Animal House: New Nonprofits Work to Rescue, Educate & Advocate for Domestic Rabbits

Animal House: New Nonprofits Work to Rescue, Educate & Advocate for Domestic Rabbits
Yeilanis could not adopt just one bunny! She chose bonded mini-lop-eared Taco, Ginger & Luna.

Jacksonville has much to celebrate this 2022 Christmas season, with the unexpected gift of two new pet rabbit rescues, each dedicated to helping pet rabbits and those who love them. The young women founders are animal welfare leaders committed to community education about domestic rabbit issues. They work to prevent the accidental breeding of unwanted litters and to stop the abandonment of defenseless rabbits. According to the Humane Society of the U.S., rabbits are now the third most popular pet in America and the third most abandoned.

Samantha Burns of Bebette’s Bunny Rescue and Megan McMann of Lucky Bunny Rescue invite readers who care about these lovable pets to help by adopting, not shopping for, pet rabbits. They urge citizens to email county commissioners and ask them to add domestic pet rabbits to the live animal retail sales ban for cats and dogs.

Burns is thrilled that adoption applications are arriving instead of calls about pet rabbit rescues or owner surrenders. She hopes this Christmas Eve will not be like last year when someone cruelly dumped several domestic rabbits at Jacksonville’s baseball stadium. Despite searches in the dark and on Christmas Day for the terrified bunnies, only three were rescued.

Quinn, 10 & adoptable S’mores.
Quinn, 10 & adoptable S’mores.

The widespread lack of knowledge about pet rabbits, how many are abandoned, and pet stores’ deceptive marketing, spurred Burns and McMann into action. Their mission is to save the lives of domestic pet rabbits and prevent reproduction through education about breeding, rabbit care, spaying/neutering, adoption, and fostering. Both hold community education classes and adoption events and visit schools and clubs.

Another goal is to advocate for banning retail domestic rabbit sales in pet stores, just as dog and cat sales are prohibited. Burns said this ban would not affect farmers, schools, or agricultural 4H club projects. The retail sales ban on dogs and cats restricts pet stores to on-site pet adoptions coordinated with rescue organizations.

“We go from pet store to pet store explaining the problems and urgent need for buyer education and information. We discuss pregnant rabbits sold to unsuspecting buyers, pet abandonment, and the fact that rescues cannot afford to care for the skyrocketing number of unwanted rabbits. One unspayed female can have up to 150 babies in one year! We had a pet store manager whose only response was that during the holiday seasons, especially Easter, they could sell 100 rabbits in a week!” McMann said.

McMann & two 6-month-olds: Bluey, a retired therapy bunny, loves to be held, and Bingo loves cuddles.
McMann & two 6-month-olds: Bluey, a retired therapy bunny, loves to be held, and Bingo loves cuddles.

Both women said pet store employees often tell customers that all their rabbits are the same sex or sterilized. Pet store staff have no idea what sexes their rabbits are and house them together. The sex of baby rabbits cannot accurately be determined until three months or older when sexual organs become visible. They are sold as young as legally possible and unsterilized because sterilization of an exotic animal costs approximately $300.

The well-worn joke about “breeding like rabbits” is unfortunately true with exponential consequences. Females are sexually mature at sixteen weeks and can birth litters of 6-15 kits every 30 days. They can become pregnant again within the hour after delivery. Ten-week-old males can impregnate females.

Burns said unsuspecting buyers tend to believe whatever misinformation they are told about domestic rabbits. Most people assume they are easy to care for, similar to cats or dogs.

On the contrary, domestic rabbits are fragile herbivores that require specific diets, housing, and care. They must continually graze on unlimited coarse hay and leafy green vegetables for digestive health and to keep their fast-growing teeth in check. As timid prey animals, they easily startle and die from strokes or heart attacks.

Most experts recommend indoor housing for pet rabbits to protect them from weather, predators, parasites, and illness. Heatstroke kills rabbits because their furry bodies do not sweat and cannot regulate heat: 50-75 degrees is best. Digestive upsets and teeth problems are frequent causes of premature rabbit deaths.

“I’m the perfect person to understand and sympathize with people who fall in love with bunnies but know nothing about what pet stores and breeders do to sell rabbits. I did everything wrong, from impulsively buying three baby rabbits to feeding them bags of carrots because I didn’t know better. I believed the pet store worker who said they only sold neutered males. Two months later, I had 15 rabbits like so many others who learn their bunny is unspayed or not a male when they find her nursing newborns,” Burns said. “Once I realized the severity of the issues, I wanted to help.”

Bebette’s Bunny Rescue is named for the one surviving kit from Burns’ first surprise litter, who died because their mother rejected them. She refused to nurse them because she was already pregnant again.

McMann’s motivation to found Lucky Bunny Rescue followed a similar path to Burns’. Her family had rabbits and learned about their serious issues. Most other types of animal rescue organizations or municipal shelters do not accept rabbits. Private rabbit rescues can only house six to 10 and usually have up to 30 rabbits on their waiting lists. She said the nearest large rescues in Gainesville and Orlando also stay full with waiting lists because of to the overbreeding and abandonment crises. More than 30,000 domestic rabbits are abandoned annually in the U.S.

McMann’s family socializing bunnies.
McMann’s family socializing bunnies.

“If a county shelter does accept a rabbit, it is usually euthanized,” McMann said. “The cost to feed and keep rabbits separated, or sterilize them, like all exotic breeds, is prohibitive. There are no free or low-cost spay/neuter programs for rabbits as there are for dogs and cats.”

Accurate information, education, the retail sales ban and sterilization of pet rabbits or separation of the sexes can decrease accidental or irresponsible births of unwanted rabbits. Defenseless pet domestic rabbits cannot survive long if abandoned. They sicken from eating toxins and exposure or are killed by predators alerted by their multi or light-colored fur. Unlike Florida’s resident species of dark-furred rabbits — eastern cottontail, swamp, and marsh rabbits — domestic rabbits are helpless targets.

There are distinct differences between domestic and wild rabbits. Wild rabbits live only two to three years. Domestic rabbits can live for 10 years. Wild and domestic rabbits have incompatible DNA that prevents cross-breeding. They have coarser fur and are smaller than domestic rabbits at only two – four pounds.

Ian, 6 & adoptable rex Domino.
Ian, 6 & adoptable rex Domino.

Swamp rabbits are the largest of all cottontails, with cinnamon-colored circles around their eyes, white bellies, throat, and tail. They are a sister species to marsh rabbits — the smallest in Florida. Marsh bunnies are dark brown with black or red; juveniles briefly have white spots on top of their heads. Swamp and marsh rabbits are excellent swimmers. Eastern cottontails have white powder-puff tails, are land-dwellers, and run 18 mph.

If a wild rabbit is ill, injured, or orphaned, contact a licensed Florida Wildlife Rehabilitator for advice and help: Northeast Florida Wildlife Coalition or The Ark Wildlife Care.

Bebette’s and Lucky Bunny rabbit rescue websites offer Wish Lists and ways to donate, volunteer, foster, and adopt, including educational information and events. Lucky Bunny’s next adoption event is at Beachwalk Farmer’s Market, 600 County Road 210, St. Augustine, Saturday, Dec. 3, 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.

By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

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