Mary enjoys China’s presence so much that, speaking her first words in weeks, she asks if China can stay in her bed for the whole night—but she has to settle for the promise of another visit.
China is a Certified Therapy Rabbit, a designation that allows her to make social visits to people like Mary and to help others achieve a particular goal, such as visiting libraries to help improve children’s reading skills. Love on a Leash is part of the Foundation for Pet Provided Therapy, which began in San Diego in the 1980s. The program now has chapters in 28 states.
Unguez and China’s destinations include retirement and assisted living homes, where they may work with patients with Alzheimer's disease and senile dementia. They also visit hospitals and interact with children, teenagers, veterans and people with physical or emotional disabilities.
Unguez adopted 6-year-old China, a Californian rabbit (cross-bred from New Zealand Whites, Himalayans and Chinchillas), from the San Diego House Rabbit Society, a 20-year-old organization devoted to improving the lives of rabbits in the county. Society volunteers rescue abandoned rabbits and find permanent homes for them. They also seek to reduce the number of unwanted rabbits and to improve the animals' lives by helping people better understand these companion animals.
China’s foster parent suggested she would be a good therapy bunny, so Unguez got in touch with the San Diego chapter of Love on a Leash. “It’s been wonderful since the get-go!” Unguez said. “Everyone has been so supportive. It’s an excellent organization, like one big family.”
China had to get her vet’s blessing to ensure she was fit for the work. She then went through a thorough evaluation and critique with the chapter president. China and Unguez visited lots of facilities along with other chapter captains to see different settings and experience room-to-room visits versus group visits. China was then ready to begin working on her own.
Unguez explained that a typical visit lasts about an hour, depending on how China feels. “My bunny comes first,” she said, always making sure China is in her harness and on a leash at all times. She doesn’t allow any treats during a visit, and she makes sure China gets plenty of exercise before and after the visit.
“She may be placed in someone’s lap or their bed,” said Unguez of a typical day. “Or if they just want to see China in her stroller, they pet her there. She always cheers up people who appear lonely or sad. Many have never petted a bunny before.”
Rabbits make good therapy animals because they are social beings. Some therapy pets can be too big to visit someone in a bed or sit on a person’s lap, but rabbits are just the right size. They tend to look cute and nonthreatening to most people.
“I have seen grown men melt at the sight of a bunny,” Unguez said. “Any rabbit who is friendly, confident and outgoing would do well in this kind of work.”
China also visits a public library, where children take turns reading to her.
“The kids just seem to relax while reading to her,” Unguez said. “They get to try out new words and meanings in a nonthreatening way. They are more comfortable talking to a rabbit, so they are more confident about trying new things.” Some children have never touched a real rabbit before, and Unguez, who also volunteers with the San Diego House Rabbit Society, enjoys answering their questions about how rabbits live and how to take care of them.
Unguez and China’s work extends outside Love on a Leash. After Unguez discovered that the incidence of cancer in animals is growing at a similar pace to those of human cancers, she decided to do something about it. Every year, Unguez and China participate in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, held in Chula Vista. Unguez pushes China in her bunny stroller along the route, and she displays her “Bunny Cancer Quilt,” which features the faces of rabbits with cancer or those who have died of the disease.
“Many people don't realize that bunnies get cancer, too,” Unguez said. “The treatments for cancer in humans are the same for bunnies, too. We need to find a cure. I hope my quilt raises awareness about this issue.”
Unguez said she has noticed that even people used to the presence of therapy dogs or other animals are always delighted to see a rabbit. “When they realize China is a real live rabbit, they smile, pet and hug her, and that is what Love on a Leash is really all about: a few moments of smiles and happiness and educating people about the joy of rabbits.”
Love on a Leash is actively seeking more rabbit volunteers. To find out more about the pet therapy program, visit www.sandiegoloal.org. To learn more about San Diego House Rabbit Society, visit www.sandiegorabbits.org.