Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, writes about farming rodents, a group of mammals the animal agriculture industry is also exploiting on farms 

I consider him a flatmate.

In the apartment I resided in London before the one I am renting now, I was not living on my own. Although I was the only human there, other sentient beings made it their home too, and there was one who I consider him my flatmate because we shared some of the common rooms, such as the living room and the kitchen, but not my bedroom or toilet. He happened to be a rodent. A house mouse, to be precise, who in the evening would come out from a disused fireplace to say hello, and we hung out for a bit.

I left him be as he wanted to be, so I did not feed him or anything like that, but he was quite respectful and never bothered me. He was aware of his boundaries and I of mine, and I knew that, although I was paying rent, he had as much right as I to live there. He was a wild Western European house mouse (Mus musculus domesticus). He was not one of the domestic counterparts humans have created to experiment on them in labs or to keep as pets, so being in a Western European house was a legitimate place for him to be.

When he was out and about in the room, I had to be careful because any sudden movement I would make would spook him. He knew that, for a tiny individual prey he was who most humans consider a pest, the world was quite a hostile place, so he better keep out of the way of any big animal, and be vigilant all the time. That was a wise move, so I respected his privacy.

He was relatively lucky. Not only because he ended up sharing a flat with an ethical vegan, but because he was free to stay or go as he pleased. That is not something all rodents can say. In addition to the lab rodents I already mentioned, many others are kept captive in farms, because they are farmed for their flesh or skin. 

You heard it right. Rodents are farmed too. You know that pigs, cows, sheeps, rabbits, goats, turkeys, chickens, geese, and ducks are farmed around the world, and If you have read my articles, you may have discovered that donkeys, camels, pheasants, ratites, fishes, octopuses, crustaceans, molluscs, and insects are farmed too. Now, if you read this one, you will learn about the truth of farming rodents.

Who Are the Farmed Rodents? 

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Rodents are a big group of mammals of the order Rodentia, native to all major land masses except for New Zealand, Antarctica, and several oceanic islands.  They have a single pair of continuously growing razor-sharp incisors in each of the upper and lower jaws, which they use to gnaw food, excavate burrows, and as defensive weapons. Most are small animals with robust bodies, short limbs, and long tails, and the majority eat seeds or other plant-based food.

They have been around for a long time, and they are very numerous. There are more than 2,276 species of 489 genera of rodents (about 40% of all mammal species are rodents), and they can live in a variety of habitats, often in colonies or societies. They are one of the early mammals who evolved from the ancestral shrew-like first mammals; the earliest record of rodent fossils is from the Paleocene, shortly after the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs some 66 million years ago.

Two of the rodent species, the house mouse (Mus musculus) and the Norwegian rat (Rattus norvegicus domestica) have been domesticated to exploit them as research and testing subjects (and the domestic subspecies used for this purpose tend to be white). These species are also exploited as pets (known then as fancy mice and fancy rats), together with the hamster (Mesocricetus auratus), the dwarf hamster (Phodopus spp.), the common degu (Octodon degus), the gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus), the Guinea pig (Cavia porcellus), and the common chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera). However, the last two, together with the bamboo rat (Rhizomys spp.), have also been farmed by the animal agriculture industry for the production of several materials — and these unfortunate rodents are the ones we will be discussing here.

Guinea pigs (also known as cavies) are neither native to Guinea — they are native to the Andes region of South America — nor are closely related to pigs, so probably calling them cavies would be better.  The domestic guinea pig (Cavia porcellus) was domesticated from the wild cavies (most likely Cavia tschudii) around 5,000 BCE to be farmed for food by pre-colonial Andean tribes (who called them “cuy”, a term still used in America). Wild cavies live in grassy plains and are herbivores, eating grass as cows would do in similar habitats in Europe. They are very social animals living in small groups called “herds” that consist of several females called “sows”, one male called “boar”, and their young called “pups” (as you can see, many of these names are the same than those used for actual pigs). Compared with other rodents, cavies do not store food, as they feed on grass and other vegetation in areas where it never runs out (their molars are very suited for grinding plants). They shelter in the burrows of other animals (they do not burrow their own)  and tend to be most active during dawn and dusk. They have good memories as they can learn complex paths to get food and remember them for months, but they are not very good at climbing or jumping, so they tend to freeze as a defence mechanism rather than flee. They are very social and use sound as their main form of communication. At birth, they are relatively independent as they have open eyes, have fully developed fur and start to forage almost immediately. Domestic cavies bred as pets live an average of four to five years but may live as long as eight years.

Bamboo Rats are rodents found in South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia, belonging to four species of the subfamily Rhizomyinae. The Chinese bamboo rat (Rhizomys sinensis) lives in central and southern China, northern Burma, and Vietnam; the hoary bamboo rat (R. pruinosus), lives from Assam in India to southeastern China and the Malay Peninsula; the Sumatra, Indomalayan, or large bamboo rat (R. sumatrensis) lives in Yunnan in China, Indochina, the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra; the lesser bamboo rat (Cannomys badius) lives in Nepal, Assam, northern Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and northern Vietnam. They are bulky slow-moving hamster-looking rodents who have small ears and eyes, and short legs. They forage on the underground parts of plants in the extensive burrow systems where they live. Except for the lesser bamboo rats, they feed principally on bamboo and live in dense bamboo thickets at altitudes of 1,200 to 4,000 m. At night, they forage above ground for fruit, seeds, and nest materials, even climbing the bamboo stems. These rats can weigh up to five kilograms (11 pounds) and grow to 45 centimetres (17 inches) long. For the most part, they are solitary and territorial, although females have sometimes been seen foraging with their young. They breed during the wet season, from February to April and again from August to October. They can live for up to 5 years.

Chinchillas are fluffy rodents of the species Chinchilla chinchilla (short-tailed chinchilla) or Chinchilla lanigera (long-tailed chinchilla) native to the Andes mountains in South America. Like the Cavies, they also live in colonies called “herds”, at high elevations up to 4,270 m. Although they used to be common in Bolivia, Peru, and Chile, today, colonies in the wild are known only in Chile (the long-tailed just in Aucó, near Illapel), and are endangered. To survive the cold of high mountains, chinchillas have the densest fur of all land mammals, with around 20,000 hairs per square centimetre and 50 hairs growing from each follicle. Chinchillas are often described as gentle, docile, quiet, and timid, and in the wild are active at night coming out from crevices and cavities among rocks to forage on vegetation. In their native habitat, chinchillas are colonial, living in groups of up to 100 individuals (forming monogamous pairs) in arid, rocky environments. Chinchillas can move very fast and jump heights of up to 1 or 2 m, and they like to bathe in dust to keep their fur in good condition. Chinchillas release tufts of hair (“fur slip”) as a predator avoidance mechanism, and they can hear very well as they have large ears. They can breed any time of the year, though their breeding season is typically between May and November. They can live for 10-20 years.

The Farming of Guinea Pigs

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Guinea Pigs are the first rodents ever bred for food. After having been farmed for millennia, they have become a domesticated species now. They were first domesticated as early as 5000 BC in the areas of present-day southern Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. The Moche people of ancient Peru often depicted the guinea pig in their art. It is believed that cavies were the preferred sacrificial non-human animal of the Inca people. Many households in the Andean highlands today still farm cavies for food, as Europeans would farm rabbits (who are not rodents, by the way, but Lagomorphs). Spanish, Dutch, and English traders took guinea pigs to Europe, where they quickly became popular as exotic pets (and later were also used as vivisection victims).

In the Andes, cavies were traditionally eaten in ceremonial meals and considered a delicacy by indigenous people, but since the 1960s eating them become more normalised and common by many people of the region, especially in Peru and Bolivia, but also in the mountains of Ecuador and Colombia. People from both the countryside and urban areas may farm cavies for supplementary income, and they may sell them at local markets and large-scale municipal fairs. Peruvians consume an estimated 65 million guinea pigs each year, and there are many festivals and celebrations dedicated to the consumption of cavies. 

As they can be easily bred in small spaces, many people start cavy’s farms without investing many resources (or caring that much about their wellbeing). In farms, cavies will be kept captive in hutches or pens, sometimes in too-high densities, and they can get foot problems if bedding is not regularly cleaned. They are forced to have about five litters a year (two to five animals per litter). Females are sexually mature as early as one month old — but are normally forced to breed after three months. As they eat grass, farmers in rural areas do not need to invest that much in food (often giving them old-cut grass that may get mouldy, which affects the animals’ health), but as they cannot produce their own vitamin C as many animals can, farmers must ensure that some of the leaves they eat are high in this vitamin.  As with other farmed animals, babies are separated from their mothers too early, about three weeks old, and are placed in separate pens, separating the young males from the females. The mothers are then let to “rest” for two or three weeks before being placed in the breeding pen again to force them to breed. Cavies are killed for their flesh at the young age of three to five months old when they reach between 1.3 – 2 lbs.

In the 1960s, Peruvian universities began research programs aimed at breeding larger-sized guinea pigs, and subsequent research has been undertaken to make the farming of cavies more profitable. The breed of cavy created by La Molina National Agrarian University (known as Tamborada) grows faster and can weigh 3 kg (6.6 lb). Ecuador universities have also produced a big breed (Auqui). These breeds are being slowly distributed in parts of South America. Now there have been attempts to farm cavies for food in West African countries, such as Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tanzania. Some South American restaurants in major cities in the US serve cuy as a delicacy, and In Australia, a small cavy farm in Tasmania got to the news by claiming their meat is more sustainable than other animal meats. 

The Farming of Chinchillas

Romanian Chinchilla Farm Investigation – image from HSI

Chinchillas have been farmed for their fur, not their flesh, and there has been international trade of Chinchilla fur since the 16th century. To make one fur coat, it takes 150-300 chinchillas. Their hunting of Chinchillas for their fur has already led to the extinction of one species, as well as local extinctions of the other two remaining species. Between 1898 and 1910, Chile exported about seven million chinchilla pelts per year. It is now illegal to hunt wild chinchillas, so farming them on fur farms has become the norm. 

Chinchillas have been bred commercially for their fur in several European countries (including  Croatia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Russia, Spain and Italy), and in America (including Argentina, Brazil, and the US). The main demand for this fur has been in Japan, China, Russia, the U.S., Germany, Spain, and Italy. In 2013, Romania produced 30,000 chinchilla pelts. In the US, the first farm started in 1923 in Inglewood, California, which has become the chinchilla headquarters in the country.

In fur farms, chinchillas are kept in very small wire-mesh battery cages, on average 50 x 50 x 50 cm (thousands of times smaller than their natural territories). In these cages, they cannot socialise as they would do in the wild.  Females are restrained by plastic collars and forced to live in polygamous conditions. They have very limited access to dust bathing and nest boxes. Studies have shown that  47 % of chinchillas on Dutch fur farms showed stress-related stereotypic behaviours such as pelt-biting. Young chinchillas are separated from their mothers at 60 days of age. Health problems often found in farms are fungal infections, dental problems and high infant mortality. Farmed chinchillas are killed by electrocution (either by applying the electrodes to one ear and the tail of the animal, or submerging them in electrified water), gassing, or neck breaking. 

In 2022, the animal protection organisation Humane Society International (HIS) uncovered cruel and allegedly illegal practices in Romanian chinchilla farms. It covered 11 chinchilla farms in different parts of Romania. Investigators said some farmers told them they kill the animals by breaking their necks, which would be illegal under European Union law. The group also claimed female chinchillas are kept in almost permanent pregnancy cycles, and they are forced to wear a “stiff neck brace or collar” to prevent them from escaping during mating.

Many countries are banning fur farms now. For instance, one of the first countries that banned chinchilla farms was the Netherlands in 1997. In November 2014, Sweden’s last chinchilla fur farm closed down. On 22nd September 2022, the Latvian Parliament passed a vote for a complete ban on the breeding of animals for fur (including chinchillas who were farmed in the country) but will enter into force as late as 2028. Unfortunately, despite these bans, there are still many chinchilla farms in the world — and the fact that chinchillas are also kept as pets has not helped, as it legitimises their captivity.  

The Farming of Bamboo Rats

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Bamboo rats have been farmed for food in China and neighbouring countries (like Vietnam) for centuries. It has been said that eating bamboo rats was a “prevailing custom” in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). However, only in the last few years has it become a large-scale industry (there has not been enough time to create domestic versions of bamboo rats, so those farmed are of the same species as those living in the wild). In 2018, two young men, the Hua Nong Brothers, from the province of Jiangxi, started to record videos of them breeding them — and cooking them — and posting them on social media. That sparked a fashion, and governments started subsidising bamboo rat farming. In 2020, there were about 66 million farmed bamboo rats in China. In Guangxi, a largely agricultural province with around 50 million people, the annual market value of bamboo rat is about 2.8 billion yuan. According to China News Weekly, more than 100,000 people were raising roughly 18 million bamboo rats in this province alone.

In China, people still consider bamboo rats a delicacy and are prepared to pay high prices for them — in part because traditional Chinese medicine claims that the meat of bamboo rats can detoxify people’s bodies and improve digestive function. However, after the outbreak of what would become the COVID-19 pandemic was linked to a market selling wildlife, China suspended the trading of wild animals in January 2020, including bamboo rats (one of the main candidates of having started the pandemic). Videos of more than 900 bamboo rats buried alive by officials circulated on social media. In February 2020, China banned all eating and related trading of terrestrial wildlife to reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases. This led to the closure of many bamboo rat farms. However, now that the pandemic is over, the rules have been relaxed, so the industry is resurfacing.

In fact, despite the pandemic, Global Research Insights estimates that the Bamboo Rat market size is projected to grow. The key companies in this industry are Wuxi Bamboo Rat Technology Co. Ltd., Longtan Village Bamboo Rat Breeding Co., Ltd., and Gongcheng County Yifusheng Bamboo Rat Breeding Co., Ltd.

Some farmers who were struggling to farm pigs or other more traditionally farmed animals have now switched to farm bamboo rats because they claim it is easier. For instance, Nguyen Hong Minh who resides in Mui hamlet, Hoa Binh City’s Doc Lap commune, switched to bamboo rats after her business of farming pigs did not produce enough profits. At first, Minh bought wild bamboo rats from trappers and turned his old pig barn into a breeding facility, but despite the bamboo rats growing well, he said that females killed many babies after birth (possibly because of the stress of the conditions kept). After more than two years, he found a way to prevent these early deaths, and now he keeps 200 bamboo rats on his farm. He said that he could sell their flesh for 600,000 VND ($24.5) per kg, which is a higher economic value than raising chickens or pigs for their flesh. There are even claims that bamboo rat farming has a lower carbon footprint than other animal farming and that the flesh of these rodents is healthier than the flesh of cows or pigs, so this will likely incentivise some farmers to switch to this new form of animal farming.

The Chinese bamboo rat industry has not been around for that long, so there is not much information about the conditions the animals are kept, especially because doing undercover investigations in China is very difficult, but like in any farming of animals, profits will come before animal welfare, so the exploitation of these gentle animals would undoubtedly lead to their suffering — if they buried them alive as a result of the pandemic, imagine how they would be normally treated. The videos posted by the farmers themselves show them handling the animals and placing them in small enclosures, without showing too much resistance by the rats, but these videos would, of course, be part of their PR, so they would hide anything that is clear evidence of mistreatment or suffering (including how they are killed). 

Be it for their flesh or their skin, rodents have been farmed both in the East and in the West, and such farming is becoming increasingly industrialised. As rodents breed very fast and are already quite docile even before domestication, the chances are that rodent farming may increase, especially when other types of animal farming become less popular and costly.  Like in the case of ungulates, birds, and pigs, new domesticated versions of rodent species have been created by humans to increase “productivity”, and such new species have been used for other forms of exploitation, such as vivisection or the pet trade, expanding the circle of abuse. 

We, vegans, are against all forms of animal exploitation because we know they all are likely to cause suffering to sentient beings, and once you accept one form of exploitation others will use such acceptance to justify another. In a world where animals do not have sufficient international legal rights, the tolerance of any form of exploitation will always lead to widespread unchecked abuse. 

As a group, rodents are often considered pests, so many people would not care that much if they are farmed or not, but they are neither pests, food, clothes, or pets. Rodents are sentient beings like you and I, who deserve the same moral rights we have.

No sentient being should ever be farmed.

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.