Originally published in City Living Seattle
March 12, 2012
Copyright City Living
Did you know that bunny rabbits, the kind we keep as pets, are a separate species from wild rabbits? The domesticated rabbit, oryctolagus cuniculus, is an animal descended from European cousins.
This fact may seem like trivia, but it is an important point in the world of animal welfare because domestic animals are those that require human care to survive and thrive.
As Easter approaches, bunny rescue workers shudder. While baby bunnies are available for purchase at pet stores all year, the urge to “get a bunny for the kids” at Easter suddenly seems stronger.
Sue Brennan knows this story too well. She runs Rabbit Haven, a sanctuary outside Gig Harbor, and sees the sad endings for a lot of “Easter bunnies.”
As a child, I had an Easter bunny as well, and his story scarred my soul. The baby bunny came into our lives as an inexpensive pet for a low-income family.
The poor rabbit, like so many Easter bunnies, suffered terribly from the elements, being locked in an outdoor cage most of his life, sometimes with no food or water and scared to death by our dogs.
He spent only a matter of days out of his cage for years before we got him a pen. He was finally killed by a neighbor’s dog.
It’s a decade of tragedy that I wished I could have changed as a child, and I still wish that today.
Brennan said this is the fate of many Easter bunnies when people or families don’t realize that bunnies need warmth, companionship, love and care for eight to 10 years. They are as big of a commitment as a dog or cat.
“Children can be just as happy with a chocolate or wind-up toy bunny at Easter, and no one suffers,” Brennan said.
Finding perfect homes
The Seattle Animal Shelter (SAS) reports a significant spike in rabbit surrenders about one month after Easter, usually doubling their intake of rabbits to about 15 per month.
“People don’t realize that rabbits are considered an exotic pet, and may require more expensive veterinary care than people can afford. As a result, some rabbits that we get in can be in bad shape when they arrive at our shelter,” reported Seattle Animal Shelter (SAS) spokesperson Kara Main-Hester.
Main-Hester said this is the reason that SAS provides high-quality veterinary care and special “rehab” time in foster homes for bunnies that need some extra TLC upon arrival.
She said that rabbits should live indoors and be “part of the family.”
There are currently 19 bunnies awaiting adoption at SAS. All rabbits are spayed or neutered.
Rabbit Haven also finds perfect homes for each of its 50 or so adoptable bunnies. Many Rabbit Haven “buns” come from animal-rescue and shelter groups who found the animals as strays or in hording situations.
An unintended consequence of pet-rabbit abandonment is the rise of feral-rabbit colonies in many parks and campuses along the Pacific coast. A section of Rabbit Haven has been made into a permanent home for some 80 feral rabbits rescued from the University of Victoria campus in British Columbia when the school administration was threatening a campus-wide cull on the abandoned pets.
“It is illegal to dump any domestic animal in the wild, including parks and neighborhoods. Rabbits are domestic animals and fall under this regulation,” Brennan explained.
Rabbit Haven volunteers also offer temporary shelter for rabbits owned by servicemen and -women while they are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, knowing they will one day get to reunite bunny and family. Brennan tells the story of one soldier returning from his tour in Iraq whose bunny was so happy to see him that the rabbit literally jumped into the soldier’s arms.
When you walk into the Rabbit Haven barn, one gets the impression of a comfy, mountain cabin right in the middle of the woods. A cute, red, wood-burning stove heats the recently constructed building, and the marble floor feels solid under your feet in the entryway. This place is not an animal shelter; it is a temporary home for bunny rabbits, and it feels like that, too.
“These are all recycled or reclaimed materials,” explained Sue Brennan. “Someone was just throwing out the wood stove, and the marble is excess from a construction site.”
Brennan, a contractor by trade, has a practical sense of what makes up a good bunny barn. Each of the roomy rabbit pens houses two or three rabbits, and the walls are lined with shiny aluminum for easy cleaning.
“I got it from the Boeing surplus yard,” Brennan said. “It’s aircraft-grade aluminum.”
Yet, with the added touch of industrial materials, the Rabbit Haven barn is anything but stark. The aluminum-lined walls have been elegantly painted with bunny portraits.
Brennan hopes that Rabbit Haven will serve as a reminder that bunnies need to be treated with care and respect, just like dogs, cats and horses. Pet bunnies are not to be left outside in the elements or abandoned when no longer wanted. Pet bunny rabbits are domesticated to be with humans, share in bunny companionship and live indoors.
To learn more about Rabbit Haven, to donate or to adopt, visit rabbithaven.org.
If you currently have a rabbit that needs appropriate care, visit the House Rabbit Society website at www.rabbit.org.
Seattle Animal Shelter holds a special adoption day for rabbits and critters called Cool City Pets on the third Saturday of every month. Find out more at www.seattle.gov/animalshelter/adoption-events.htm.
CHRISTIE LAGALLY is a freelance pet columnist who manages the website “Sniffing Out Home: A Search for Animal Welfare Solutions” at http://www.sniffingouthome.org.