When I tell people I have pet rabbits, sometimes the reaction is disappointingly dismissive. Rabbits are unintelligent. They don’t do anything but sit in a cage, eat, and poop. When people learn, also, that I am an active member of the House Rabbit Society (HRS), their incredulity rises still further. Why do we need a whole organization devoted to promoting rabbit welfare? Why is it rabbits and not hamsters or chinchillas or some other species that we have chosen to save and protect? Why is it important to save rabbits?
First, let me say that I don’t think rabbits are more important than other animals. I think saving and humane treatment of any kind of animal is important. It’s just that HRS wants rabbits to have their fair share of saving. Rabbits have had less than a fighting chance in our society’s “humane” hierarchy. To an extent far exceeding other animals, rabbits exist in a no-man’s land of ambiguity, classified both as companion animals and as livestock. They are farmed, experimented on, eaten, worn, trivialized, and made into lucky charms and toys for other animals. Breeding, both intentional and accidental, has produced a lot of them, along with confused instructions: maybe to fondle them – but maybe to eat them. And some people, with bizarre inconsistency, are even able to do both.
Humane ordinances that apply to companion animals don’t always apply to rabbits because of their ambiguous status. And when classified as livestock, they are considered poultry and humane slaughter laws don’t apply to them.
Even as pets, rabbits bear a heavy load of abuse. Rabbits are curious, intelligent, social, and opinionated individuals. Yet typically, they are kept alone in a small outdoor hutch. These gregarious animals spend their lives in lonely isolation, deprived of exercise, medical attention, human or animal contact, and, often, appropriate food or fresh water. Many rabbits are dumped in parks, forests, and by highways when their humans tire of them; an uncountable number are euthanized in animal shelters.
Some humane societies do not take in rabbits at all. While animal control must accept rabbits, some do not even put them up for adoption, and there are no consistent and universal standards for their care. Every animal shelter in every city has a different way of doing things. Only the House Rabbit Society has universal standards for the level of care and treatment of rabbits.
We’re an all-volunteer organization, so I’ll give you an idea of some of the things our volunteers (including me) do. Rabbits need to be picked up from shelters, fed, cleaned up after, provided with exercise and mental stimulation, and taken to the vet. I care for the older rabbits who have been returned and can’t be placed because of health issues. Emil (my husband) and I have 7 rabbits who share our home, most of them on medication and with special needs. I spend about 90 minutes a day on the physical care of my foster rabbits.
In 2008 HRS celebrated 20 years as an organization. In those 20 years, we have rescued over 20,000 rabbits and touched the lives of many more through education and advocacy. We are attempting to build a more humane world. The bottom line for why I spend my time doing what I do for rabbits is because they’ve brought me joy, and I want to give joy back to them.