“War on Rabbits Begins Sunday: Ritual Rabbit Slaughter and the Oregon Extension Service,” Jason Hogstad’s Resident Scholar

hogstadJason Hogstad, a Ph.D. student in the History department at the University of Colorado-Boulder, is the twenty-fourth individual to be supported by the Resident Scholar Program, operated by the Oregon State University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC). The Resident Scholar Program awards stipends of up to $2,500 for a month’s study in the OSU Libraries. Historians, librarians, graduate, doctoral, or post-doctoral students as well as independent scholars are all welcome to apply.

Hogstad’s visit made use of SCARC’s massive body of agricultural history collections. He focused in particular on the records of Oregon State’s Extension Service and Agricultural Experiment Stations, materials which showcase an important part of the university’s history.

In his Resident Scholar lecture, titled “War on Rabbits Begins Sunday: Ritual Rabbit Slaughter and the Oregon Extension Service,” Hogstad explored the role of the Oregon Extension Service during a period of change. His specific focus was on methods of pest control, rabbit drives and rabbit poisoning in eastern Oregon, and how the standard methods for controlling rabbits changed in the years between 1900 and 1925. In particular, Hogstad wanted to learn why people in eastern Oregon considered rabbit drives, a rather violent form of pest control, to be completely normal, and even fun. He also considered the reasons why people today find this bizarre and inappropriate.

In his presentation, Hogstad led off with a story about a rabbit drive in Echo, Oregon that took place in January, 1904. He explained how hundreds of people from neighboring rural areas, towns, and even cities gathered to kill jackrabbits. In this instance, the participants formed a line and walked through the area, attempting to herd 12,000 jackrabbits into a corral. About half of these were captured in the corral and beaten to death. The other half, however, had escaped, so area farmers asked participants to come back for another drive.

According to Hogstad’s research, this was standard operating procedure for rural communities in eastern Oregon. By the early 1900s, the area had only been settled for about twenty years, and the area was not easy to farm, given that it is very dry and subject to major temperature swings. As farming technology improved, specifically irrigation, more farmers came into the area. And it wasn’t just the human population that was increasing: irrigation increased the amount of food available to jackrabbits, while a bounty on coyotes decreased predation, leading to a boom in rabbit populations.

In response, farmers began to advertise rabbit drives, asking people from surrounding areas to come help. Newspapers published articles vilifying rabbits and advertised rabbit drives and associated activities, such as dinners or a performance from an orchestra. The drives themselves were seen as fun, as a celebration.

In his talk, Hogstad spoke of the rabbit drives as more than a way to remove a threat to farmers’ financial security. They also seemed to provide an outlet for the frustration and lack of control that area farmers grappled with as they sought to make a living in a harsh agricultural environment. Through a contemporary lens, Rabbit drives might now compare to modern fishing tournaments or bird watching events, where the goal is to see how many you can “get.”

Despite the popularity of the drives, they really didn’t make much of an impact on the jackrabbit population as a whole. Indeed, it would take a whole new method of control to bring about the drastic population decline that farmers sought.

The Oregon Extension Service was created in 1911, its purpose being to bring knowledge and information from researchers at Oregon Agricultural College to farmers throughout the state. However, many county agents had trouble convincing farmers to listen to someone whose credentials were mostly academic. Amos E. Lovett was one of these state agents and, in 1915, he put a plan into action that changed the fate of Extension. Seeing increasing rabbit populations and noting the lack of impact that rabbit drives were making, Lovett decided to become an expert in pest control. As such, he began traveling the state, talking with farmers and writing articles.

Lovett and a colleague eventually formed improvement organizations to show farmers how to mix rabbit poison – a combination of strychnine and alfalfa. The clubs also empowered county Extemsion agents to communicate with people in different areas, and to show what they could do for the area’s residents. For the farmers, there was a bit of a catch to the poisoning campaigns: to get poison, they had to join an improvement club. But once they did, the poison was free. Like the rabbit drives, farmers and their families managed to make poisoning campaigns fun, even holding so-called “poison picnics.” And unlike the rabbit drives, poisoning worked: in 1918 alone, an estimated $750,000 worth of agricultural production was saved.

When the rabbit populations around Echo boomed again in 1922, farmers this time turned to an Oregon Extension Service agent. The result was a staggering 110,000 rabbits killed; almost twenty times the number claimed in the rabbit drive held eighteen years earlier.

Near the conclusion of his talk, Hogstad branched out to look at the consequences of the change from rabbit drive to rabbit poisoning. He found that the shift in who was involved in pest control – namely the disappearance of urban residents – changed the ways in which these people viewed agricultural life. This disconnect between rural and urban dwellers inevitably changed the relationship between the two groups of people. Poisoning also turned pest control into an area for experts only, as it now required professionalism and science, not just the enthusiasm that propelled the rabbit drives.

Of course, people were not the only populations affected by the switch to mass poisoning as a method of jackrabbit control. Once jackrabbits were mostly eradicated, the farmers then moved on to other groups of pests, such as mice and ground squirrels, both of which experienced population booms as the jackrabbits, their primary competitors for food, disappeared. Potentially broader impacts on the environment were not considered.

The Resident Scholar Program at OSU Libraries is now in its ninth year of operation. For more about past Resident Scholars, please see the program’s homepage.

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