The Peter Cottontail Liberation Army

It's high time you took your bunny seriously

Ah, spring! The time when Pentecostals and pagans alike turn their attention to the fertile--and fuzzy-wuzzy--rabbit. In the hopeful blush of spring it's easy to see why would-be pet owners set their Easter caps on rabbit ownership. The combination of religious symbolism and damned cuteness is almost irresistible. In the Insidious Fallacies of Spring category, the thought "How much work can taking care of one baby bunny be?" seems to rank right up there with "How many Peeps will fit up my nose?" and "C'mon, 20 years isn't such a big age difference."

Evidently one baby bunny frequently turns out to be work. According to Barbara Jennrich, director of operations at the Ramsey County Humane Society for Companion Animals, 300-350 rabbits are surrendered yearly to the shelter. She has noticed that people seem to adopt rabbits, keep them in a backyard hutch all summer, and then surrender them to the shelter in the winter rather than move them indoors. Says Jennrich, "From November to January we see a lot of rabbits. We might get as many as 30 a week."

Jennrich also mentions that disillusioned bunny owners may "free" their rabbits under the misconception that they will fare as well as their wild counterparts in our urban terrain. She stresses that domestic rabbits are not equipped for life in the wilderness, and that rather than hopping around Lake of the Isles humming "Born Free," your former pet is likely to find himself eaten by the neighborhood mutt or wandering aimlessly in search of a food dish.

Just as bunny owners seem to underestimate the needs of the rabbit, they frequently underestimate the rabbits themselves. "I don't think people are aware that rabbits are capable of such a wide variety of personalities," Jennrich says. "But that is changing."

Indeed it appears to be. In fact, many area companion rabbits are enjoying a quality of life that their parents and grandparents could not have imagined. The age of the backyard hutch is over and house rabbits are doing it for themselves! Twin Cities house rabbits are living cage-free lives, pooping in litter boxes, sleeping on sofas, riding in baby slings, greeting guests at the door, and eating the ever-delicious phone book--all thanks to a few dedicated souls at the House Rabbit Society (HRS). The California-based organization came together in 1988 and now boasts more than 7,000 members across the United States and Canada. (The Minnesota chapter numbers 15.) In its first ten years this group of dedicated and militant bunny owners has rescued 6,931 rabbits, many of whom had reached the end of their tenure on death row.

 

The house-rabbit equivalent of Scientology's Dianetics comes in the form of 1985's The House Rabbit Handbook: How to Live With an Urban House Rabbit. According to this text, HRS's mission is to "help make the sharing of a human home a joyful experience for both the animals and the humans who dwell within that home." The HRS seems to realize that the human's behavior is just as important to this joyful home as the behavior of the rabbit. Under the heading "Are you a rabbit person?" the HRS Web site (www.rabbit.org) lists these questions: "Do you enjoy watching the movements and learning the language of another species? Does your schedule include plenty of time at home? Are you comfortable spending a lot of time on the floor? Are you not overly fussy with your furniture?"

Prospective adopters should know that rabbits are coprophagous (fancy science talk for poop-eating) and crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk). This makes the rabbit a particularly suitable companion for a professional adult, who is at home before and after work. It helps, too, if you're the kind of person who doesn't mind watching a furry friend eat its own poop. The HRS seeks to locate appropriate companions for its rabbits through informative literature, home visits, and interviews prior to making a foster placement.

Persons interviewing to take on a house rabbit in Minnesota will likely meet Tanya Hulsey and Joanna Campbell somewhere on the bunny trail. Both are educators and foster parents certified by the Minnesota chapter of the House Rabbit Society. They are also classic examples of the "rabbit person." Campbell explains, "It's hard to put a finger on why I'm so interested in rabbits. I just click with them. I'm very in tune with them. I'm good at reading their nonverbal cues. There's an intangible quality of bunnies." By day Campbell works in corporate training and Hulsey works in Internet services and by night they answer the constant stream of rabbit-related voicemail and e-mail, and meet the daily demands of bunny upkeep.

A recent Sunday afternoon offered a chance to visit the Hulsey-Campbell home. Hulsey answers the door wearing jeans and a St. Olaf T-shirt, little if any makeup, and a cute bobbed haircut. She walks into a living room divided by a modular steel fence. On one side of the fence is a spotless space complete with couch, sitting chairs, piano, television, stuffed-animal collection, and a 16-pound rabbit lounging under the rocker. Sixteen pounds, by the way, is a frightening amount of rabbit. The other side of the fence is piled so high with boxes, books, and papers that it almost obscures a still-decorated Christmas tree.

Against the far wall of the kitchen is a four-plex of bunny hutches. The basement of this structure is largely dedicated to the comfort and well-being of Isabelle the 16-pound, auburn-colored, Flemish Giant. Isabelle's space is a fenced-off, carpeted area complete with a litter box dotted with really huge bunny scat. Campbell explains, "She's boarding with us right now. Her dad moved to Mexico and he's trying to get her imported into Mexico and there's been no end of problems." For much of the day, Isabel has the run of the living room. She hops up to a guest and demands that her head be petted--or at least stands around looking alluringly fluffy and rather irresistible. Her queen-sized girth makes a low, echoing thud on the floor when she hops.

The hutch tour continues to its second floor, which turns out to be a veritable bunny Melrose Place, complete with love triangle. Hulsey originally built a two-story rabbit dwelling for her bonded pair Sasha and Chester. The couple shared this home until irreconcilable differences disrupted their happy cohabitation, leaving them just as likely to tear each other's fur out as share a litter box. (In fact, a litter-box dispute seems to be at the heart of their disaffection.)

Sasha is wasting no time wallowing. She now has her lepus loins set on Tuxedo, the handsome Dutch in a nearby cage. "There are HRS members who think a bunny should never be caged." explains Campbell. "But it depends on your lifestyle and your bunny. We couldn't have Tuxedo as a non-caged bunny, because he thinks plastic and carpet are food groups. It wouldn't be safe for him."

For his part, Tuxedo twitches his nose a little. His bunny brethren might still end up in a stew or as part of a coat, but his expression reveals no recognition of this fact: As a house rabbit at the vanguard of lepus liberation, Tuxedo has the privilege of being either nonchalant or utterly oblivious.

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