I know this isn't a favorite subject to discuss, but I feel that it is an important one. This year on the blog I wanted to address some aspects of being a responsible breeder and this is a biggie.
First, lets talk about what culling is and what it is not. The dictionary.com definition is:
verb (used with object)
1.to choose; select; pick.
2.to gather the choice things or parts from.
3.to collect; gather; pluck.
4.act of culling.
5.something culled, especially something picked out and put aside as inferior."
As you can see, it is a very simple thing to define. It is simply the act of picking something out, most notably something that is in some way not up to snuff. Some people refer to cull as a negative word though, as in certain death for the animals being culled. While some people may use their culls for meat, this is not the definition of the word and it should in no way be thought of as a bad thing (it is actually a good thing!). ARBA defines culling for our hobby as the "removal of undesirable rabbits from the herd."
Now that we know the meaning of the word, lets talk about why it is so important that responsible breeders cull.
First, as we know, most reputable breeders have a set of goals. I will elaborate on mine sometime in another blog post, but generally it is to improve the health, type, and temperament of our stock. We are breeding to a standard of perfection.. in other words, the perfect rabbit that represents our breed. While we may never in reality be able to attain perfection as it is a state of flawlessness that is nigh unobtainable, we may still strive towards creating a rabbit that is a better representation of the breed than we have now. It may have a very strong immune system, for example, so that it may ward off disease better. Or one that has a better hindquarter with greater muscle development. This will better meet the standard of perfection, but it might also help better support the legs and lower back of the rabbit and provide for a more athletic one, too. It may also provide for a better meat rabbit if commercial production is a consideration. So, you can see that sometimes working to better something on a bloodline may provide many positive outcomes.
So how do we get there from here? The answer is through selective breeding. The same way that some cattle breeds developed to be better meat producers, while some became better dairy producers, rabbit breeders work to improve our stock depending on what our individual goals are. However, in the process of producing offspring that we hope will be better rabbits than their parents, there will be a number of babies produced that do not make the cut for selection as future breeding and show stock. They might have crooked teeth, be smaller than all the others, be born without a leg (yes, it happens!), or just not look like what they are supposed to look like. These rabbits, in my humble opinion, should not be bred. And that is where culling comes in, because a responsible breeder knows they only should keep the best for the next generation, so that improvement is always the goal.
We may make several selections over time. Perhaps in the nestbox, at four weeks, at seven weeks, and at four or six months, for example. Different people have different timelines, but this is just to give an idea of what happens. Some breeders know right from the start rabbits that just aren't going to be high enough quality to retain.
What do they do with these? There really is no one answer this.
1. Some people have culls that are just so nice that they still feel they would be able to help other breeders and exhibitors. There may be "parts" of the rabbit that another responsible breeder may need to add to their herd, like a great headpiece. So that buyer may purchase a buck that is another breeder's cull because he has exactly what they are looking for to improve their own stock in the next couple of generations. Or it just might be overall a nice rabbit free from DQ's that a child wants to use for their 4H project, for example.
2. Some people choose to mark them as pet quality and sell them to those looking for a new companion animal. The upside is that they may go to a great forever home, but the downside is that they may not and there is no way to guarantee the outcome either way unfortunately.
3. Some responsible breeders donate their culls. They may be used in a pet therapy program, for an educational program, or for feeding other animals if they were donated somewhere like a wildlife rehabilitation facility. The rabbit will be humanely dispatched before providing a nutritionally appropriate meal to, for example, an injured bird of prey. This may seem barbaric to some people, but predators have to eat, too. In doing something like this, it is helping a facility that might be strapped for funding to get endangered species back out into the wild where they belong.
4. You probably already knew where this was going, but another appropriate outlet for culls is to humanely euthanize them. Some breeders do this only with extremely ill rabbits to keep them from suffering. Rabbits are prey animals and do not have the constitution of some more robust animals. Considering that they are consumed in the wild by a multitude of species, this is not entirely surprising, but it can be difficult for some people to feel comfortable with.
Others use their healthy culls for meat and fur use with their family or pets. This may also shock some people, but there are a lot of positive things to say about rabbit meat. I will make another post some other time about why this is, but for now I will simply say that even doctors are known to recommend rabbit meat to those with digestive or cardiac problems. Rabbit fur is also very soft and warm and is often used to line mittens and hoods among other things. People that feed a raw diet often include whole or parts of rabbits for their pets as well.
One aspect of culling that I think a lot of people don't consider is how hard it is to make that selection sometimes. Responsible breeders give love and care to their rabbits every single day, multiple times a day. I can't speak for everyone, but I get to know each and every one of mine and they are often held even on the day they are born. I believe this is very common from those I have spoken with, though, and the emotional attachment can make it really hard to say, "This one just isn't the strongest/healthiest and can't contribute to the herd in a meaningful way." Sending them to a pet home or donating them, for example, might just be the best thing a responsible breeder can do. It is also difficult sometimes to be really critical of our own herd, but it is so important that it happens along with culling to ensure that future generations are sound of body and mind alike.