For months I’d been begging my dad for a puppy. Ever since I’d seen “Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World,” I’d had my heart set on an Old English Sheepdog, just like the one in the movie. I was convinced that getting one would make me the happiest seven-year-old in the world. But no matter how hard I pleaded, Dad flat-out refused (in retrospect I’m grateful he did – a large, high-energy herding dog with endless grooming needs would have been a huge mistake). After all, once my dad made up his mind it was pretty hard to change it.
Knowing how much I wanted a pet of my own, my parents relented, just a little. After all, it was time for me to learn some responsibility. So while a dog or a cat was out, they compromised on a rabbit, figuring a bunny would be an easy “starter pet” that wouldn’t take up too much space, make any noise, or require a lot of time or effort.
So just a few weeks before Easter, my mom took me to our local pet store to pick out a bunny. I remember walking past the rows of wall display cages full of puppies and kittens and to the back of the store, where the baby rabbits were kept in a large wire playpen. And that’s when I saw him – a beautiful little Dutch rabbit with a brownish-gray and white coat, running around the pen doing “binkies” while all the other bunnies just sort of laid around listlessly. Mom suggested I name him Frisky. So we took him home.
The concept of companion animals living indoors was not yet commonplace or much of a consideration when I was growing up in the 1970’s – most pets lived in the backyard where they “belonged.” Thus, Frisky was relegated to living outdoors in a small wire cage behind the garage, with no bed to snuggle in, no toys to play with, no hay to munch on, just a ceramic bowl full of bunny pellets, a water bottle, and full exposure to the elements, which were luckily pretty mild in Santa Monica.
It must have been an extremely boring, monotonous and lonely life for such a smart, inquisitive and playful little being as a rabbit. But such was Frisky’s lot in life with his new family, to stare helplessly out at the world through walls of wire as he waited for me to show up and relieve him from his confinement for a little while, only to be returned to his small prison and left alone again. Eventually, my mom hired our handyman to build Frisky a hutch after he began growing out of his cage, and while he now had more space and a roof to protect him, he was still living outside on wire flooring with nothing to entertain him. But this was simply how people kept rabbits in those days. We didn’t know any better, nor did it ever occur to us to do anything differently – it was “normal.”
While other little girls played with dolls, I played with Frisky – he was a far more interesting toy! As a result, my poor bunny was often subjected to a host of indignities, including being dressed up in bonnets, bathed in a bucket, carted around in my sister’s baby carriage, and being forced to ride in my bicycle basket while I cruised around the neighborhood (without any restraint to protect him from jumping out, which he did on many occasions). Another favorite pastime of mine was to make him to lie in my arms like a baby while I fed him carrots. Sometimes he’d scratch and kick himself free, but mostly he’d just give in and let me do what I wanted. I’m not sure if he was just a very sweet, patient bunny or if I just wore him down.
But for me, an often lonely little girl without many friends, Frisky was everything. He was there when I’d had a bad day at school and just wanted to lie in the grass next to him, pet his silky fur and forget about the world. He was there when I’d gotten in trouble with my parents again and needed to vent about how unfair they were. He was there to listen to me tell stories or sing songs from some of my favorite Disney movies. He learned to come when I called him and he was funny, mischievous and very entertaining. One of his favorite pastimes was raiding my mom’s vegetable garden, and he made me laugh when he’d run up to me after feasting on strawberries, his bunny lips scarlet with berry juice. As the weeks, months and years went by, he made me forget all about that Old English Sheepdog I’d wanted so badly.
When my family moved to the canyons of Malibu in July 1977 I figured Frisky would love it there, with so much more room to run and an even larger vegetable garden to invade. We placed his hutch next to the stable, where he would have a good view of the house and be in the middle of all the action, so he would never be lonely. But our first summer in the canyon was a warm one. I didn’t know how easily rabbits can die of heatstroke, and I thought nothing of the fact that his hutch was exposed to full sun in the late afternoon hours. He was dead within weeks. I was devastated, blissfully unaware that his demise could have been easily prevented. After all, when cared for properly and allowed to live indoors, rabbits can live ten years or more. Poor Frisky only made it to his third birthday.
I’ve written about this before – the regret I feel for the mistakes I’ve made with the pets of my past. And while I’ve been working hard to stop beating myself up, learn from my mistakes and become the best pet parent I can possibly be, it still bothers me when I think about my poor, sweet, neglected little rabbit, baking to death in the hot summer sun.
Despite the fact I’m not currently in the position to bring another bunny into my life, I wanted to learn more – to basically retrace my steps and do the homework my parents and I didn’t do before bringing Frisky into our family. So I figured I’d go straight to the experts – the House Rabbit Society. With chapters in 22 states, this volunteer-based, nonprofit animal welfare organization is dedicated to rescuing and rehoming abandoned rabbits, as well as rabbit advocacy and public education. Luckily, the Georgia House Rabbit Society just happened to be 15 minutes from our house, so Chris and I wasted no time in heading over and immersing ourselves in bunny land!
Housed in a small, charming converted residence that includes a shelter, a boarding facility and a retail store, the GA HRS is run by an amazing team of dedicated volunteers who help rescue, care for and adopt out over 300 homeless rabbits every year. After a fun tour of the sparkling clean little facility, complete with 50 adorable, long-eared, cotton-tailed, and wiggly-nosed residents, I had a chance to sit down with Shelter Director and rabbit aficionado Jennifer McGee, who gave me the low-down on some of the biggest misconceptions about this very misunderstood companion animal.
“Sadly, rabbits are the third most euthanized companion animal next to dogs and cats,” she explained. “We get hundreds of intake requests per year, and some of the most common reasons people give for surrendering their rabbits are, ‘we got it from the pet store, but the kids aren’t interested anymore,’ or ‘the rabbit became aggressive and it’s grunting, charging and biting the kids.’ Well, they didn’t get their rabbit neutered and they have it in a tiny cage with no exercise or social interaction – they set that rabbit up to be miserable. With some people, once you explain things to them, they’ll do something about it, but others don’t care, they just want the rabbit off their hands.”
Here are some important facts to consider before bringing a rabbit into your life:
Rabbits are not easy, low-maintenance “starter pets.” Bunnies are a lot of work. They require daily interaction and enrichment, a varied diet, a rabbit-proofed indoor living environment, and safe space to run, dig, jump, and chew.
They are not rodents, they are lagomorphs. Companion rabbits are domestic animals. Unlike their wild cousins, jackrabbits, hares and cottontails, pet bunnies are tame, vulnerable creatures completely dependent on humans for their care. And unlike hamsters or other “pocket pets,” rabbits aren’t content to live their entire lives confined in cages.
They are prey animals by nature. Bunnies are naturally jumpy and skittish, and thus require a different approach than predator pets. Canine and feline social activities such as playing chase and belly rubs can be interpreted as threatening rather than loving and playful to a rabbit.
They belong indoors. Bunnies should never live outside in hutches or be left outdoors unsupervised. Parasites, diseases, the elements and constant stress from being constantly on alert outside can kill a pet rabbit. Besides the fact that life in a cage or hutch is boring, depressing and stressful, bunnies can literally be frightened to death when approached by predators, such as raccoons, hawks, coyotes, owls, cats and dogs. The average lifespan for an outside hutch rabbit is 2-3 years compared to 10 or more years for a spayed or neutered indoor house bunny.
They aren’t suitable for young children. Rabbits are delicate and fragile creatures that require safe, gentle handling and a quiet environment. They don’t like to be held or cuddled, they are easily frightened by loud noises, and their bones and spines are very breakable – not a good fit for a small child who may view them as a toy. A parent who gives their kid a pet rabbit must not only be willing to be the rabbit’s primary caretaker but must also be prepared to supervise any interactions between child and bunny.
They must be spayed or neutered. This is essential in preventing uterine cancer in females, unpleasant and aggressive behavior in males including spraying, and unwanted pregnancies (a female rabbit can have a new litter of kits every 30 days!).
They require training and plenty of patience. New rabbit parents must be willing to spend time teaching home environment boundaries until the rabbit learns its limits. Inquisitive, intelligent, and very social by nature, bunnies are actually very trainable. They can learn their names, understand commands, walk on a leash, use a litter box, and perform all kinds of tricks.
Their vet care can be expensive. Bunnies are considered “exotic” pets, which means they have special veterinary needs that can only be met by vets specifically trained in handling and treating them. Exotic vets aren’t easy to find and their services can be more expensive than those of a small animal veterinarian specializing in dogs and cats.
They are exploited by the pet industry. When you purchase a bunny from a pet store, such as Petland or Pet Supermarket, or a flea market you’re almost guaranteed to be supporting backyard breeders and large commercial breeding operations called rabbitries. Similar to puppy mills, rabbitries are often all about profit and rarely about the health, temperament or wellbeing of their rabbits. You can learn more about the rabbit breeding industry here.
They don’t make good Easter gifts. Every year, thousands of rabbits are purchased as Easter gifts for children, only to end up neglected or abandoned days, weeks and months later after kids lose interest and parents realize the bunny is a lot more work than they thought.
“Probably 80 percent of the rabbits that come to us were Easter bunnies at some time or another,” said Jennifer. “They’re typically purchased from the feed and seed stores to go in a child’s Easter basket, but people don’t know what to do with them and they die – only 10 percent of Easter bunnies actually live to see their first birthday. That’s why this year we started a billboard campaign with a corresponding website, notforeaster.com. We’re not trying to scare people out of getting a rabbit for Easter, but if they really want a rabbit and are willing to make that 10-12-year commitment, getting one shouldn’t revolve around the Easter holiday.”
They are not disposable. Rabbits can’t be turned loose outside – they will surely die from starvation, predators and parasites. Most shelters don’t accept surrendered pet rabbits, and rabbit rescues – which are almost always full with unwanted bunnies – aren’t likely to accept a rabbit from someone who purchased it on impulse and just doesn’t want the responsibility anymore.
They are intelligent and sensitive like cats and dogs. Rabbits are loving and social animals who bond with their human parents and bunny friends, and once they are spayed and neutered, they make delightful house pets. Like any sentient being, each rabbit has his or her own unique personality, from playful and silly, independent and reserved, to loyal and affectionate.
Adopt, don’t shop. Just like with dogs and cats, over-breeding and impulse purchases have resulted in thousands of homeless rabbits ending up in shelters and rescues throughout the U.S. There are multitudes of homeless rabbits looking for loving forever homes, so there’s no need to purchase a rabbit when you can adopt one. As you would with any pet, take time to educate yourself about their needs before bringing them into your home, then visit your local shelter, rescue group, or HRS chapter and adopt a homeless bunny.
Although my Frisky wasn’t an impulse purchase or an Easter gift gone wrong, he was indeed the victim of an uninformed little girl who didn’t understand his needs. A rabbit is meant to be a pampered house pet and a treasured companion, not a fixture in a hutch or an occasional plaything. How I wish I’d known that then.
But in the end, meeting with Jennifer actually ended up being very therapeutic – she, too had also kept her childhood rabbit in a hutch in her backyard, and like me, she also felt regret for not knowing better or doing more for her bunny. It felt good to know I wasn’t alone. “You do what you know, and when you know better, you do better,” she said encouragingly. That is a saying I will carry with me always.
“Just like with anything in life, get a rabbit for the right reasons,” Jennifer said. “Don’t do it because your kids are begging and tugging on your leg, or because you want to teach them responsibility – think about what you’re going to teach them when you let that rabbit loose outside, give it to a neighbor or take it to animal control. It’s a society issue at the base of it, it’s how we’re raising the next generation, and it’s not just with dogs, cats and rabbits, it’s every animal. A companion animal is a living, breathing thing and we are breeding them, we’re designing them and we’re making them dependent on us, so we are obligated to take care of them – that’s all there is to it.”
To learn more about proper rabbit care and adopting a bunny, visit the House Rabbit Society to find a chapter near you. If you live in the Atlanta area and are interested in adopting, volunteering and/or supporting the Georgia House Rabbit Society, please visit their website to learn more about them and how you can help their amazing efforts to help Georgia’s abandoned and neglected rabbits.
Check out these sites for great information about rabbits and their care:
“Animals are not property or ‘things’ but rather living organisms, subjects of a life, who are worthy of our compassion, respect, friendship, and support.” – Marc Bekoff