VASSALBORO, Maine — Bertha and her companions were once lab rabbits, subjected to eye drops that made them scream.
Phoenix was stuffed into a plastic Hannaford bag and thrown out on the side of the road. He was found with a broken leg.
Pretty Girl and her mate were left on someone’s front lawn. Her mate was hit and killed by a car before they could be rescued.
But at David and Cheryl Sherwood’s Vassalboro home, Bertha, Phoenix, Pretty Girl and 48 other rescued rabbits sprint across the fenced-in yard, nibble on pine boughs or lounge, fat and happy, in the shade.
“We’re their last stop usually,” David Sherwood said, tossing cracker treats to Bertha and a couple of other big, white former lab rabbits. “We try to give them the best we can until bunny heaven.”
For the past several years, Sherwood and his wife have been bunny devotees. It started with an abandoned baby rabbit they found at an apartment complex they were overseeing. They named him Bunny. Sherwood called him “Boo.”
“He was in the house,” Sherwood said. “He used to watch TV with us at night and jump up on the couch. And he’d eat oyster crackers. That’s what he liked.”
After Bunny died, they got another rabbit. Then another one as a companion for him.
“Next thing we know, we met Quan,” he said.
The owner of the nonprofit Rabbitats for Humanity in Walpole, Maine, Quan Myers has been rescuing rabbits for 10 years. She talked the couple through some behavioral issues they were having with one of their rabbits. They were moved by her passion for the animals and by her “rabbitat,” a sprawling outdoor space with places for the rabbits to run, hide, eat, sleep and play.
“Thousands and thousands of rabbits are being euthanized all over the United States because there’s not enough room in the shelters themselves. They’re already inundated with cats and dogs,” Myers said. “People don’t know how to take care of rabbits in most shelters, and they put them in a little guinea pig cage and then people come in to try to adopt them and they bite because they’re territorial. ‘This is my space, it’s only 2 feet wide. You can’t put your hand in here.'”
But while Myers has rescued 1,500 to 1,800 rabbits over the past decade, health problems forced her to cut back. A few years ago, the Sherwoods offered to take some of her brood.
The couple built their own rabbitat beside their house, fencing in a plot of land and filling it with bunny-sized buildings and lean-tos. The area is divided into sections with fencing to separate argumentative bunnies, a roof to keep out predators and an outside area for rabbits that like to lie in the sun or nibble on twigs.
Above one door the Sherwoods have hung the sign, “Beware of attack rabbit,” ironic since none of their bunnies do anything more aggressive than nudge for treats.
Over the past few years, the Sherwoods have taken more of Myers’ rabbits. Most of their 51 were hers at one time, and she pays for their care and medical needs. But many were rescued by the couple, adopted from a local animal shelter where they would have been euthanized, or taken in when a former owner could no longer care for them.
Although Myers sometimes finds homes for her rabbits, the Sherwoods have never allowed a bunny adoption. Sherwood considers theirs a home of last resort, and he expects all the rabbits will stay there throughout their lives.
“Once they’re here, they’re just pets,” he said.
It’s a lot of work and expense. The rabbits go through 100 pounds of pellets a week, plus pounds more of apples, carrots and other treats. The rabbitat must be cleaned regularly and the rabbits must be checked throughout the day to ensure no one is sick or hurt.
But Sherwood loves watching them.
“Especially when you make a new area. They’re out there binkying and jumping around and playing,” he said, referring to the happy dancing-jump that rabbit lovers call a “binky.” He glanced down at one of the former lab bunnies who ate his cracker too fast. “Or when they get the hiccups.”
Nearly all of the rabbits have settled into bonded pairs or small groups. Although most live outside in the rabbitat, six of the rabbits live in the house. The couple has rabbit-proofed the home, but they’ve still lost a few lamps to curious wire-chewers and their baseboards have been nibbled.
“They’ve got beauty marks, that’s what I call them,” Sherwood said.
At 51 animals (plus a once-stray indoor cat that likes to munch on the bunnies’ food), the couple consider their rabbit rescue full. They aren’t accepting new rabbits.
But Sherwood has advice to help ensure more rabbits don’t need to be rescued: Don’t get bunnies for Easter. Don’t get them as pets for children or as a gift for someone else. Keep in mind that rabbits are curious, mischievous and take a lot of work to care for. Get them spayed or neutered.
Sherwood said he never thought he’d be a bunny guy, but apparently he is.
“I just like rabbits,” he said.