FLORIDA — While a basket full of candies, Peeps, Cadbury Creme Eggs and milk chocolate bunnies might not be the healthiest Easter gift for kids, Florida veterinarian Betsy Coville says that it was best to place a live rabbit in Easter baskets.
Sugar-laden candies can cause a cavity or two. But the gift of a baby rabbit could have more serious consequences
“Rabbits are the third most abandoned pets in shelters and shelters,” said Coville, who runs a veterinary practice in Lutz. “They are often purchased at Easter by well-meaning parents who have no idea that rabbits require much more maintenance than dogs or cats, and can live 10 to 12 years.”
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Renee Rivard of Manatee County, member of the Florida Chapter of the League of Human Voterssaid animal rescue groups and humane societies are currently inundated with pet rabbits abandoned by families who no longer want or can devote the time and money to care for them .
“The majority of bunnies are impulse buys at retail stores, usually around Easter,” she said. “They’re cute when they’re babies, but a lot of people don’t realize the work that goes into it, and families end up handing them over to rescue groups.”
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She said parents don’t know when they buy this adorable little bunny that they are committing to a high-maintenance pet.
“People have no idea what it takes to take care of them. They need a lot of space to move around and they chew everything. They also need specialized veterinary care, which is expensive,” Rivard said.
Plus, they’re just not good pets for young children, said Myriam Parham, president of the nonprofit group, Florida Voice for Animals.
“They don’t like to be picked up and scratch children with their claws,” she said. “And they are very fragile. Their backs can easily be broken if they are mishandled by young children.”
Despite their adorable appearance, “bunnies aren’t cuddly,” said Sherry Silk, CEO of Tampa Bay Humane Society, which took in 246 abandoned rabbits last year, 100 more than the previous year. “They love and need social contact, but generally don’t like to be picked up or cuddled. Their spines are not flexible like a cat, so mishandling can cause serious injury. They sometimes bite.”
Silk said the Humane Society provides education for anyone who adopts a rabbit, outlining diet, grooming, exercise needs and veterinary care, including the need to have rabbits vaccinated and neutered.
Kurtis Marsh and Sunje Schwarz, founders of the Suncoast House Rabbit Rescue — which fosters abandoned rabbits in Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sarasota and Manatee counties — said the nonprofit rescue is currently full. He currently cares for around 70 rabbits and has been forced to turn away almost as many for lack of space.
“We have more than we can handle,” said Marsh, who started rescuing rabbits in 2010 after finding an abandoned one. “Finding foster homes and permanent homes for rabbits is extremely difficult.”
The problem isn’t isolated to Easter, said Marsh, who is a proponent of banning retail rabbit sales and has worked with Pasco County Animal Services to develop educational materials about rabbits.
“People give rabbits as gifts for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, really all year round,” he said. “They buy them from pet stores where the employees don’t know enough to educate them and sell people cages that are too small and deadly treats for rabbits.”
Anyone who adopts Marsh’s rescue receives extensive “Bunny 101” training, he said.
Nonetheless, he said about 70% of the rabbits he adopts are turned away.
“People think they’re cute and cuddly,” he said. “They have no idea what it takes to properly care for rabbits.”
Unfortunately, turning away rabbit owners who want to return rabbits means there is a chance that the unwanted animal will be released back into the wild by owners determined to shirk their responsibilities.
“They’re not equipped to survive in the wild,” Coville said. “They will starve to death, fall prey to coyotes or other predators, or get hit by a car.”
Rivard and Coville are part of a growing coalition of animal advocates who have urged county and city commissions across the state to pass laws banning the retail sale of pet rabbits.
“There are currently only three places in Florida that have banned the retail sale of rabbits: Orange County, DeSoto County and Key West,” Coville said.
However, Petco and PetSmart stopped selling rabbits in 2007, and many independent pet stores also voluntarily stopped selling rabbits, Rivard said.
Rivard investigated pet stores in Pasco County and found that, of the approximately 45 pet stores in the county, 36 no longer sold rabbits.
While the life of an unwanted rabbit can end tragically, the fate of rabbits owned by unscrupulous breeders is more heartbreaking, Coville said.
“Some of these rabbits are raised in rabbit mills that are no different from puppy mills that we recognize as inhumane,” she said.
She said there are breeders whose does give birth to eight to 10 litters a year.
“They live their whole lives in damp, dark, dirty cages with no exercise or sunlight,” Coville said.
And not all rabbits are sold as pets. Some are bred as food for large snakes or used as bait to trap pest animals such as alligators, she said.
Proponents of a ban on the retail sale of rabbits, similar to bans passed by cities and counties on the retail sale of dogs and cats, would go a long way to eliminating the problem of disposable pets, they say .
More than 70 county and city governments in Florida, including Pasco and Hillsborough counties, have banned the retail sale of dogs and cats.
Without the ability to sell rabbits to retail stores, rabbit farmers would no longer be able to profit from selling rabbits to pet stores, Parham said.
“And a ban would relieve rescues and humane societies while removing the guilt of refusing them, knowing that their owners might throw them away,” she said.
As a compromise to an outright ban on retail sales, rabbit advocates have asked commissioners to consider a moratorium on the sale of rabbits during the Easter season.
Despite pleas from rabbit advocates, in January Hillsborough County commissioners voted unanimously against banning the retail sale of rabbits, mostly because they said they didn’t see any the necessity. Investigations by county staff indicated that there are currently no pet stores in Hillsborough County selling rabbits.
Instead, commissioners agreed to launch a public education campaign to discourage residents from buying bunnies at Easter.
Animal advocates received a similar response from Pasco County commissioners. Rather than ban sales at the county’s nine pet stores that still sell rabbits, commissioners decided to ban sales at flea markets and other unlicensed locations first and launch a public education campaign. discouraging people from buying live Easter bunnies.
While conceding that there are bound to be bad breeders in the business to make money, Alexis Yahre de Lutz – who has run a small rabbit farm of 15-25 Dutch rabbits for around 10 years – said that there are many responsible and caring breeders out there. in the Florida Rabbit Breeder registry, of which it is a member. The organization has 213 breeders listed in its directory.
And there are plenty of people who love rabbits and are willing and able to accept the responsibility of caring for them, she said.
“I personally don’t sell rabbits around Easter because as a breeder I don’t think a rabbit should be bought on impulse,” she said.
She also doesn’t like pet stores that sell rabbits. She would prefer rabbit enthusiasts to buy from ethical and responsible breeders who spend time educating buyers about the 10-year commitment they accept as a rabbit owner.
“I want them to go to good homes,” Yahre said. “I never want any of my rabbits to end up in a situation where they are no longer wanted. So if for some reason one of my buyers decides they cannot look after the rabbit , I’m always ready to take the bunny, no matter how long they’ve owned it.”
She’s accepted his offer a few times, but says the majority of her buyers are aware that they’re committing when buying a pet.
“I think education is key,” she said. “As with any pet, do your research.”