Easter is on its way, and animal-shelter workers across the country are hopping to get ready — but they’re not stuffing baskets or hiding jellybeans in plastic eggs. They’re assessing their cage space and stocking up on hay. That’s because they know that in just a few weeks, they’ll need to be ready for a flood of castoff Peter Cottontails.
Every year, thousands of people buy bunnies for Easter, only to abandon them when the novelty wears off. Pet stores compound this problem by displaying and selling bunnies as if they were seasonal decorations. Quivering noses and floppy ears are hard to resist, and many parents give in to their children’s pleas for a living, breathing Easter bunny. The decision to add a rabbit to the family is often made without more than a minute or two of thought, even though rabbits live eight to 12 years.
Pet stores are happy to take people’s money for bunnies and all the accessories and supplies that go along with them, but they rarely inform buyers about the reality of caring for a rabbit. As a result, many rabbits endure years of improper care or neglect before dying prematurely or being abandoned.
Rabbits are social animals who need daily attention and interaction, just as dogs and cats do, but they do not make good companions for young children. Kids understandably want to pick up and cuddle a fuzzy bunny, but rabbits feel threatened and insecure when their feet leave the ground — and they won’t hesitate to kick, scratch and bite to defend themselves. Rabbits are also so fragile that rough handling can easily break their bones.
A caged bunny is not a happy bunny, so rabbits need to be trained to use a litterbox (which will need to be cleaned regularly) and allowed to hop around the house freely. They are voracious chewers, so every inch that they can access must be rabbit-proofed. Electrical cords, molding, chair legs, carpet, rugs, toys, shoes and anything else at bunny level must either be covered or moved out of the reach of a rabbit’s sharp teeth.
Spaying or neutering is essential, but even sterilized male rabbits may still mark their territory by spraying urine on walls, furniture or, sometimes, even family members. Rabbits also need regular brushing because they shed profusely and are prone to hairballs — which can cause deadly digestive obstructions because, unlike cats, rabbits can’t vomit them up.
Feeding rabbits a diet of nothing but plain pellets can also contribute to digestive impactions because of a lack of fiber. All rabbits need to be fed timothy or oat hay every day and offered plenty of fresh leafy greens and other veggies. Rabbits may be small, but food, vet visits, toys, grooming tools and other supplies soon add up. Most rabbit guardians spend more than $7,600 over the course of their bunny’s lifetime.
When "bunny fever" has cooled down in a few weeks and parents discover that caring for a rabbit requires as much time, expense and work as caring for a dog or a cat does, off to the animal shelter Peter Cottontail goes — if he’s lucky. Many people cruelly and illegally dump their unwanted rabbits outdoors, where they don’t stand a chance against starvation, the elements and predators.
Real bunnies simply don’t belong in Easter baskets. Please, resist the urge to buy a living rabbit and pick a plush pal instead. If you’re sure that you will be able to care for a rabbit for 12 or more years — not just for Easter — please save a life by adopting one of the many rabbits waiting in animal shelters for a loving home. If this year is anything like the others, shelters will have plenty of bunnies who need homes in just a few weeks.
Lindsay Pollard is a senior writer for the PETA Foundation.
— McClatchy Tribune Services