My Experience with “The Great Rabbit Rescue of 2006”

By Lisa Carrara

Pay attention to the internet, television and ad campaigns, etc., and you might be convinced that cats and dogs are mostly what people focus on. Indeed, they are as precious and valuable as any species in the animal kingdom. However, they are certainly not the only intrinsic beings that deserve attention.

I suppose my great love of animals was inherited from my wonderful mother, Mary Carrara. Throughout my entire life I was blessed to have many different species of pets, all of them being rescues in some form or another. We were the crazy animal people that picked up every stray dog and cat and ensured they were found good homes.

Our hearts also went out to the sick and injured. We rescued and brought emergency care to numerous dogs, cats, raccoons, squirrels, birds and yes, even a field mouse that my friend saved from drowning who received over $200 in medical treatment! Crazy, I’m aware. My grandmother and grandfather lived on a farm where we raised a calf from a baby, (thoughtfully named after me, lol), which I would ride on her back when I was a wee one,

This brings me to a story of an experience that transformed my life. I’ve done animal rescue and volunteer work for over 35 years, but in 2006, my life was forever changed when I became a part of The Great Rabbit Rescue.

Let me back up and explain how I was fortunate enough to be a part of this rescue. In 2005, I was moving to a new part of Las Vegas, Nevada. While passing through the potential neighborhood one night, I noticed far off in the dark a rabbit in the bushes. And then another. When passing by, it was obvious they were domestic rabbits that had been dumped and had become feral.

As it turned out, we did end up purchasing the home in that neighborhood and the thought of those poor bunnies that were in danger of predation, disease, poisoning, overheating, improper nutrition and much more, never, ever, left my mind.

After months of seeing them, feeding them, attempting to gain their trust to try and capture them, we realized those efforts were futile. No human trust was to be gained. Plan B. I always keep several types of innovative, safe trapping devices at home. With my mom as my fellow rescuer, we decided to use the last resort that I thought could possibly work. I have several types of nets that measure about 25’ long by 5’ high. I knew rabbit behavior well enough to know that even if we were able to get close enough to surround them, they would charge the net and escape underneath it. This would be a difficult challenge for a two-member team. In hopes to solve that potential problem, I attached numerous two-pound SCUBA diving weights every three feet along the bottom of the netting.

When the rabbits were grazing on one of the owner’s lawn as they usually did that time of day, we decided it was time, and we knew we would probably only have one shot. One of us was at each end of the netting. I communicated to my mom where and how slowly she needed to move her end of the net while doing the same with mine. After about an hour, we had one of them surrounded by the net and slowly closed in on him. When he tried to escape underneath the netting, the weights prevented that, allowing me to safely, with as little stress as possible, drape a towel over him. (Frightened rabbits often feel safer with their head covered.) This enabled me to gently put him in the correct position to safely pick him up wrapped in the towel. We placed him in a crate and knew we had one more job – his mate.

After her observing this, she was far more difficult to approach. After about two hours, I finally steered her into a yard where I knew there were no escape paths. She ended up crouching in the corner of a patio where we then repeated the same procedure to trap her. Success! We made a great team!

Now what? I don’t hoard animals; I just rescue them. Being very familiar with Best Friends Animal Society, I knew they would be the best resource to contact to find an appropriate, safe, loving home for these two precious buns. They put me in contact with the Bunny House at Best Friends. Now a very dear friend, Debby Widolf, the Department Manager, contacted me. She gave me approval to bring them to Best Friends for a wonderful home. Her knowledge, passion and dedication to the rabbits was very uplifting and I felt safe leaving Mama and Chocolate with her.

Now to the story where my real passion for rabbits began and my life was forever transformed. It was 2006 and Debby contacted me to volunteer near Reno, Nevada, for one of the largest rabbit rescues that had ever taken place. The legalities with the rabbits’

owner, initial triage, trapping, etc. had already taken place when my fellow rescue partner, (mom), and I arrived.

I was not prepared for what I was about to experience. These innocent creatures began their lives in a dire, inhospitable hoarding type situation that began with a few rabbits where breeding was out of control. The “backyard” was also a favorite dumping ground for unwanted rabbits. These serious issues deserve far more attention than are given. The conditions from which these sweet bunnies were saved were atrocious and incomprehensible, the outcome for all too many adopted bunnies who don’t find themselves in a forever home. These rabbits suffered severe pain and anguish. Consequently, there were many countless, unnecessary deaths due to human negligence inflicted upon them. Although the owner may seemingly have had good intentions, a true rescuer is selfless, not selfish. Compassionate and responsible pet owners place their animals’ quality of life equivalent to their own needs and wants.

However, Best Friends slightly softened the blow for what we were about to endeavor. By the time we arrived to begin our work, Best Friends did an excellent job of building predator proof large runs, separating the males and females and placing the many, many ill and injured rabbits in medical units. They constructed a surgical unit to begin the vast quantities of spays and neuters. Teams of Veterinarians and Veterinary Technicians from around the country gathered to commence this relentless task. Unfortunately, many were already pregnant and hundreds more were born, bringing the total to approximately 1,400 rabbits.

I observed these terrified rabbits that were in extremely poor health, malnutritioned, had injuries so severe that there were abscesses down to the bone and ears and genitals were torn off.

One of the many reprehensible things I experienced occurred while I was attempting to stabilize a very young bunny in critical condition. I sat with him for hours. At regular intervals, I was trying to raise his body temperature with thermoregulatory devices to help stabilize him. In between periods of warming him, I held him in the palm of my hand, gently stroking him, talking to him and praying for his recovery. After several hours of this regimen, he screamed just before he took his last agonal breath and died in my hands. (A rabbit scream sounds similar to a human child’s scream but more high-pitched. It is very disconcerting and you can’t miss it for what it is. This occurs when the rabbit is extremely frightened or in brutally intense pain.)

There were a few different isolation trailers with rabbits of varying illnesses and injuries. One of them contained baby playpens with numerous bunnies that seemed to get very little attention. When I inquired about the reasoning behind this I was told that there was simply not enough staff to care for them.

So, this is where mom and I spent the much of our time in between our regular duties such as cleaning, observing the bunnies in the clinic, etc. We always ensured they and their bedding were clean, had water and proper nutrition. We would stay long after most of the volunteers were gone, with a usual work period averaging about fourteen hours per day. Debby would come in and say, “You have to go get some rest, we can resume tomorrow”.

Our hearts were breaking for these little innocent creatures. For a reason I’m not sure of, I was always drawn to the playpen which held the 17 babies, approximately two weeks old. I would cry when I stood over them knowing that they were suffering. I have never found the words to describe how devastating this was to me. I had horrible nightmares for many years after completing this rescue. Many rescuers can suffer from a form of PTSD from these horrifying experiences.

As everyone tried to make the best of this horrific situation, there were occasional fun and exciting times. At one point a bunny had gone missing from his enclosure. Knowing that they feed at dusk and dawn, I would set traps to try and catch him. I was eager to check the trap numerous times per day, and each time I did, from a distance I would notice a little critter moving about inside. I was so thrilled to have finally trapped this little guy! It turns out, every time this would happen, it was a darn squirrel in it munching away! This little pesky squirrel had found his new banqueting location and became a regular in the trap! He was cute, but not what I was hoping for!

We finally located the bunny about two days later under a tractor trailer that stood about sixteen inches off of the ground. We used brooms and sticks to try and move him out but it was impossible to catch him because of the many openings under the trailer. Debby, mom and I formed a covert plan. We blocked off all of the openings we could find, except one. With her body, mom guarded the only exit that couldn’t be blocked. Debby kneeled behind a box next to the probable exit that I felt the bunny would try to use. The A-Team was in place! In full stealth mode, lol, I flattened and forced my body as tightly as I could to get under the extremely confined space under the trailer. I was on my stomach and difficultly inched my way through the mud to get close enough to the little guy to use a stick and steer him toward Debby. As soon as he was hoodwinked by our plan, Debby swiftly closed the box and we earned the reward of saving one more!

  An event that could have ended tragically but fortunately didn’t, occurred in the operating room during a routine spay. (Rabbits under general anesthesia are always at risk. There is a very narrow margin between the doses needed to induce and maintain anesthesia and the doses that can produce toxic effects related to stress and cardiac or respiratory reactions, that is why an exotic specialist or rabbit savvy veterinarian is essential).
During the routine procedure, the bunny suddenly went into cardiac arrest and flat lined. Thanks to the amazing professionals performing and assisting in the surgery, they acted quickly. One of the best, most experienced Veterinary Technicians that I know, Sarah Waltke Boland, immediately started CPR. About a minute later the baby girl came back to us!

As our time volunteering was coming to an end, as physically and emotionally exhausted as we were, we felt very despondent about leaving this amazing journey. We left the ranch late that night and checked into a hotel to head back to Las Vegas the next morning. My mom and I got about fifteen minutes down the road and at the same time, looked at one another and without speaking a word, we knew what we both wanted and needed to do. We quickly made a U-turn and headed back to the ranch in hopes that they would allow us to foster the 17 babies in the playpen that desperately needed additional medical attention. We signed the foster agreement, packed up the babies and headed home!

We immediately began plans to provide a safe, healthy and fun new existence for the babies. I built a predator proof pen on the grass in which they could run, dig and play. As they grew a little bigger, so did their enclosure. We fenced in the entire grass portion of the yard and built wooden ramps, obstacle courses and provided many other toys for their first time experiencing how their life should be.

At their young age, bunnies get along well in a group but as they develop, they begin to form bonds in pairs or groups and will fight for territory. Not a problem!

When they entered this stage, I determined who was bonded with whom, and it became clear that there were four separate runs needed. We wanted to provide these babies with a life they never had, and so the construction began!

This being the most difficult section of the runs to construct, we began at the fourth and final section of each run. I equally divided the yard into four enormous sections, dug eight inch trenches, pounded stakes into the ground and poured over 2,000 pounds of concrete to secure the stakes.

We purchased metal, configurable pet gates and securely fastened them to the stakes. As bunnies love to dig, we tunneled warrens at one end of the yard and placed 8” PVC pipe inside the burrows. Each pipe had a mesh drain at the end to easily hose out and keep clean. Of course they created their own warrens in the surrounding dirt for extra excitement!

Closest to the house was the first section which included a portion of the covered patio where pet carriers with soft bedding were placed for them to hide, lounge or play in. Their hay bins, pellet dishes and water were secured here to ensure cleanliness and to avoid contamination. They also had large litter boxes filled with hay. Rabbits are easily trainable to use litter boxes but often they instinctively use them. All litter boxes, food dishes, water dishes and hay bins were thoroughly cleaned each day.

The second section contained several feet of red bricks we laid and continuously kept wet for cooling purposes. They loved lounging here! The third section consisted of a lengthy portion of grass. Because bunnies love to eat and dig in the grass, fresh sod was laid about every other month!

Last but definitely not least, every run contained many interactive toys and treats such as edible willow balls, sisal ropes, apple sticks, hand woven timothy hay toys, wooden baby blocks, multi-surface wooden chew toys with a ball inside that makes noise, plastic baby rattles, plastic baby rings, lattice jingle bell toys and freshly picked pine cones from our local Mt. Charleston. We became very educated on what they can and cannot have and made sure every toy and all food was safe for them.

At this point, Dot, Stacey, Milo and Peds owned the first run, Champagne and Freckles owned the second, Ming, Mei, Shi Shi and Fuzzy, a.k.a. Fuzz Bomb, owned the third and Jackson and Carmen owned the fourth. (The last five of the original seventeen bunnies had already found their forever homes!)

As you probably know, summers get very hot in Las Vegas and extreme heat can kill rabbits. So, a few modifications had to be made when summer arrived. I built 4’ x 4’ wooden boxes with a lid at the top, an entrance/exit for the bunnies and a large cut in the back where individual air conditioners were placed. Thermometers were kept in each box, ensuring the temperature averaged 65 degrees. Crazy again? Yes, but all worth it! These little guys were livin’ the dream!

A rabbit’s diet must be closely maintained and the correct proportion of different types of hay and pellets must be supplied to ensure a healthy digestive tract. They can have occasional treats but given too often, these can often cause blood glucose elevations and obesity.

As every parent wants to spoil and treat their child occasionally, my mom took great pride in doing just that! About every third evening, she would prepare a pie tin with banana and apple slices, (without the poisonous seeds), strawberries, carrot sticks, kale, cilantro, yogurt chips and a few Cheerios. When the plating was complete, she would walk out and say, “Come get your yum yums!”, and at the same time, every bunny raced for the patio at full speed! It became a very comical, sweet and fun ritual. Happily, they lacked nothing. They were our pride and joy!

This little more than two-year experience was an emotional rollercoaster ride with many ups and downs. All seemed to be going well when suddenly the still fairly young bunnies developed signs of illness, as did many of the younger bunnies. They were infected with Coccidia, which are tiny, single-cell organisms common to the intestinal tract of mammals. But when these protozoa multiply out of control, they cause symptoms and disease, called coccidiosis. Animals under stress or who were initially born sickly are at high risk, facing severe diarrhea and dehydration. The disease can be fatal.

Fortunately, with the personal and professional support from Debby, the veterinary community and my training leading up to becoming a Veterinary Technician, helped me to provide the care these babies required.

We contacted Best Friends and also collaborated with one of their Reno volunteer Veterinarians, Dr. Laura George. With their help, and after three months of several treatments per day, fortunately, they seemed to recover. (Dr. George had also become a close friend and to this day, we still collaborate on bunny and pigeon rescue issues).

Soon after, they were diagnosed with pasteurella. These bacteria are the most common pathogen in domestic rabbits. The bacteria secrete an endotoxin that can lead to pneumonia, rhinitis, conjunctivitis, genital tract infections, septicemia and abscesses.

Again, several treatments per day for another three months, using oral antibiotics and a nebulizer that administered medicated liquid mist to their lungs. These precious little bunnies survived yet again.

Just under a year old, we began to think of finding forever homes for these special bunnies. Then another portion of the rollercoaster began. Our bunny named Dot developed what appeared to be a spot in his eye. An ophthalmologist determined that he tested positive for Encephalitozoon cuniculi, (E. cuniculi). The spot was literally a hole being eaten through his eye, inside out.

E.cuniculi is a parasite about which little is known. It’s thought to be transferred, mother to offspring prior to birth, and possibly by the urine of infected rabbits. The organism travels through the body with white blood cells, the very cells that normally fight disease, and can infect a rabbit’s brain, kidneys, spinal cord, heart, liver or lungs. As with Dot, it has also been known to damage the eyes.

Shockingly, I was told some of our Reno survivors were suffering symptoms from this disorder, and having made it this far, were at an age when symptoms begin to appear. Just a week after this devastating news, another bunny showed tragic symptoms, including head tilt, which is among the most serious problems.

It’s anything but cute. Also called torticollis, (or wry neck), the chin rotates toward the bunny’s opposite shoulder. Symptoms can be swift and devastating, or slowly develop over time. Effects can range from a slight head tilt, rapid side to side movement of the eyes or a lack of balance which produces horrific body rolls. The unfortunate thing with head tilt is that even when treated and seemingly cured, 99% will suffer a relapse.

I will never be able to thank my mom enough for the essential role she had in their treatment. During each bout of illness, I would gently restrain while she administered the oral medication, (that was compounded with grape flavor of course), she would gently place them in their crates and make them comfortable while I prepared the nebulizer medication and lastly, I would restrain while she placed drops in their eyes. Never a better team. She is amazing!

Ultimately, my mom and I were able to provide treatment and support to bring these bunnies back to health and a happy ending. At a little over two years old, our little family of bunnies went back to Best Friends where they would either be adopted or live there permanently.

We still miss them every day. Sometimes we revisit the many pictures and videos that captured a glimpse of the privilege that we had to experience all of the love, gratitude and loyalty they showed us. We often talk about the many good times. Memories such as the gratification of earning their trust, how attached they became to us, enjoying cuddle and petting time, watching their funny, interactive shenanigans with each other, seeing their occasional ornery behavior, watching them binky, watching each bunnies’ individual personality provided amusing entertainment, remembering that when I had an occasional glass of wine, Fuzz Bomb did everything in her power to enjoy a sip, reminiscing about Dot, who learned to play catch with us by literally catching the jingle bell ball and tossing it back either using his mouth or paws, how my precious, favorite bunny Jackson couldn’t stand my neediness and would run from me, Stacey, Peds and Milo always keeping secrets in their private clique, watching the incredible bond of love between Freckles and Champagne where they enjoyed each other’s company over anyone else’s, and again, watching my favorite boy Jackson and the love of his life, Carmen, always laying side by side while grooming and cuddling and watching the matching Ming, Mei and Shi Shi tolerate and finally accept Fuzz Bomb, the odd man out. There are so many memories and not enough paper to write them on. Each and every one, we will forever treasure.

A glimpse of my baby boy Jackson and his love, Carmen. Boy, how they grew into happy, healthy bunnies!

On an educational note, abandonment, not spaying and neutering and hoarding are the most devastating for these defenseless animals that live in continuous torture and never stop suffering. But as you can see, it also affects the responsible human beings attempting to help. Hoarding and abandonment impose enormous emotional distress, extreme time consumption and great financial burden.

This is something to consider especially during this time of year and any other holidays where people give bunnies and chicks as gifts. Not every family that loves a tiny bunny or chick at holiday time or as a birthday gift, comprehends what it actually takes to properly care for these innocent, reliant, amazing, precious, lovable, smart, sweet precious animals.

And that’s part of the problem. Roughly 95% percent of all bunnies given at Easter do not live beyond their first year of life. Not long after adopting or purchasing a bunny, it’s all too likely he or she will be allowed to “escape”, get dropped off at a local shelter, dumped in the desert or on a golf course, as boredom and monotony for caring for them occurs. They can also die due to lack of proper nutrition, forceful handling or falling prey to other pets. As a human race, we need to be responsible and not let incidents like this occur.

If you or someone you know becomes aware of a possible animal hoarding or abandonment situation, please help all those involved and report them to the appropriate authorities before the circumstances get out of control. Suffering can be prevented if everyone does their part. Countless resources are available at your local animal resource centers, rescue organizations and online.

I am very blessed to have been a part of this experience and to help make the world a better place for animals. I am also very thankful to the fellow animal advocates in Reno that have become lifelong friends. All staff, Veterinarians, Veterinary Technicians and volunteers deserve great credit and get two ears up from rabbits everywhere!