbit farm shoots were pre-organized with Animal Equality’s investigators,” McArthur explains. “They would call ahead and request an interview and a tour, hopefully achieving both. We visited several farms that way. In some cases, we snuck onto properties, which we don’t like doing, but it’s frankly necessary so that people can see what the insides of farms look like, what goes on there, the conditions, etc. In some cases, we arrived during the day when there were workers around and asked for a tour.”
Rabbit farms smell strongly of ammonia, caused by the build-up of fecal matter and urine. Some of the animals have urine burns, and others have abscesses caused by standing and sleeping on the wire cages. Illnesses and infections are common in confinement, as were unnatural behaviors like biting and cannibalism, caused by stress. Investigators saw rabbits whose ears had been gnawed or chewed off by others in their cages.
The team at Animal Equality also witnessed a rabbit twisting its neck in agony due to a weeks-old ear infection. This condition, known as torticollis, results in dramatic head tilts. Hungry rabbits with broken paws tried desperately but without avail to move toward their food. Some of the injured animals were clubbed or smashed to death on the floor, and others were left in their cages, untreated. Some, like Garu, were still alive when they were dumped into the container with dead and decomposing bodies. It might take them hours to die, perhaps days.
McArthur knew what awaited those who survived life in the farms. In sanctuaries, rescued rabbits can live for a decade, but these rabbits would be killed at just seventy days old. “The rabbits are transported in small, stacked crates to the slaughterhouse and often spend the night in these crates (which are usually stacked at least six high) without food or water,” she explains.
“The rabbits in the top crates remain clean,” the photographer says. “After a night of waiting, the rabbits in the lower crates are filthy. The kill floor smells of urine and soap.” The killing starts when a rabbit’s head is placed against electrified plates to stun her. Then, her throat is cut, and she is left hanging upside down as she bleeds out. Despite the stunning, investigators at Animal Equality saw some rabbits continue to writhe and kick in pain.
As McArthur explains, rabbits don’t vocalize when they are distressed, but they do thump their feet. In rabbits, stamping is a behavior meant to express fear and warn other rabbits of approaching danger. In one small slaughterhouse in Spain, where four hundred animals were killed per hour, waiting rabbits saw each other killed, knowing they were next in line. The photographer’s ears filled with the sound of their thudding paws.
“At a glance, at least to we humans, rabbits all look the same,” the photojournalist tells me. “When I photograph farmed rabbits, I’m seeing thousands of white rabbits, same red eyes, grouped together by age. The young with the young, the slaughter-ready all together as well. Sometimes a rabbit will stand out due to an injury or illness. It’s hard to connect with any one rabbit when things are moving quickly: crates packed full of rabbits unloaded from trucks, stacked high, and then each one grabbed so quickly, stunned, hung, neck slit, and onward they go down the kill floor.
“One rabbit forever wedged in my memory is from a picture entitled Next in Line for Slaughter. Her ears are laid flat in fear, and behind her, you see the slaughter line worker and rabbits hanging upside down. She looks at me, through my lens, so she looks out at all of us who see this image. She freezes time, and her eyes have that pleading I’ve seen so often in non-human animals: What are you doing? What is next for me? I’m scared.”
More than ten years after her throat was cut and her body hanged upside down, the picture of that rabbit, who was never given a name or a second chance, remains one of the most famous in the We Animals archive, McArthur’s world-class collection of pictures from animal photojournalists around the world. She has been seen and mourned by thousands of people. Last year, when the team at We Animals shared it once more, they left behind a comment: “Thank you for bearing witness with us.”
The conditions and events McArthur and Animal Equality documented in 2010 and 2013 aren’t isolated incidents but the industry-wide norm. Today, hundreds of millions of rabbits continue to be factory farmed for meat or fur, used in lab experiments, and sold as pets. Rabbits are also the most caged farm animal in Europe; they are born in cages and stay there until they are killed. 145 NGOs from across the European Union, including Animal Equality, have called for a ban on the use of cages for farmed rabbits in the EU. You can learn more about their campaigns here.