editor’s note: I’m re-posting this excellent story on rabbits as pets (no bunny-cake-walk!) written for InCity Times by gal pal, Franny M. Go, Franny, go!!!
THINKING OF GETTING A RABBIT FOR THE KIDS THIS EASTER? THINK AGAIN!
By Franny McKeever, volunteer for the House Rabbit Network
I have a story, not unlike many, when choosing a family pet. We wanted a puppy but my husband had allergies. We couldn’t have a cat for the same reason. So we tried the next best idea which was a rabbit. A rabbit, after all, didn’t need to even be in the house, did it? People kept rabbits in outdoor hutches all the time. My parents did when I was young. I called a breeder and got the name of a hutch builder. He built one he said was a good size for a rabbit. It was 30”x 24”x 14”. He delivered it and we put it on our non-winterized back porch.
We then found a small black Lionhead rabbit at our local pet shop. It was May 1st , Easter time, so there were plenty of baby bunnies to pick from. They couldn’t tell me for sure if it was male or female but were pretty sure it was a boy. We named him Henry. We were advised by the hutch maker to put the bunny on a table when we took him out of the hutch or else he would just go wild and run all over and not want to go back in the hutch. We didn’t listen. We put Henry down and he ran circles around the porch and did these funny, spasmodic jumps in the air we later learned were called binkies, which we could plainly see he was doing out of the sheer joy of movement.
My children and I sat with him as he nibbled our books, climbed all over us and licked our noses. I had no idea that some rabbits would lick you as a puppy does. There were things about rabbits that were so wonderfully surprising. For instance when a rabbit is being petted and feels supremely happy he softly grinds his teeth in a purring sort of way. We were falling in love with this little rabbit. After a while it seemed really cruel to leave him in the cage. We moved all the wicker furniture that he had been chewing out into the yard and bunny proofed the porch. This entailed hiding any electrical wires, keeping any plants out of reach and keeping small things off the ground. When he chewed the wood doorways we gave him apple tree sticks instead.
We took Henry to the vet for a first check-up as we were advised to do and also to see if he was really a he. After a couple more trips to the vet we had to change Henry’s name to Greta. We had a good rabbit vet and not all vets are qualified to treat rabbits which are considered exotic animals. They gave us rabbit diet and litter box training information which I’m pretty sure would not have happened 20 years ago. There has been a slowly growing trend to see rabbits for the sociable unique animals that they are and include them as house pets that can have quality lives in are homes. We were advised to come back when Greta was 4-6 months old to have her spayed. It would cost about two hundred dollars. This would not only help prevent female cancers but also help her to live a better life as a house pet and maybe enable her to socialize with another rabbit without fighting or just as importantly without reproducing. Rabbits don’t need any help in this regard. They can produce between 4-10 babies possibly on a monthly basis. Which only adds to the unwanted rabbit epidemic that exists in shelters and backyards across the country.
We noticed at around Greta’s five month birthday her hormones began to kick in. She was trying hard as she could to romantically befriend a beach ball in our living room. She also began to mark her territory, a hormonal behavior, by leaving fecal pellets in a trail around our house. We made an appointment to have her spayed. We brought her in on a morning and were able to take her home later that day. They gave her a shot of pain medication before she left . They told us to feed her normally and make sure she was drinking within 24 hours and eating within 48 hours. We also needed to watch her incision site and make sure she was healing properly. We watched as she recuperated for a few days and started getting back to herself. She became completely litter box trained again it seemed overnight.
Now everyone in our house was content with Greta. I however began to sense that she was lonely. It seemed sad to see her sleeping by herself alone for hours as rabbits do during the day. Rabbits are crepuscular which means they are most active in the morning and evening into twilight. Though we socialized with her a great deal, as we have four children in our home, something didn’t seem quite right. I had read that although all rabbits have varying desires for friendship they are by nature highly social and in their natural environment live in warrens and are never really alone. They eat together and sleep together and seek comfort, warmth and companionship from one another. Domesticated rabbits also exhibit similar behaviors with people who care for them. Rabbits communicate mainly by way of their own physical movements. It is often easy to guess what some of these movements and postures mean, but sometimes you just don’t understand unless you are another rabbit. I felt Greta needed a friend.
This time I decided I would not go to a pet store. I decided adopting was a better idea. My whole outlook on rabbits was evolving. I found The House Rabbit Network online, a rabbit organization led strictly by volunteers who’s only motive was to rescue unwanted rabbits, find adoptive homes for them and to give the public the best educated advice on rabbit needs and care. They had a website with photos of rabbits awaiting adoption with a description of each rabbit’s own personality traits. They had a hotline I could call for any rabbit questions I had. I was amazed at how dedicated all the volunteers were and so anxious to help me find the right rabbit. They only adopt out spayed and neutered rabbits. This would work out perfectly for me since I was going to need to bond rabbits. Bonding is a procedure that can take weeks or months depending on the personality of the rabbits and how much time is spent working at it. It entails letting the rabbits getting used to each other slowly until they eventually spend more and more time together and with perseverance and some luck become compatible. Rabbits that do bond usually spend most of their time together and it is a truly satisfying thing to behold. Male and female rabbits generally bond more easily than same sex combinations. An HRN volunteer interviewed me over the phone and she then emailed me a list of bunny foster homes to visit.
Greta’s first “bunny date” didn’t go so well. Greta jumped all over the other petrified rabbit. Our sweet, calm little bunny was a maniac with him. We were advised to keep trying but went home a little wiser. This might not be as easy as we thought. The next bunny date was a bit further away. This HRN volunteer had several foster rabbits in large basement. They were there because she couldn’t bear to say no to a homeless bunny. One of the rabbits was in a cage by himself. He was a beautiful little white Lionhead with spots she had picked up from a nearby shelter only days before he was going to be euthanized simply because they lacked space. He had an all too common history. He had been purchased from a pet shop the previous Easter, most likely an impulse buy or a gift for someone who had no idea or concerns about the needs of a rabbit. As a result he spent the next several months caged in a basement with little human contact. His diet seemed to have been neglected as well since he seemed to have no idea that as a rabbit he was supposed to be eating mostly hay and vegetables and not a bowl of pellets (originally designed for farmed rabbits because they were cheap and fattening). He was not surprisingly, ultimately dumped off at a shelter. Yet it could have been even worse. He could have been one of the countless “Easter bunnies” who’s novelty wears off after the holiday when the reality of actually caring for the rabbit sets in.
He could have been one of the many who get released outside. After all, rabbits are woodland creatures aren’t they? Well not these domesticated rabbits. These guys haven’t a clue about how to avoid being the prey animal that they are, or where to keep warm in a blizzard. I was learning all about the Easter rabbit epidemic that exists every year in the spring, when pet stores and countless breeders cash in on the commercial idea of a cute, fuzzy, baby bunny at Easter time. These tiny animals are often taken from their mom even before they have weaned and are physically and mentally ready to go.
Rarely does the consumer understand what this 7-10 year commitment will entail. They don’t know that most of these baby bunnies will grow to be 2-12 pounds. They will need to hop and exercise to be physically fit and healthy. They will need love and companionship of a person or another rabbit for mental health and well being. They know little or nothing of the sensitive digestive systems the buns have and how they can get sick and die almost overnight if not cared for properly. Most think it is fine to keep a rabbit in an outdoor hutch or a cage and just toss some food and water into their little prison cells. No one in their right mind would do this to a cat or a dog. It would be considered inhumane! Yet somehow for a quiet little rabbit this has always been acceptable behavior. So we were happy be able to find a friend for Greta and at the same time be able to give an unwanted bunny a better life. He was surprisingly sweet despite his background but not surprisingly he seemed starved for affection. We tried putting them together and they seemed almost indifferent at first, which was a good sign. We would have to come back for him as he wasn’t yet neutered. After a few more weeks we were able to take him home.
I read about bonding and made numerous calls to a very dedicated volunteer at House Rabbit Network for advice and moral support. If you have never bonded two rabbits together it is very unique experience. We kept Linus, our new rabbit in a pen on one side of the living room and Greta was free to roam as usual and penned separately at night. She became obsessed with the presence of the new rabbit and would spend most of her time nonchalantly inspecting Linus’s area. When they were together she would frequently mount him, not really a sexual behavior so much as a way to assert her dominance and let him know who was who. He would occasionally try to do the same thing. As long as they were not hurting each other this was an acceptable way of their sorting things out. We would take them on little field trips to our small bathroom so they could be in neutral territory. They gradually began to eat next to each other and soon began to hang out together. The day I saw them resting outstretched side by side I knew things were going to be okay. Not long after we took all fences down. Once rabbits are bonded you should really never separate them as they become attached. The whole process lasted about two weeks which I’ve been told is not long. I knew we had done a good thing. Greta and Linus had become buddies.
Rabbits make a wonderful house pet. They are certainly not a “ good starter pet” as I have heard them described. They require an adult caregiver who is educated in rabbit care and has the patience to enjoy the subtle personalities of a rabbit. Children can enjoy them as well but need to be able to respect the rabbit’s space. As a prey animal a rabbit is by nature a nervous creature and those who live with them need to let them grow to trust them. They are funny, sweet, interesting affectionate animals. A rabbit is not the right pet for everyone but for some it can be such a wonderful addition their lives.