by Nancy E. McCarthy
It was 1990 when Kim Dalheim, then a college student, impulsively purchased a pet bunny at a hardware store. That decision would lead to her lifelong love of these small, furry mammals and eventually evolved into a passion for rabbit rescue. Her first bun experience was a positive one, though she was initially inexperienced about its care.
Spontaneous rabbit purchases – particularly prevalent around Easter time – don’t always have happy endings like Dalheim’s. Unprepared owners discover these little fluff balls require much more than carrots and cuddles. Just like dogs or cats, rabbits need an appropriate diet, regular exercise, socialization, vet care, and grooming.
“People view rabbits as caged, easy-care pets, which is the opposite of reality,” says Dalheim, a teacher who lives in Geneseo with her family. “Rabbits need space and interaction or they become aggressive or withdrawn.” When the adorable baby bunny phase passes and they mature, many are surrendered to animal shelters or simply abandoned.
Dalheim now advocates adopting through shelters and rescue groups rather than purchasing from pet shops or the mass breeders who supply the stores. Animal welfare groups across New York share this philosophy, resulting in legislation introduced by New York State Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris prohibiting the sale of rabbits, dogs, and cats in retail pet shops. The bill, passed in the State Senate in July 2020, was delivered to the State Assembly and assigned to the Agricultural Committee, where it languished. The bill will need to be reintroduced to both Houses again in 2021.
Similar legislation was passed in California. “Since the pet sale ban prohibiting stores from selling dogs, cats, and rabbits went into effect January 1, 2019, we are seeing a significant decrease in the number of unwanted rabbits coming into municipal shelters,” says Anne Martin, executive director of House Rabbit Society, a national nonprofit rabbit rescue and educational organization. “There seems to be a clear correlation between the retail sale of unfixed rabbits, often with little or no education on long-term care requirements of rabbits, and rabbits becoming unwanted and ending up in shelters.” When shelters run out of space, they reach out to local rescue groups for help or euthanize the animals.
In New York, Dalheim backs up her advocacy with action. In addition to caring for her own five rescued pet rabbits, she fosters bunnies that regional rescue T.H.E. Rabbit Resource (TRR) offers for adoption. Serving the Finger Lakes and other upstate regions, TRR is a New York chapter of House Rabbit Society.
Dalheim is an active volunteer and treasurer for the organization.
Like many rescue groups, TRR does not have a physical space and relies on volunteers to foster bunnies in their homes. Other volunteer tasks include fielding inquiries, screening or home checks of prospective adopters, arranging neutering and spaying of animals in their care, transporting bunnies, nursing sick animals, and capturing unwanted pet rabbits released outside. Domestic rabbits lack survival instincts; they can be hit by cars, die from disease or extreme temperatures, and are preyed upon by other animals or birds. Some are simply thrown away. Joey, one of Dalheim’s pet bunnies, was found inside a taped box in a dumpster. Happily, he is now the “bunny boss” with free range on the second floor of her home.
According to Dalheim, TRR has about 30 volunteers and foster up to 60 bunnies annually. Approximately a dozen of those are from animal shelter overflow, while the rest are found hopping around outside.
Kelly Fee of East Bloomfield spotted two white baby rabbits as she left a church yard sale last June. Sale organizers told her the pair had been hanging around unattended all morning. Fee assumed they got loose and took them home for their safety. After trying to locate their owners, she decided to keep them. “At first I thought they were lost, but maybe they were abandoned,” says Fee. “It was wrong to leave them on their own to fend for themselves.”
Fee’s grown daughters had pet rabbits when they were young, so she was familiar with their needs. When one of the bunnies died within a few days, Fee suspected the animal had ingested pesticide-treated grass near the church. The other, a female albino rabbit with pure white fur and red eyes, thrived. Fee named her Bo, short for Bodacious.
At that time Fee, was going through a rough patch and isolated at home alone by COVID-19 lockdowns. Though she rescued Bo, Bo also rescued her. “She’s a good companion. I love her,” says Fee, who describes her furry friend as gentle, snuggly, and playful. Bo enjoys her toys: little stuffed animals, balls, and an empty can that Fee fills with treats. The bunny rolls the can across the floor with her nose, stopping to nibble the goodies that spill out. Though caged when Fee is out, Bo otherwise has free run of the living room. She follows Fee like a dog, and uses a litterbox like a cat.
One useful advantage of adopting through a rescue group is having access to experienced foster caregivers who can match each bunny to the right home, as well as provide resources and advice before and after the placement.
When Maura Tumulty and Raj Dosanjh’s teenage daughter Fiona wanted a pet bunny, she did diligent research
and decided to adopt through a rabbit rescue. In March 2020, the family connected with Dalheim at TRR. This led them to an energetic, dark-haired male they named Chester, now about three years old. Though Fiona was hoping for a snuggle bunny, Chester does not like being picked up or held, but will lean against family members to be pet.
The family felt well-supported by TRR, especially when Chester had moody periods, temporarily refusing food following stressful situations such as too-long nail-clipping sessions. Dalheim, who had fostered the rabbit, was available for FaceTime sessions and assured them that Chester was just being Chester.
This little mischievous bun with a big personality coexists well with the family’s two cats – as long as Chester doesn’t try to engage them in play. “His personality cracks me up, even though he can be a little over the top,” says Fiona. “He’s very adorable when he flops over and is lying on his side. But my favorite thing is when he runs and jumps about.”
Dalheim enjoys match-making. “People who ask questions and are interested in learning are the ‘best customers,’” she says. But Dalheim cautions not to start your adoption search around Easter: TRR won’t place any bunnies during that season. Chocolate or toy bunnies are a much better choice.
Bunnies are soft and snuggly but did you know most don’t like being picked up and prefer their cuddles on the floor or on your lap?
More facts and some tips:
- Well-cared for bunnies can live up to 10 years or more.
- Adults should always supervise children handling rabbits.
- Rabbits are considered exotic small companion animals—a recognized veterinary specialty by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners.
- Many hormone-driven behavioral and health issues arise from rabbits that are not neutered or spayed.
- They are social creatures who thrive best indoors as part of the family.
- Bunnies need a living space that provides adequate freedom of movement. That could be safely supervised time outside of a cage or playpen or free range bunny-proofed house privileges (exposed wires, furniture legs and molding are all fair game for chomping).
- Rabbits should not live or play outdoors where they are exposed to weather, parasites, frightening noises and predators.
- Like cats, bunnies use a litterbox and like to push or toss toys around.
- The most important component of a rabbit’s diet is fresh hay. Long chewing periods prevents dental disease and since their teeth never stop growing, keeps their teeth trimmed.
Find out more at therabbitresource.org. The group accepts donations and can always use volunteers.