September 26, 2018
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A cautionary look at rabbits as pets

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

With Easter just around the corner, rabbits are everywhere in the form of chocolate treats, plush toys and other thematic giftables. Bunnies are an iconic symbol of the candy-filled holiday, but no toy or sweet can rival the absolute cuteness of a real live rabbit.

Rabbits make for quiet, charismatic, adorable pets, but Maine rabbit enthusiasts warn people against gifting these cute little creatures on impulse. There may be more to pet bunnies than you think.

“Easter is not the time to buy a rabbit,” said Liz Kenaly, president of the Eastern Maine Rabbit Breeders Association. “Buy a stuffy. Kids love their stuffies. But for a rabbit, plan on them. Get their cage. Get their food. Learn about them first.”

Kenaly, who lives in Temple, currently owns 26 rabbits, though she has housing for 33 and is expecting her first litter (usually 4 to 6 kits) of the year at the end of the month.

“Rabbits have nice little personalities,” Kenaly said. “I tell people don’t expect a cat, but like a cat, they do learn their names, and like a cat they may or may not come to you when you call them.”

A common mistake new rabbit owners make is not researching their diet. For example, a lot of people assume domestic rabbits eat lettuce, Kenaly said, but it gives them diarrhea. Pet rabbits also can’t have celery or broccoli. They should have a steady diet of pellets and straw, and certain treats are OK, such as pineapple and papaya, which actually contains enzymes that help rabbits digest the fur they consume while grooming themselves.

Another acceptable rabbit treat: carrots.

“The biggest mistake most [new rabbit owners] make is they get their rabbit, get it home, put it in their cage and they don’t take it out again,” said Bangor resident Pat Cammick, who breeds and shows rabbits internationally with his wife, Val Cammick. “I make sure I tell everybody if you get a pet rabbit, then you need to take that rabbit out and hold that rabbit.”

Most rabbits are social creatures, especially if socialized from a young age. They enjoy being pet, held and even walked on a harness and leash, Pat Cammick said.

“One of the biggest crazes right now is rabbit hopping,” he said. “They set up a little course of jumps and these rabbits will compete.”

While the Cammicks breed award-winning rabbits to show and sell, other people own rabbits for far different reasons. For example, some people raise angora rabbits for their super-soft fur, which can be spun into silky and expensive yarn. Other people breed rabbits for their nutrient-rich meat, thought the consumption of rabbit is more common in Europe and China than in the United States. Then there are people who simply want a household pet.

“I always have a house bunny as well as my bunnies in the barn,” said Kenaly. “They’re quiet. They’re easy to have around. But they need to be contained when you aren’t watching them … The day that my bunny chewed the telephone cord for the third time and my husband had to go buy another cord, I got in trouble.”

Alicia Roussin, an adoption counselor and small animal specialist at the Bangor Humane Society, owns and fosters rabbits. In her opinion, they make great pets.

“You can litterbox train them and teach them tricks,” Roussin said. “They love hanging around you. My rabbit likes to just lay on my bed and watch Netflix with me.”

Roussin said BHS has a waiting list of area residents looking to surrender their rabbits, as well as a list of people interested in adopting rabbits. Rabbits are surrendered to BHS for all sorts of reasons, Roussin said. Sometimes they’re strays or abandoned. In other cases, the owners are moving, or have developed allergies, or are simply looking for a lifestyle change.

“It’s really easy to get over your head with rabbits because they can have babies left and right,” Roussin said.

BHS has to operate on a waiting list because the facility has limited space for rabbits, which usually need to be housed in separate enclosures to prevent fighting (something that often happens between rabbits of the same sex) and mating (something that often happens between rabbits of opposite sex).

“All year round, we have rabbits coming in,” Roussin said. “We see all different breeds and personalities of rabbits.”

The American Rabbit Breeder Association recognizes 49 different breeds of rabbits. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors. And there are also plenty of cross breeds or mutts, rabbits that contain the genetics and traits of several breeds.

On Tuesday, March 6, two 2-year-old rabbits — a large brown rabbit and a smaller jet black variety — were surrendered to BHS, where they were placed in large glass enclosures in the front lobby with plenty of hay, pellets and water. After adjusting to their new surroundings, they’d be spayed or neutered, then put up for adoption with a $50 fee.

Before sending the rabbits to new homes, Roussin or another BHS adoption counselor will sit down with the prospective owners and talk with them about the ins and outs of rabbit ownership.

“It’s really important to know what you’re looking at, your start-up costs and all of that,” said Alicia Roussin of rabbits. “They need veterinary care just like cats or dogs, and they’re considered an exotic pet, so not all vets will take rabbits.”

To help educate the public about rabbits and other small pets, BHS is hosting a Small Pets 101 course from 10 a.m to noon on Saturday, March 17, at 693 Mount Hope Avenue. The free event will include demonstrations in handling and grooming, and presenters will cater to the interests of the people who attend.

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