As an example of what an impact animal advocates can have, it’s hard to top this week’s news that Whole Foods Market (WFM) will cease selling rabbit meat in their stores effective January 2016. The grocery giant made the announcement at a shareholders meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Tuesday.
This victory came quickly when compared to other animal rights campaigns that can go on for years. It began in 2014, shortly after WFM launched a pilot program aimed at creating a market for rabbit meat. My wife lauren Ornelas (founder of Food Empowerment Project) and I sat down with Rabbit Advocacy Network founder Tara Baxter, SaveABunny founder Marcy Schaaf, and (by phone) House Rabbit Society president Margo DeMello to brainstorm strategies for getting WFM to end its program. As a longtime activist, lauren has tangled with Whole Foods before over the treatment of ducks to be sold in their stores. She was also arrested while campaigning against a location’s bunny meat sales: in November 2014, the manager of our local WFM had her arrested for leafleting in front of the store, though the paperwork to prosecute her was never filed.
We had a contingent of advocates strategizing in the Bay Area, but as word spread among animal lovers, petitions were launched, activists were demonstrating outside Whole Foods stores, memes went viral, and customers were boycotting the chain from coast to coast. Tara was interviewed for an episode of Our Hen House, and she and Marcy appeared in an NBC Bay Area investigative news report (a follow-up report aired September 17).
Through the Freedom of Information Act, lauren obtained inspection records for the farm in Iowa that’s been supplying WFM with bunny meat. The records revealed several observations that may not be in keeping with Whole Foods’ stated animal welfare standards, and activists used the information to illustrate the cruelty inherent in factory farming rabbits (for example, here and here). In addition, while WFM said they were selling rabbits in response to “consumer demand,” a financial analysis showed that sales were slow at its stores around the country. In the Northern California region, for example, WFM’s 41 stores are selling only one to three rabbits each per day. Indeed, low sales is the explanation WFM has given for their decision to stop selling bunny meat.
Whatever the official reason, activists are celebrating this announcement as a victory for animals. “We are so thrilled to hear this news,” says Tara. “Of course, we would have wanted the decision to come sooner so that many more lives could have been spared. But we hope that this finally proves that rabbits are perceived more as pets in this country than they are a viable food option. If Whole Foods Market, a grocery store others want to emulate, can’t get rabbit meat off the ground enough to continue selling it, then there is hope for farmed bunnies all over.”
Marcy, though agreeing this is wonderful news for rabbits, has lost her taste for WFM, noting that the statement on the company’s website demonstrates a lack of regard for the rabbits they exploit. “Not once does it show any compassion for animals, respect for their customers or acknowledgement of the thousands and thousands of rabbits who were raised, slaughtered and then butchered specifically at Whole Foods request,” she posted to the SaveABunny Facebook page. “For over a year they ignored the pleas of their customers, were caught with false labeling, violations of food safety and did not pass humane standards according to the FOIA. SHAME ON YOU WHOLE FOODS—you have lost my trust and my business.”
What made the WFM-bunny meat campaign different? Margo considers this question, then responds, “This is the first campaign of any kind I’ve been involved with which attracted people from every walk of life: longtime animal activists, rabbit lovers, pet lovers, and folks who never held a picket sign in their lives. Without their combined efforts—protesting, creating petitions, writing letters, calling the company, visiting stores and speaking to managers, creating artwork, and simply educating their friends and family—we would not be celebrating right now. While Whole Foods Market says that their decision to stop the sale of rabbit meat was driven by the lack of consumer demand, I know that everyone who participated in the campaign played a major role in ensuring that demand would never rise. I couldn’t be prouder of our efforts!”
“I believe the Whole Foods Market campaign was successful because activists had a strategic campaign goal—stop Whole Foods from selling bunny ‘meat’—did research and kept their message clear,” adds lauren. “They knew what they wanted and were willing to campaign until they got it. Personally, I find this a short-term campaign success, but our work to encourage people to stop consuming all animals is still ongoing.”
Another reason for this success, I think, is that activists were quick to agitate as soon as WFM began selling rabbits. We also tried to make it clear that we weren’t saying rabbits were more deserving of moral consideration than cows, pigs, chickens, fish, or any other animal raised and killed for food. What we were saying is that WFM does not need another species to exploit and kill for its meat cases. Moreover, WFM is seen as a trendsetter in the food industry, and we understood that if they were successful, other grocery companies would implement similar sales of bunny meat.
If you shop at Whole Foods, please let them know you appreciate their decision to stop exploiting at least one species. And, of course, if you’d like to do even more, please consider adopting a rabbit!