Last night, while listening to the latest episode of Radio National ‘s ‘Bush Telegraph’, I was struck by the vastly different and somewhat contradictory ‘rabbit realities’ that have been conjured up this week. Across Australia, people prepare for Chinese New Year of the Rabbit celebrations; meanwhile, according to the Bush Telegraph, a ‘citizen science’ government-community initiative called Rabbitscan has been launched. The Rabbitscan website describes rabbits as ‘one of Australia’s most widespread and destructive environmental and agricultural vertebrate pests’ and calls on participants to document rabbit damage in order to generate a ‘feral’ map and assist with population ‘control’. The growth in rabbit numbers due to recent rains (after ten years of drought in many areas) is of particular concern to government and industry because rabbits compete with livestock for pasture. By contrast, according to Chinese tradition, the Year of the Rabbit is a fortunate one in the 12-year cycle because it features the qualities of longevity, endurance, calm and creativity – qualities that are embodied by rabbits.
It is almost needless to say that the Bush Telegraph article, hosted by environmental historian Michael Cathcart, did not consider the rabbits’ point of view on recent environmental changes. Neither did it engage in much critical reflection on the complex issues surrounding human attitudes toward rabbits in Australia.
Critical perspectives in the broadcast were lacking. However, there are a number of social, cultural and historical studies on rabbits that would enrich public discourse, if such studies were taken into account. For example, in 2006 anthropologist Dr Nick Smith published ‘Thank your mother for the rabbits: bilbies, bunnies & redemptive ecology’, where he considered contemporary (white, middle class) attitudes toward rabbits as emblematic of the desire to erase the inefficiencies and environmental misdemeanours of the colonial past. Historian Claire Brennan (now based at James Cook University) took up similar themes ‘across the ditch’ in her article, “‘Animal and destruction on a scale unprecedented outside a state of war”—1080 and the rabbit in New Zealand’.
In June this year, the 15th Australasian Vertebrate Pest Conference will be held in Sydney. In the month following, the trans-disciplinary Australian Animal Studies Group Conference, Animals, People, will take place in Brisbane. At both events, conversations on the lives and realities of rabbits and other so called ‘pests’ will be opened. I would like to take the opportunity to encourage those who are developing important social, historical, cultural and creative perspectives on human-animal relations to attend both events, and to enliven and shape those conversations.