PAWS FOR HOPE CONFERENCE, VANCOUVER, BC

SPEAKER: Debby Widolf

DATE: October 26th 2019
DISCARDED RABBITS: The Growing Crisis of Abandoned Rabbits and How We Can Help, by Lucile Moore, with Debby Widolf

“With Our Thoughts, We Make the World.” Buddha

Abandoned rabbits have been the heart of my work in rabbit rescue. Over my years of independent rescue, an HRS Educator and manager/advocate of the Rabbit Department at Best Friends Animal Society, I have seen the incidence of rabbit abandonment grow into the crisis it is in today.

My hope is to pass along the experience I gained in my twenty-five years of rabbit rescue. Afterall, you and others behind you will be faced with the challenges of abandoned rabbits and how best to help them. I hope you will receive these experiences with an open mind, giving heart and with the respect and love it is given to you.

*Discarded Rabbits is now available in a “Revised Edition”.

I was so very fortunate to have Lucile Moore, author of several rabbit care books, come out of retirement from writing to take on this important work with me. She was my guide in all things “book writing”. This work would not have been possible without her. Thank you Lucile. We would also like to thank all the people who contributed to this book with their personal stories of rescuing and caring for discarded rabbits.

Community/feral rabbits were the inspiration for this book. It was written with the hope for guiding rescues, and shelters with strategies and resources for not only helping large colonies of rabbits but also the single abandoned rabbit.

Time will not allow me to cover all aspects of the book but in synopsis Discarded Rabbits has twelve chapters divided into three parts; The Problem and Potential Solutions, Rescuing Large Groups and Colonies of Rabbits and Individual Rescue of Dumped Rabbits, covering topics about:

The Downside of Rabbit Popularity:

  • Rabbits Killed at Las Vegas Rabbit Dumpsite Education
  • Being Prepared for a Rescue
  • Initial Action to Take When a Colony is Discovered
  • Managing Care for Large Numbers of Rabbits
  • TNR/Release for Rabbit Colonies, (Managed care of colonies)
  • The Great Reno Rabbit Rescue of 2006
  • Capturing Abandoned Rabbits
  • What to do After Capturing a Rabbit
  • Staying Strong in Rescue

Why? Putting the Pieces Together

The numbers of feral colonies are on the increase with colonies reported now in most states in the U.S, if not all states and reported in many countries around the world.  Despite harsh conditions some dumped rabbits manage to survive on their own in neighborhoods, public spaces, and school grounds.

Technically, “feral rabbits are the domestic rabbits born in the wild, the offspring of the dumped rabbits or have lived on their own for longer than they were a pet. Most often dumped rabbits are unaltered, adding to the numbers.  People seeing these rabbits will often see it as a dumping ground and dump more rabbits.  If the rabbits persist and the colony becomes large, they can present problems for landowners, businesses and governments.  They can destroy landscaping and predators to the area.  Sadly, the means often chosen to control the rabbit problem can present an unwanted high cost and the means is not what most would consider humane.  Remember, the rabbits did not choose to be abandoned.  The rabbits not the humans that discarded them suffer the consequences.

As the popularity of domestic rabbit as pets has soared the past 20 years the downside is that there is an exponential increase of rabbit abandonment.  The actual numbers are unknown and essentially unknowable as most published figures for abandoned animals don’t list rabbits separately but lump them under “other”.  Studies in the U.S found that rabbits were usually the third most surrendered pet, although sometimes birds hold that spot.  The Rabbit Rescue Survey in the U.K., of 2010, reported that 36% of rabbits entering rescues are surrendered within the first six months of ownership, and 59% within the first year.  The top reason, 34% for surrender was a child losing interest and no longer wanting the rabbit.  A 2012 US study of four shelters, found that most rabbits were given up because the owner did not want to take care of them.  Research in Sweden found that the top three reasons for surrendering rabbits there were a lack of time, owners moving and third, allergies. On my own research to try and find out the numbers of surrendered domestic rabbits, I talked with Animal People.org in 2008.  At that time their estimate was that 3-4% of the number of animals surrendered to shelters were pet rabbits, that number being approximately 43,000 a year.

Most surrenders are unaltered adults, so not wanting to pay for the surgery may be another reason.  Surrender is affected by the size and breed of the rabbit.  Fewer small, lop eared rabbits are surrendered than larger up eared or all white or all black rabbit. These studies on rabbit surrender to shelters may be equated to the numbers of rabbits that are dumped to fend for themselves.  My experience has indicated that the dumped rabbit numbers are greater than those fortunate enough to be surrendered to a shelter where it might be possible to be placed in a home.

Other contributors to surrender or confiscation is hoarding.  An estimated 250,000 animals in the U.S. each year are involved in hoarding, including rabbits.  Their quiet nature making detection of their plight less obvious. Rabbits are considered a multi- purpose animal: fur, meat, lab animals.  Only a few of these rabbits have a second chance at life.

Holy Batman: Educate, Go BIG!!

The slide is of a billboard campaign I did with the assistance of the LV HRS. Let people know that animal abandonment, including rabbits is against the law in all fifty states. Get acquainted with city, county and state officials involved with animal care and control. To increase the funding provided to shelters for the care and education about rabbits, it is critical that shelters and rescues document abandoned domestic rabbits living on their own in a community and those that are surrendered to shelters.

We must move past the days when rabbits are not considered, “other” or only given an intake number with no record of the species. We need to document the numbers of calls about unwanted rabbit situations and questions. Without these statistics funding will not be justified by cities, municipalities and integrated in the planning of large national animal organizations. Currently, the numbers of abandoned dogs and cats are much better documented, therefore funding is greater, promotion and advocacy is stronger. Education about rabbits as companions is relatively new compared to what we know about dogs and cats. This is not to say that shelters and other animal organizations are uncaring, they do care but unawareness hurts the efforts to save the lives of discarded rabbits. We can close this gap by combining our efforts and knowledge. Until the general public is better educated about rabbits they will continue to be displaced by more common pets. The perception that rabbits as a “starter pet” contributes to surrender or abandonment.

Many organizations and shelters do a great job at educating potential adopters and children. Education needs to be honest about living life with a companion rabbit and support help when problems arise. Be up front when doing education, the wonderful and the frustrating. Let people know that depending on the rabbit’s personality they may or may not want to be held and cuddled, they are fragile, rabbit vet care is expensive, rabbits may bite and scratch to make their needs known or when frightened. They love to eat baseboard, carpet and articles of clothing! And, can they ever shed, (molt). Although they can be liter trained, you will always need to pick up some poops, it is what they do! Most importantly tell people that they are prey and what that means for a rabbit. If you are a shelter or rescue, commit to finding the rabbit another placement if the home does not work out.


Spay and Neuter
Although some progress is being made, spay and neuter surgery must be more readily available through low cost spay-neuter programs and become standard practice at shelters when a rabbit comes into their care, if we are to reduce the abandonment of unwanted rabbits. Most shelters will spay and neuter cats and dogs prior for adoption. Become advocates for the spay/neuter of rabbits as well!

Males can be neutered after the testicles are evident, around 10 weeks of age. Females need more time to mature. The opinion varies regarding time, but generally sometime between 4 and 6 months. Do not adopt un-altered males and females together. I realize that funding for rabbit surgeries for rescues and shelters is limited or non-existent. If you find yourself in that situation, start somewhere, educate, separate sexes when they come in, and if possible, begin by neutering the males.

So, So Many, So Few Homes.

The gap continues to grow between the numbers of rabbits needing rescue or sheltering in comparison to the numbers of shelters accepting rabbits and space available in rescues. The ideal would be to rescue, shelter and eventually adopt these rabbits to safe and loving homes that they so deserve. The reality is that this is not going to happen in the foreseeable future as there are not enough rescuers, not enough shelters and not enough people who appreciate the unique qualities of rabbits to adopt the huge numbers of unwanted domestic rabbits.

Rabbit only rescues and shelters are overwhelmed with calls to take unwanted rabbits and are often over stretched for space and resources. New alternative strategies for placing, housing, providing sanctuary and caring for the thousands of rabbits that need rescuing need to be implemented and be developed as a best practice standard of care along with the traditional rescue, shelter, adoption for the single or pair of rabbits.

Long Beach City College Rabbit Project

The next part of this talk is to introduce successful, alternative programs for sheltering, sanctuary and adoption of discarded rabbits.

2008 a small group of LBCC instructors and volunteers decided it was time that the ongoing dumping of domestic rabbits and the hundreds living on campus needed attention and solutions. Employees had witnessed cars pulling up to the campus, opening their car doors and pushing their rabbits out. The campus was becoming known as the rabbit sanctuary or dumpsite. With the school’s administration onboard, help from Western University School of Veterinary Medicine, Best Friends Animal Society, local rescues and an ongoing team of volunteers they trapped, S/N, housed on the LBCC campus, cared for and placed approximately five hundred rabbits. The rabbits were a mix of feral domestic: those born on campus never knowing a home with little people contact, others that had were dumped, living a year or more on campus and the newly dumped pet rabbit.

A small number of the rabbits were returned to live out their lives on campus, their care and well- being was managed by the staff and volunteers. The rabbits were adopted as singles, pairs or small groups. The project took four years. Special thanks to Donna Prindle, teacher/instructor at LBCC, a true champion for the rabbits. The campus continues to be monitored for any dumped rabbits.

Best Friends Animal Society Reno Rabbit Rescue 2006.

BFAS undertook the “ownership” and care of 1250 domestic rabbits living in a back-yard hoarding situation. Over a period of approximately 10 months all the rabbits were removed from the yard, set up at an interim site, spayed or neutered, treated for health problems and acquired placement. The rabbits had been living for many years with little human contact and had established groups and territories within the one-acre property. They were very leery of people and highly preferred the companionship of each other. The rabbits were primarily adopted as small and large groups, ranging from 10 to 350. The photo is from BFAS. Three hundred rabbits lived the remainder of their lives in indoor-outdoor protected areas in small groups ranging from 5 to 25.

Precious Life Rabbit Sanctuary

Located on 85 acres on the Olympic Peninsula, WA. 100 rabbits live as a group in a covered, predator proof rabbitat at Precious Life Rabbit Sanctuary. The rabbits are not adopted unless they are deemed not suited for group living and would be happier in a home with humans. The rabbits can burrow, roam freely and live happy well cared for lives.

Rabbitats.org. Vancouver, BC

Mission Statement: “To safely house the large and ever expanding feral rabbit population in a sustainable and affordable way.”

I want to highlight an organization here in Vancouver, Rabbitats.org. They are a not for profit rabbit rescue founded by Sorelle Saidman. I have admired their progressive thinking and live saving strategies for many years and made a trip a few years ago to meet Sorelle and look at the work she and her wonderful volunteers have accomplished. Just to capture a glimpse of her work, Rabbitats implemented the rescue and placement of the Richmond Auto Mall community rabbits. They were involved in the Uni. Of Vic rabbit rescue, continuing their live saving work by being advocates for and bringing the vaccination to Canada for the fatal RHD virus for domestic rabbits.

This slide shows one of their outdoor rabbitats that is predator proof, rabbits cannot dig out, the bottom/floor is covered with hardware cloths and road base. The rabbits live in large groups, divided into sections that are amenable to living together. The entire area including the ceiling is enclosed for the rabbit’s protection and there is a second fence to provide a visual barrier. The maintenance and feeding of the rabbit groups is much more efficient than set ups with single cages or exercise pens.
Similar rabbitats have been built in the surrounding area, one on a horse farm and another at a community garden! Their work is included in the book Discarded Rabbits.

These set ups are ideal for the community/feral rabbits that may not be comfortable in a home setting. My experience with community/feral rabbits, the rabbits that have not known anything but being on their own, depending on each other with very little people contact, are happy living out their lives in the company of each other in a safe environment. Please, find out more about their work. The Rabbitats model is out there and it works! Rabbitats.org.

“OUR TASK MUST BE TO FREE OUTSELVES BY WIDENING OUR CIRCLE OF COMASSION TO ALL LIVING CREATURES, AND THE WHOLE OF NATURE AND ITS BEAUTY.” Albert Einstein

There is no single answer, but there are many partial answers. Of these, education is at the top. We must employ more effective methods of educating the public about the consequences of dumping rabbits, and better prepare adopters for the realities of caring for rabbits.

With dedicated organizations such as Rabbitats, we do not have to re-invent the wheel but can open our minds in the changing world of animal rescue and learn from others that are breaking ground in life saving efforts for rabbits by implementing new strategies for placing, housing and caring for the thousands of rabbits needing rescue.

Each discarded rabbit deserves the chance at a fulfilling life, a life that can be as fulling to the person who takes that rabbit into their home or for the individuals that care for a large group of rabbits living in protected rabbitats.
If we consider, fund and implement enough of these strategies we CAN help many of these unwanted, discarded rabbits.

Artwork by: Debby Widolf

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