History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Rabbit holiday

Published: June 8, 2012 at 11:20 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

Two male rabbits escaped from the lab. They had been cooped up for 18 months, and freedom was wonderful. They went wild, frolicking in the fields and breathing the fresh outdoor air.


Then they came across an allotment, filled with lettuces and carrots, so they ate their fill, and then some more.

They were both sprawled out, relaxing in the sun when two female rabbits came by. They wasted no time in chatting up the ladies and one thing led to another ... (They were rabbits, after all.)

This had been the best day of their lives!

They were relaxing again when one of them got up. "It's going to be dark soon," he said. "We ought to be getting back to the lab."

"What?!" said the other. "Are you mad? Why on earth would we want to do that? We've had a fantastic day, out in the fresh air with all the food we could ever want and our new lady-friends!"

"Yep," his mate agreed. "It's certainly been a wonderful day. I don't know about you, though, but I really need to get back. I'm dying for a cigarette."

The story

If you're of a certain age, you'll remember that one with fond nostalgia. In the 1970s, that joke was bigger than David Bowie. It was told endlessly in smoke-filled pubs during that decade, with an alternative version involving beagles instead of rabbits..

The Royal College of Physicians 1962 report, Smoking and Health, is generally credited with creating public awareness of the harmful effects of tobacco, although the proportion of male smokers in the UK population had already peaked at almost 80 per cent in the late 1940s. The peak among women – nearly 50 per cent – would come in the mid-1960s.

In any event, Britons were quitting in huge numbers by the '70s, although even in 1975 well over 40 per cent of the UK adult population was in thrall to tobacco.

The tobacco industry tried to shore up a declining market with low-tar cigarettes and a short-lived experiment with reducing the amount of tobacco in cigarettes and substituting it with synthetic "new smoking material" (it used wood pulp). This was tested on animals, particularly beagles, by ICI and other companies.

This was part of the backdrop to growing public concern over the amount and extent of experiments carried out on animals. While beagles being subject to tobacco smoke was especially emotive, the public were also outraged at reports of cosmetics being tested on animals, rabbits in particular.

The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) and other organisations had been campaigning against animal experiments since Victorian times, but it was really only in the 1970s that the issue really touched the conscience of the wider public. This concern eventually led to the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, under which experiments on animals in the UK are very closely regulated. The BUAV, it should be added, claims the act protects scientists rather than animals and it continues to call for an end to all animal experiments.


In America they were having the same debate. The joke there was that the National Institute of Health was going to end testing on rats and test on lawyers instead because the US population of lawyers grows more quickly than the rat population, and there's no danger of scientists becoming emotionally attached to lawyers. The one scientific concern was that it would be more difficult to relate the results of tests on lawyers to the effects on actual human beings.


Sponsored content