LAMOINE, Maine — Jenny Nichols is on a one-woman mission to ensure pet rabbits are never again abandoned or killed.
The story she tells is dire: Well-meaning parents buy bunnies for their kids, unaware that rabbits require specialized care and handling, or that the critters are far from ideal pets for small children. Professional breeders, obsessed with selling “perfect” animals only, will cull rabbits for being born blind in one eye or for having malformed teeth.
In an effort to save rabbits, Nichols, a 30-year-old stay-at-home mom, has started Cottontail Cottage Rabbit Rescue, a shelter in a former garage at her Lamoine home. There, she’s got more than 30 bunnies waiting for adoption or foster care, many of which were rescued from people who didn’t know what they were getting into when they got the animals as pets in the first place.
Keeping rabbits, she says, is hard work. Uninformed owners often turn to neglect, she said, leaving their rabbits in outdoor hutches to fend for themselves. The results are often bad for the animals.
“I have two rescue rabbits with a foster mom right now that were found in a cage with a third, dead rabbit that was so badly desiccated they couldn’t even recognize it,” she said.
Cottontail Cottage recently registered for nonprofit status and is in the process of becoming a licensed animal shelter through the state Animal Welfare Program. Nichols works closely with the Hancock County SPCA, which may soon become her financial sponsor, allowing her to accept tax-deductible donations of money and supplies.
“I applaud her for what she’s doing,” said Diana de los Santos, operations manager at the Hancock SPCA. “We’ are overrun with dogs and cats, so if someone brings a rabbit in, she’s there. And she knows a lot more about rabbits than we do.”
Running the rabbit rescue has become Nichols’ full-time job. A former marketer, she’s used her communications know-how to build a network of supporters online. This week, a St. George man donated handmade rabbit hutches crafted from lobster traps. People from as far away as Massachusetts turn to Cottontail Cottage to take care of bunnies they rescue.
But Nichols could have easily been just one more rabbit owner in over her head. The rabbitry started after she bought her daughter a female Holland Lop named Flopsy. After the novelty wore off, care for the rabbit quickly became Nichols’ responsibility.
She started researching proper rabbit care. She bought Flopsy a companion bunny, supposedly another doe, and soon enough Flopsy had babies.
“I never really had any interest in rabbits at all, until I started interacting with them,” she said. “They were just wonderful. I started researching how smart they are — they’re as smart as dogs. Then I started researching the abuse and neglect.”
As Nichols learned about that neglect and grew attached to the animals, she knew she had to help. She said the worst time for domestic rabbits is just a little after Easter, when many parents bring baby bunnies home for their kids.
“They see that they’re so adorable, so cute, but they grow up in only a couple months,” she said. “When they reach full adult stature, you know, they stop being so cute. If you haven’t given them attention, they’re gonna scratch you.”
The ASPCA and House Rabbit Society, an international nonprofit rescue and education group, say that thousands of rabbits are abandoned after Easter each year. Nichols said the lucky ones end up at shelters or are turned over to animal control, but that a silent population of unwanted rabbits are simply abandoned in the wild.
Because of the success of her outreach, through a Facebook page and a new website, Nichols said her operation is “getting bigger and bigger” — and not by design. It’s never been her goal to be a growing rabbitry, she said. What she wants is to get abandoned, surrendered or neglected rabbits to loving homes.
So she’s trying to enlist help. Nichols is looking for volunteer rescue drivers, donations of food, supplies or money to keep Cottontail Cottage running. For more information, or to take a look at rabbits available for adoption, visit ccrabbitrescue.com.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.