Pierce, the adoptions director and co-chapter manager for the San Diego House Rabbit Society, is passionate about getting the word out about house rabbits. Like most who work or volunteer in animal welfare, she labors tirelessly trying to get pets out of shelters and into homes, with a certain amount of success (though, of course, never as much as she would like). Pierce’s challenge, however, is arguably more difficult than it would be with perhaps dogs or cats.
Rabbits face added obstacles to being adopted as a companion pet. Considered an exotic animal when it comes to veterinary care, rabbits are not — contrary to a widely held belief — lower maintenance and less costly than other pets.
“Rabbits are actually one of the more expensive pets out there,” Pierce said. “An average spay is about $350. They take special anesthesia and medication, special handling and extra care. They can be very delicate.
“People tend to think of them as cuddly, something you can pick up and play with. But most rabbits hate that,” she said. “Rabbits are a prey animal and they’re ground dwelling, so that kind of handling makes them uncomfortable. To them, it’s the same feeling as being caught by predator.”
Often, Pierce said, ads are to blame for this ill-conceived public image.
“When you see advertisements, you often see a child holding a rabbit,” Pierce said. “That’s another misconception: that they’re good for 2-year-olds. Two-year-olds can’t even really appreciate rabbits as pets. They’re very subtle, and you have to be mature to understand that subtlety. Little children just want to pull on them, pat them or poke them. We really try to educate the parents because that’s who we adopt to. We want to know: will they take responsibility for the rabbit? Because they can live up to 15 years, and when that toddler has moved out of the house, you’ll be stuck with the rabbit.”
Part of the reason for Pierce’s difficulty in getting the public to understand the nuances of keeping rabbits as pets comes from the animal’s varied roles in western society. Unlike dogs and cats — who have a hard enough time getting out of the shelter circuit — rabbits are up against any number of challenges, in the form of the non-pet lobby. Rabbits aren’t bred only to become companions — they face futures as test subjects for science, a high-priced hat or coat, or on a platter in the middle of table for dinner.
It is this ambiguous characterization that presents problems for rabbits. Are they pets, food, fur or science subjects? The difficulty in settling the argument of commodity vs. companion is what Pierce is up against.
“According to the pet products industry, rabbits are the third-most popular pet. They’re also the third-most relinquished pet in shelters,” Pierce said. “But they still don’t have the exposure and public knowledge we need.”
Given the multi-purpose definition of what rabbits mean to our society, Pierce said some rabbit enthusiasts have tried to enact legislation changing that definition to companion. One group on the East Coast was able to make inroads on a state level, but it’s no small task, she said, due to the might of the opposition.
“Rabbits don’t even have the same rights as chickens. There are no humane slaughter laws, nothing like the free-range rights [of chickens],” she said. “It’s really tough, because you have breeders and farmers who are against changing that.”
While legislation could take years to come through, Pierce and the other volunteers at the House Rabbit Society are doing their best to combat the situation at home, through efforts to educate the public and by helping get rabbits out of area shelters — most of which weren’t equipped to handle them prior to the founding of the society’s local chapter in 1992. The society has helped train shelter staff in proper rabbit care, provided materials like cages and hay, and has taken on much of the financial burden for vet visits.
“Most shelters don’t have a budget for rabbits’ medical attention or for spaying and neutering,” Pierce said. “They’re required to follow the laws requiring spaying and neutering [of shelter animals], but those laws don’t extend to rabbits because they’re still considered livestock. The society does major fundraising and arranges spaying and neutering for a lot of the shelters around the county.”
Taking on that responsibility adds up to more than 300 spaying or neutering procedures every year. To fund such an endeavor, the society created a boxed hay program, providing boxes of hay for $12 (a highly discounted rate over pet stores), with all sales going toward veterinary care for rabbits in shelters. And at this time of year, Pierce said, the shelters are getting overwhelmed.
“We’re in the post-Easter dumping season right now — that time of year when the Easter bunnies reach puberty and the kids either get tired of them or it gets tough to care for them,” she said.
That makes this the perfect time, it turns out, for Bunnyfest, the society’s annual fundraiser. Held this year in Balboa Park, the event will feature artists, craftspeople, services and supplies — all rabbit-related in some way. Rabbit owners will bring their pets to socialize as they participate in contests and games, like tunnel races, bunny jeopardy and bunny bowling (whichever rabbit can knock down the carrot-shaped pins first, wins).
“It’s really fun, kind of like an open-air fair,” Pierce said. “Everybody brings their rabbit. We’ll have rabbits on harnesses, in pet strollers, on the shoulders of their owners. People will be there just checking out each other’s bunnies. And we get people from all walks of life — even some bikers with their bunnies. It’s so fun to see.”
The free festival will also include educational components and adoptable rabbits (though any potential adopters won’t be able to take home a rabbit that day). The rabbits in attendance can even have a spa-like experience at “Lagomorph Lounge,” where they can be groomed and have their nails trimmed. The funds raised, meanwhile, will go right back into the society’s various efforts — to assist shelters with veterinary bills, as well as helping cash-strapped rabbit owners get their pets spayed or neutered. Through the society’s spay and neuter rebate program, owners can have their pets fixed for just a fraction of the price.
Just like the species that procreates at a rapid-fire rate, determined to stay in the evolutionary game, the House Rabbit Society continues to persevere, sometimes drawing on ingenuity in the absence of resources.
“We’re very proud of the work our little organization does,” Pierce said. “With our rebate program, our fostering and our assistance to the shelters, as well as our program that assists rabbit owners in crisis with donations of food or supplies, we really do a lot in the community and we’re very proud of that.
“We also do a lot of networking. We’ve worked really closely with the shelters, and now they do a much better job of caring for rabbits and they don’t have to send us as many. We have a hard time with finding enough foster homes, and it’s tough finding people that can take on that responsibility, but with networking and knowing the shelters in and out of the county, we work deals and network a lot. We do a lot of wheeling and dealing, but that’s what you have to do to save lives.”
The San Diego chapter of the House Rabbit Society will host the 20th annual Bunnyfest on Sept. 16 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the corner of Park Boulevard and Presidents Way in Balboa Park. For more information on the festival or to learn more about the society, including how to become a foster home, visit sandiegorabbits.org.