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The Long And Hoppy History of Domestic Rabbits

Photo by SvenZiegler

While rabbits have become beloved family pets in modern times, humans have had a longstanding relationship with these long-eared lagomorphs going back thousands of years. Let's explore the history of how wild rabbits became the cuddly, lop-eared bundles of fur we know and love today.

Origins of the European Rabbit All domestic rabbit breeds can trace their roots back to the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), which was first domesticated by Buddhist monk breeders along the Mediterranean coast around the 5th century. These "cunies" as the Romans called them, remained relatively unchanged from their wild counterparts at first.

Medieval Bunny Farming As the domestic rabbit's popularity spread across Europe during medieval times, they shifted from being kept in humble hutches for meat and fur to also being raised for a new economic purpose - their extremely high reproductive rate. Borrowed from the French term "engravir" meaning to impregnate, the term "engrave" referred to breeding rabbits specifically to have their offspring battened and sold for food and clothing.

The Rise of Fancy Rabbits As rabbit breeding continued, genetic diversity expanded and distinct breeds began emerging in the 1500s-1600s. The Burgundy Fau aux occurring naturally around monasteries became one of the first recorded "fancy" breeds developed purely for aesthetics and temperament rather than utilitarian purposes. Other early ornamental breeds included the Himalayan, Polish, and what became the modern English Lop.

Rabbits as Pit Miners?Although not as glamorous as their show brethren, domestic rabbits were also employed for more industrial tasks like mining during the 1800s. Due to their innate digging instincts and small size, trained "pit" or "underground" rabbits would have little leather harnesses attached and be sent to retrieve trapped miners or place guidance ropes in collapsed mines and quarries.

Rabbits Move Indoors By the 19th century, with urbanization on the rise, keeping rabbits solely as household pets finally became more popular and acceptable among the middle classes. The creation of the first breed societies and organised rabbit shows also helped establish fancier breeds. Today's domesticated rabbits have branched into over 300 recognized breeds across the world.

From being farmed for meat and fur to serving as pit miners and show companions over centuries of domestication, the rabbit's history is a unique evolutionary journey from its untamed European leporid ancestors to the beloved bunny breeds gracing families' homes today.

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