Community Rabbits

What are “community rabbits?” We define “community rabbits” as a group, colony, herd or warren of domestic rabbits, usually of various breeds or mixes of breeds that have been abandoned on community, private or government property. Many have been pets, and some were born into the colony and have never known a home with people.

When the environment is supportive, these are the conditions: with low predators, adequate food and shelter, the rabbits will multiply quickly and have large families. Over time many of these community rabbit colonies become overcrowded, suffer from a lack of adequate nutrition, suffer from illnesses, roam into traffic areas and attract unwelcome predators. Also, as rabbits are meant to do, they chew on flowers, landscaping, dig, and tunnel. After all, as with their wild ancestors, an extensive family life takes place underground. This is all part of the daily life of a community rabbit trying to survive. Meanwhile, many property owners or community members want the rabbits gone when landscaping is damaged, when unwanted predators arrive, and when the rabbits interfere with new construction.

Myths: Let’s start with a misconception. Rabbits are not rodents. They belong to the Leporidae family, and are part of the order Lagomorpha. Rodents are in the order Rodentia. The two are different by several anatomical and behavior markers. Another untruth: while domestic rabbits, cottontails, hares and pikas look alike they are only loosely related. Domestic rabbits do not interbreed with cottontails, hares or pikas! The American domestic rabbit is most closely related to the wild European rabbit that lives its life in complex underground warrens, as in the book, Watership Down.

Questions: Can rabbits infect humans with rabies? Any warm blooded animal can carry or have rabies, however, rabbits and hares rarely have rabies and are not considered a threat to humans. Rabbits in the United States do not require a vaccination for rabies (or anything else). Plague is spread by fleas that are infected by an animal that is ill or has died of plague. Human cases are not common. Always take “universal precautions” when coming in direct contact with ill or dead animals or any time you will encounter animals bitten by fleas or their blood and tissue.
How can I help community rabbits?

• Check with property owners or facilities and ask permission to enter the property. Find out if rescue groups, shelters, or employees on the grounds are actively working on behalf of the rabbits.

• Volunteer! There is usually much to do: feeding, providing property care, building or repairing fences, transport, networking, record keeping, adoption programs, foster care, maintenance of feeding and water stations. Your monetary donations and good will are always welcome by organized efforts to help the rabbits.

• Report the abuse and abandonment of the rabbits to the proper authorities.

• Feeding: Rabbits love to eat. Feeding stations set up for community rabbits need to be placed away from roads, sidewalks, entrances to buildings, formal landscaping and generally out of sight. Choose several locations for the stations and be consistent especially if the area is widespread. Feed a fresh reliable alfalfa rabbit pellet. If allowed, hay boxes can be constructed that will keep hay fresh and dry. Don’t be surprised if squirrels, ducks and other animals also use the feeders. Stick to fresh greens to supplement the rabbits’ diet. We don’t do well with old and moldy produce and the rabbits won’t either. Check with rescue groups or individuals organizing the feeding stations before feeding a questionable item. Fresh water is crucial. “Biofilm,” the slimy stuff that can build up around water bowls, needs cleaned out once or twice weekly. Use mild soap to clean and rinse well. Set up food and water stations in the shade if at all possible!

• Shelter: Community rabbits generally dig holes and tunnels as their safe spots and places to escape very hot and cold weather. If shelter is needed there are several inexpensive options such as sturdy containers that can be staked to the ground. Rabbits prefer more than one opening in safe spots to avoid being trapped. Shade cloth and dark colored tarps can provide protection from the sun, wind and cold. Six inch PVC tubes make a strong tunnel. If the community rabbits are removed from the original site to another, shelters must be provided as it will take some time for the rabbits to establish holes and tunnels for protection.

• Fencing: If the community rabbits are to be spayed or neutered, (highly recommended; see below), and returned to the site, please consider fencing the site in high traffic areas or around selective landscaping. Use a sturdy fencing, (chicken wire rusts and is not worth the money or time), and a small gauge, one to one-and-a-half inch gauge wire. The fencing needs to go down into the ground a minimum of 2 to 4 feet and 4 to 6 feet above the ground. If you are in a high predator area, active electric wire around the top of the fence will give added protection and discourage predators.

• Rabbit Behavior: Behavior can be as diverse as their individual personalities but some general guidelines are true for most rabbits. For those community rabbits that have never been in a human home they may be more cautious and suspicious of people. It can take months, even years, to build up a trusting relationship if the rabbit is skittish. Rabbits can die quickly from cardiac arrest if frightened. Usually a docile animal, rabbits will defend themselves if threatened by scratching and biting. Running is their first defense.

Just like the European wild rabbit, the domestic rabbit prefers living as a group and will establish a hierarchy of higher and lower status rabbits. Take note that rabbits will fiercely protect their territory and can inflict serious damage to each other. Be aware that rabbits develop deep bonds with each other and grieve the loss of a favored friend. Please respect their preferences and don’t assume that any two rabbits will get along in close quarters.

• Illness in Community Rabbits: Depending on the environment, numbers of rabbits, and nutrition, you can expect to find rabbits that need medical attention. Syphilis may be present in the rabbit colony and will manifest itself by the presence of facial and genital lesions. This is a curable condition with prescribed antibiotics. Upper respiratory infections may be seen as well as wounds that have abscessed. These rabbits will need a veterinarian’s care. Other rabbits may be injured.

• Rounding up Rabbits: Refer to people that are experienced with catching or rounding up rabbits if they are to be removed from their home for spaying/neutering, re-homing or medical care. The least possible handling the less stress for the rabbit and for you. One successful method is to surround the rabbit/s with an exercise pen and place open carriers inside the pen with greens or food in them. Encourage them to enter the carriers, close the door and cover the carrier with a sheet or light blanket. Long handled, soft rimmed bird nets are sometimes used. Never chase a rabbit. You can slowly and quietly walk after them, but be patient and look for signs of undue stress. Wear gloves and long-sleeved clothing.

• Spaying and Neutering: A spay-neuter program is essential for community rabbits to stop the breeding cycle. The rabbits will be healthier, more contented, will not multiply, and additional rabbits will be spared the suffering of an inhospitable environment. Talk to your local rabbit-savvy veterinarians about getting a spay-neuter program started.

Can these rabbits be saved? The situation seems overwhelming! Unfortunately community rabbit situations are on the increase and rescue groups and shelters are strained to their limits with abandoned rabbits. This is in part due to the popularity of rabbits as pets combined with inadequate education regarding care, irresponsible ownership, and lack of spay and neuter programs for rabbits. It is against the law to abandon pets and abuse can result in a felony charge.

Still, these rabbits can be helped. Volunteer, donate, educate, advocate, be inclusive, and bring your best self to help the rabbits. Yes, we can make a difference and save lives.

Resources/ local contacts: Keep a list of local numbers to report animal abandonment or abuse, names rescue groups, rabbit care resources, contact numbers for organizations/individuals helping the rabbits.

This article was written as general information about Community Rabbits. It is not a comprehensive guide or plan, but is intended to help those who are trying to help the rabbits in their community. This article can be reproduced with the expressed consent of the author.

by Debby Widolf