The Beginnings of “The Great Rabbit Rescue”
By Debby Widolf, Photos by Clay Myers
Photographer, Clay Myers and I boarded a flight departing Las Vegas, Nevada to a backyard destination in Reno. We were sent to Reno to consult on a “rabbit situation” by Best Friends Animal Society, our employer. I was a bit nervous, not sure exactly what we would find. Looking back, I guess that not fully knowing was a good thing.
About a month earlier I received a phone call at the “Bunny House”, where I worked as the department manager. The caller said she had a friend that was ill and urgently needed help with around 80 rabbits that lived on her property. I asked her to have her friend call me to talk about what kind of help she needed and to discuss possible resources. Approximately two weeks later I received a phone call from the rabbit’s owner, (will refer to as “J”). She explained that she was terminally ill and would need to have all her rabbits gone as she could no longer care for them. When I asked how many rabbits she had, she replied; around 800. Far more than the previous caller had reported!
The house faced the street and I could see no rabbits. We were invited in to an orderly, clean home and I noticed that a few rabbits lived inside. She offered us tea. Shortly, she walked us out to the back deck to look at the rabbits outside. I know my jaw lowered and I did not speak as I scanned the back yard before me. I think it was then that I fell down the rabbit hole.
The next several days were spent assessing the environment, trying to count the population, current needs for shelter, food, water, the numbers of rabbits that were in need of veterinary care and reporting all of this back to Best Friends. Clay loved photographing the animals at the sanctuary but never seemed to find the rabbits all that interesting; “they just sit there”, he once said. The “Reno’s” seemed to change his attitude and captured his imagination. From early morning until dark Clay took hundreds of photos. He not only took photos of their dire living situation but captured who and what these rabbits were; their personalities, the tenacity to survive, the struggle for a space to have their babies, the line in the sand between groups, males attempting to establish themselves among groups of females, the warriors, rabbits with fighting wounds and scars, the bonds. One morning at the small makeshift headquarters, I looked out and watched the rabbits being photographed. A snow storm had blanketed the yard and big snowflakes covered the huddled rabbits. There was a raw but serene beauty to the scene outside the window. I was glad I was there.
On my second trip out others went along. “J” officially relinquished the responsibility of ownership of the rabbits to the sanctuary. This was a critically important document that assured that Best Friends could continue the rescue without interference. I would advise rescue groups to have such a legal document of relinquishment and have it signed by the rabbit’s owners as soon as possible to protect the interests of the rescue.
More rabbits were treated for medical problems. The initial medical concerns were large abscesses, torn ears and tails, and genital wounds from rabbits fighting in the crowded space. There was mortality daily in the colony. Rabbits were sometimes injured or stuck in layers of tangled fencing. Many litters were born in open space without any protection and died quickly from exposure. We also began to see birth anomalies from the inbreeding. Hay, rabbit pellets and supplies were brought in. We added clean temporary shelters using large Rubbermaid tubs with entrance/exit holes cut in them and used stakes to keep them from blowing away. Some temporary runs were built, safe areas were provided for pregnant and lactating mothers with their babies. Rabbits were transported to and from local vets for emergency care. Long gutters became food trays for pellets, new hoses and hook ups were needed to supply clean water. And, there was a lot of raking and shoveling to clean up the yard to make it safer and cleaner. We also monitored the condition of the rabbits, always looking for those that needed a quick response. A small medical unit was set up in one of the unused mobile homes. We stacked carriers for the ill or injured rabbits, stocked up on blankets, towels, medical supplies, sub-Q fluids and much more. A computer was added to begin the massive record keeping and a good camera to take photos to help identify rabbits inside for medical care. On site and back at Best Friends in Kanab, UT. plans continued to be made to proceed with the rescue. New teams of employees relieved those working at the site every couple of weeks. I had completed my third working trip.
The world the rabbits had known for the past 18 years was changing quickly and it was traumatic for this colony of rabbits that had minimal contact with people. It was not uncommon for rabbits to “scream” when captured. Some stood on their hind legs like soldiers about to defend their colony. The yard was wet from winter rains and snows, filled with rabbit holes and extensive underground tunnels, (warrens), that threatened collapse as we stepped. The changes were difficult for “J” as well. She loved us for helping her rabbits and yet at times seemed to resent our interference in her life. I believe that she believed she was providing a good life for her rabbits. How she did not see the sad conditions they lived in, I do not fully understand but have my thoughts. Her rabbits would soon be gone from her backyard and she was facing the end stages of illness. “J” wrote once in a while over the next year and made visits to the ranch to visit the rabbits. She requested that she be allowed to keep a very small number of her favorite. After the rabbits were spayed and neutered they lived at her home until her death a year and a half later. Her small group of rabbits was then taken in by a local rabbit rescue.
In all 1250 rabbits were moved to their new temporary home, close to Reno, that became known as the “ranch”. Predator proof large runs were set up. Coyotes were a constant threat so the bottom sides of runs were covered with a visual barrier. The entire complex of runs was fenced in. Males and females were separated then placed in small same sex groups, those that were ill were housed in temporary medical units, a surgery room and clinic was set up and the daily spays, neuters and micro-chipping began. Several hundred more rabbits were born at the ranch before all spays and neuters could be completed. I made my fourth and final trip to Reno, this time to the ranch to train staff on how to do home visits for those people adopting in the area. From my Rabbit Department at Best Friends I continued to consult on the rescue.
In Kanab, Best Friends employees began to network across the country to find adoptive homes and placements for the rabbits and to fundraise for the enormous cost of the rescue. It is beyond me to name all the job tasks that employees and hundreds of volunteers including vets, techs and students did to care for the rabbits. At the conclusion of the rescue over 1400 rabbits were adopted or placed in sanctuary. Because the majority of the colony were fearful of people and preferred the company of each other, most were adopted in groups. Many people that adopted were helped to build safe, large outdoor enclosures for multiple rabbits. Several sanctuaries took groups and those rabbits that warmed up to people went to individuals as family companions. It was not an easy road or for the faint of heart, mistakes were made, sometimes plans and communication failed, hearts broke and we were propped up again by the friendships we made. It did take a village of hard workers, caring hearts, financial help and determination that was inspired by an extraordinary group of rabbits.