When Bunnies Happen

By Renee Puckett Phelps

In the spring of 2006, something happened that would forever change my life as I knew it. It wasn’t a birth, a death, a marriage, or any of the life events you would assume. What was it? Bunnies. Bunnies happened and they happened in a big way.

I was looking to adopt a bunny and found a local woman who did “rescue” (and I use this term very loosely) and decided to give her a call. She seemed like a very nice lady and we set up a time for me to go to her house and meet the bunnies to see if any of them were a good fit for our family. What I found when I got there wasn’t what I expected. She did have many bunnies. The problem was they were all sitting in wire‐bottomed cages, most had no food or water, and many were sick. The sick ones that were beyond help were put outside as prey for the wild animals. I was appalled by all of it, but had to at least question her on that point. She answered by shrugging her shoulders and telling me “that’s nature”. No, that is not nature. That is cruelty. Without a word, I turned on my heel, walked back to my car and left as fast as I could. The whole drive home, I considered all the possibilities of what could be done.
When I arrived home, I called our local animal services, the Humane Society, the SPCA, a rescue organization in southern California, from whom I had previously adopted, and Best Friends Animal Society. And there it was…the moment that changed everything.

I spoke with a very kind gentleman from Best Friends and described the situation as calmly and accurately as I could, hoping they could somehow intervene and get these bunnies to a better place. When I finished, he asked me if this was located in Lemmon Valley, a small rural area just north of Reno.

When I answered yes, he just sighed and said “Oh boy.” I didn’t know at the time what was behind that “Oh boy”. As our conversation progressed and confusion emerged, we realized we were talking about two very different bunny crises. As fate would have it, they were in the beginning stages of a very large rescue operation in Reno. A rescue of unfathomable proportions!

Because they had only shortly been on‐scene, they were quite hesitant about taking volunteers. I don’t think they even had their heads wrapped around the situation yet. It was truly an astonishing situation even for them, who to this point, had probably believed they’d seen everything. There were hundreds and hundreds of bunnies! It took some convincing, but he agreed to get me started as a volunteer.

The day I was to start volunteering, I arrived early and was very anxious and nervous. You see, to me these people were my idols, the people I respected immensely, the people I admired. I pulled into the driveway of the house where the bunnies were located, put my car in park and took a deep breath. I had no idea what I was in for, so I gave myself a quick pep talk.

When I stepped out of my car, I was stopped in my tracks. The smell. Oh, the smell. It wasn’t hay, it wasn’t even bunny poop or pee. It was sickness. It was despair. How could this be? Then I looked out in the back yard and found my answer. I’ve never seen anything so awful in my life. This wasn’t going to be just a matter of collecting bunnies and finding them homes. It was a million times more than that and my head started to spin.

The Best Friends staff currently on sight showed me around. Inside the trailer‐made‐makeshift‐clinic, it was an organized chaos. There were many bunnies in crates, stacked several high, suffering from various stages of illness and injury, an abundance of veterinary supplies, large amounts of blankets and towels, boxes full of dishes and water bottles, cleaning supplies, play pens full of babies with no mommies to care for them. Outside, simply put, there were bunnies. Everywhere. Two large lots full of bunnies. There’s no real way to even describe it. Bunnies of every color, size and shape, starving bunnies, injured bunnies, sick bunnies, social bunnies, feral bunnies, baby bunnies, adult bunnies, fighting bunnies, shy bunnies, terrified bunnies, incredibly brave bunnies, playful bunnies, bunnies resigned to a horrible fate and bunnies determined to not be. Strewn about the yards there was trash, pieces of sheet metal, camper shells, dead and fallen trees, pallets, a couple old sheds, barrels, stacks of straw and…more bunnies. It suddenly became quite clear why they didn’t want volunteers yet. It was like a war zone.

Inside and outside. Hope and promise vs. heartache and helplessness.
With my head still spinning, all I could manage to say was ” What can I do?” Because they were still absorbing it themselves, the simple answer was “Can you feed these babies?” It seemed a fairly benign place to start. To their surprise, I showed up everyday eager to help. I was taught how to do all the medical treatments, I helped capture bunnies, I ran errands, I took bunnies to the vet, I continued to feed the babies and I cleaned. I did everything I possibly could, but most of all I learned.

In order to provide more thorough medical care, to keep the bunnies separated, clean and safe, to have a safer, more acceptable environment for staff, future volunteers and potential adopters, it was clear all the bunnies would need to be moved to another location and a ranch house was located in Lemmon Valley. Large runs were built on the land to house the bunnies. A surgical room, a pre‐op room and a medical treatment room were all added on to the house and the living room was made into an administrative area.

Meanwhile, at the original location, through weeks of inclement weather and hazardous conditions, all the bunnies were eventually caught, separated and moved. Truckload after truckload of crated bunnies were transported. Sometimes we even unloaded more bunnies off a truck than we loaded because pregnant mommies gave birth on the way there!

The hard work continued at the “Bunny Ranch”, as we jokingly called it. As word got out, more volunteers started showing up and it soon became a family affair. My father, my father‐in‐law, and my amazing husband all came to volunteer also. Hundreds of bunnies were fed and watered and hundreds of pens and crates were cleaned daily, sick and injured bunnies were treated and healed, dozens of spays and neuters were done a day. I continued to show up everyday as well and I was eventually hired on as a Best Friends employee. What an incredible honor!!

Gradually, adoptions started to happen. Families from all over the country, other rescue groups and even some of the volunteers wanted to include these special bunnies in their families. One bunny in particular really stood out for me. He was found severely injured at the original location and brought in for medical treatment. Nobody was sure that he would make it and he spent almost three months in medical. I couldn’t help but be inspired by his strength and determination. I named him McGill and he was our first adoption. His adoption was followed by twenty more.

After six months of working for Best Friends, my time there came to it’s natural end. During that time I saw so many bunnies find their new homes. I saw babies I witnessed being born grow and thrive. I saw sick ones get well and injured ones heal. I saw bunnies once terrified learn to trust and love. The people I worked with, whether Best Friends employees or volunteers, were incredible. We were all from different parts of the country, different walks of life, different backgrounds and experiences. We came with different ideas, different values and different strengths and weaknesses. The intense need to save these bunnies and give them the life they deserved served as a fantastic unifier. Friendships and bonds were formed that I’m certain will last a lifetime. A short time later, using all I learned from this experience, I started my own bunny rescue.

Fast forward ten years and my husband and I are still rescuing bunnies, McGill is doing great, the other “rescue” has long since been shut down and The Great Bunny Rescue of 2006 remains one of the most amazing times of my life.