With Easter approaching, images of floppy ears, pink button noses and bushy tails are everywhere, triggering an impulse for parents and children alike to bring home a cute, cuddly bunny. Sadly, this centuries-old tradition celebrating luminous rebirth and renewal can be the darkest time of the year for the domestic rabbit.
Too many families quickly grow bored with the new addition after the Easter festivities end and the novelty fades. Or they’re shocked at the rapid transformation from the cute, fluffy bunny that once fit in the palm of their hands into a full-blown, cranky adolescent.
“If they’re not spayed or neutered, the once gentle, nice bunny turns obnoxious, aggressive and destructive,” says Lorraine Bushek of Rabbit Advocates, a local nonprofit dedicated to rabbit foster care and adoption, and educating the public about the care of domestic rabbits.
Rabbits reach sexual maturity around six months. That’s exactly when, Bushek says, they see an influx of bunnies purchased on a whim for Easter.
When the newness wears off, the rabbit is often left neglected in a cage, abandoned at a shelter, or worst of all, released outside. Bushek says not only is this illegal, but an almost certain death sentence for domesticated rabbits, which do not have the ability to survive on their own.
“Chocolate or stuffed toy rabbits are Easter bunnies,” says Bushek. “A live rabbit is at least a 10-year commitment.”
Contrary to popular belief, rabbits are not low-maintenance pets, and definitely not good starter pets for families with small children. Bushek says, “Rabbits are prey animals and do not like to be picked up, carried around or cuddled.” The prey mentality makes rabbits highly sensitive to their environment, and easily stressed by loud noises and sudden movements — things kids normally do.
A frightened rabbit will intensely protect itself by launching a bite with its large, razor-sharp teeth or lashing out with its powerful, thumping back feet. Possessing fragile spines, being dropped or improperly handled can result in severe injury or death.
At their level and with all four feet on the ground, rabbits can be very affectionate. Still, for optimal well-being, they do require daily time outside their cages and interacting (on their terms) with human friends.
Like cats, “rabbits are extremely clean, they groom themselves, and are easily litter-box trained,” says Bushek. In fact they can co-exist harmoniously with felines. But, Bushek cautions, they are just as much work as a dog or a cat, and in some ways maybe more.
Bunnies love to dig and because those big bunny teeth grow constantly, they chew. Both of these habits increase with boredom. “Owners need to rabbit-proof their homes and give them the right things to chew on,” says Bushek, listing cardboard boxes, apple and willow branches, and paper egg cartons as suitable, inexpensive options.
Another misconception is that lettuce and carrots make for a sufficient bunny diet. “Eighty-five percent of their diet should be hay and fifteen percent pellets,” cites Bushek. With highly sensitive stomachs, they are not able to digest sugar well, so carrots and fruits should be given sparingly.
“Not having enough space to store hay is a downfall to owning rabbits, and people allergic to hay will find rabbits a problem.”
The Rabbit Advocates got its roots in 2002 with a group of volunteers who rescued and fostered when the Oregon Humane Society became overloaded or had bunnies in need of minor medical care. RA still works closely with OHS to see that no rabbits are turned away. Currently, there are over 400 rabbits being fostered by more than 60 RA volunteers.
Volunteers constantly post their foster bunnies on the RA website, and in Spot’s Rescue Me! section, and host monthly adoption and outreach events. During events RA volunteers teach about rabbit care and the realities of life with rabbits. Potential adopters are screened thoroughly to ensure a good fit for both parties.
“Rabbits are quiet, intelligent and clever animals that do make great pets for some people.” says Bushek, who fosters regularly and has two rabbits of her own. “People just need to research and understand them.” True words for any pet at any time of year, but especially for rabbits at Easter time.
Vonnie Harris is a freelance writer, and operator of Pet Stop Pit Stop pet sitting services in Southwest WA. She and her brood, Jake and Jessie, both yellow Labs, and parrots Pedro (Yellow-Nape Amazon) and Lorali (African Grey) reside in Vancouver. Vonnie also is “the face of Spot” at many Portland-area pet-related events, and the voice of Spot in social media outlets.