The Plight of Pet Rabbits
text and photos by Margo DeMello
The plight of dogs and cats in this nation’s animal shelters is well known to anyone with even a passing interest in animal welfare. Dogs, cats, puppies and kittens are surrendered to animal shelters in the millions per year, and according to the Humane Society of the United States, an incredible three to four million are still euthanized per year. That breeders continue to breed too many dogs and cats is indisputable, as is the fact that our nation continues to be a throw-away society, tossing away former pets at an alarming rate.
Velveeta was a classroom rabbit who was never let out of her cage.
When the school year ended, she was brought to a nature center and abandoned. She was rescued by HRS and ended up being adopted by a new guardian who loved her deeply.
What most people don’t know, however, is that in increasing numbers, domestic rabbits are a victim of the same set of phenomena long afflicting dogs and cats—irresponsible breeders, poor education about care, too few homes for too many rabbits, and too many people willing to throw away their rabbit when they become more work than they bargained for. As far as we can tell, rabbits are currently the third most euthanized animal in the United States, and the situation is becoming more urgent every year. Although numbers are hard to come by (because most shelters do not count their incoming or outgoing numbers), many shelters euthanize rabbits in percentages as high as 80-90% of incoming rabbits.
House Rabbit Society (HRS) is the leading force in trying to counteract this trend, by educating the public about rabbits as house pets, as well as by rescuing abandoned rabbits and finding them permanent homes. But fighting the lack of education about rabbits, the attitude that rabbits are disposable “starter pets,” and the breeders who flood the market with adorable bunnies, is an uphill battle.
It’s hard to know exactly how many pet rabbit breeders exist in the United States today, or how many rabbits are bred by this barely-regulated industry. According to an industry survey, at least 20,000 men and women breed rabbits for the pet market, but that is certainly an underestimate, and does not include all those meat rabbit breeders who sell to the pet market as well. Pet rabbit breeders range from the small backyard or hobby breeders to sophisticated show breeders, to very large commercial rabbitries, or “ rabbit mills” with conditions very similar to the more widely known puppy mills.
These large commercial pet rabbit breeders sell large numbers of rabbits at wholesale prices directly to pet stores, or through wholesalers who act as middlemen. Many smaller breeders do not have the facilities for such a large-scale operation, so they sell directly to the customer or to small, local pet stores. But customers who purchase a rabbit at a chain pet store like Petland or Petco are most likely buying a rabbit who was bred at a rabbit mill, and sent to the store via dealers who transport rabbits, puppies, kittens, and other animals from breeder to pet store.
Like the puppy breeding industry, the pet rabbit breeding industry is rife with cruelty. From the breeding process itself (with large numbers of babies being culled if they do not conform to breed standards) to the joyless and solitary life led by the breeder rabbits, to the dangerous transport of often un-weaned babies across the country (leading to 20-30% of deaths during transport alone), and finally to the conditions at the pet store itself (where, due to notoriously poor conditions and little to no staff training in rabbit care, another 20% of baby rabbits can be expected to die), rabbits bred for the pet industry are lucky to even make it to a home. Once a customer, usually upon impulse, decides to purchase a rabbit, they can expect to bring home an animal who the staff has either not sexed or has incorrectly sexed, and they will, most likely, receive no educational information on how to care for their new rabbit. Most will not know that rabbits can be litter box trained, and will purchase a wooden hutch for the rabbit to live a short and lonely life outdoors. Others may know that rabbits can live indoors, but will not be informed of the need to bunny proof their house, and once the rabbit demonstrates their natural need to chew, will be placed outside, given away, or surrendered at a shelter. No pet store that I know of provides any sort of pre-sale counseling and education to potential purchasers, setting up the stage for the rabbit to live an unhappy life with a family who was not prepared for his needs.
How many rabbits are produced by this industry? Again, no reliable numbers can be found, but House Rabbit Society representatives around the country, along with other rabbit rescue groups and the city and county shelters which take in rabbits all will verify the same thing: rabbits are surrendered at shelters and then euthanized in alarming rates. And there are thousands more rabbits who are not brought to shelters, but instead are abandoned in parks, woods, golf courses and college campuses, where these domestic animals will often reproduce before their deaths by car, dog, or wild animal.
Chester was living in a backyard chicken coop with a severe head tilt and overgrown teeth, both untreated. His "owner" called House Rabbit Society
and said she had been waiting for him to die, but since he hadn't died yet,
she wanted us to come pick him up.
He now lives in my home with three special rabbit friends.
The rabbit breeding industry contributes to the problem by breeding rabbits indiscriminately for sale in pet stores and other venues, providing little to no education with their sales, and, ironically, disputing the fact that a problem with overpopulation or homeless rabbits even exists.
What can you do to help slow down the growth of the homeless rabbit population? First and foremost, never purchase a rabbit, and certainly never do so on a whim or for a child. If you are interested in adopting a rabbit, visit the House Rabbit Society website (www.rabbit.org) to find out about caring for this complicated, sensitive animal. Then visit your local shelter, rescue group, or HRS chapter, and adopt a homeless rabbit. Always spay or neuter your rabbit, both to prevent unwanted births and to protect the health of your new companion. Don’t frequent pet stores that sell rabbits. Educate everyone you know about the plight of rabbits, and visit the HRS website to find out what else you can do. And finally, if you work in the animal protection community, know that rabbits are suffering just as much as (and sometimes more than) cats and dogs, and that any new legislation being written to protect companion animals in New Mexico—such as mandatory spay/neuter laws, laws governing pet stores, dealers and breeders, and legislation aimed at animal shelters—MUST include rabbits. It’s time to stop treating rabbits as third class citizens.
Margo DeMello is a director of House Rabbit Society, the co-author of Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature, and runs a pet supply boutique in Bernalillo, NM. Her latest book is Low Carb Vegetarian.
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