Easter – what does it mean to most? Chocolate in abundance, rabbits hopping around, cute fluffy chicks and maybe, somewhere in there, a nod to a religion or two. But as whole Easter means time off from work and stuffing your face.
Easter for us takes on a whole different slant as it marks the start of kitten season and boy has it begun with a bang this week. The phone line has been the busiest it has been all year with dozens and dozens of misdirected calls (we are not related to the national RSPCA Helpline) reporting stray, heavily pregnant cats and nursing queens. Single, stray kittens are making their appearance too and my heart is fluttering with anxiety, as I just don’t know how we are going to cope with so few foster carers this year.
We are very lucky in that the reason we have lost foster families is because they’ve given such wonderful homes to their charges. But it doesn’t change the fact that we have nearly filled all the homes we have for mums and their kits and motherless, stray kittens. This is going to be a tough Spring/Summer if we can’t recruit foster carers soon, but for now we welcome to the branch our latest victims of irresponsible pet owners.
Easter has one other connotation for us all. Yes, you guessed it, the purchase of rabbits as Easter presents for children. What awaits ahead for hundreds, if not thousands, of rabbits is a life of solitary confinement in space you wouldn’t dream of keeping a cat or dog in; condemned to live a pitiful, miserable life confined to a hutch eating inferior ‘junk food’.
Keeping rabbits in hutches is no different than making a human spend their life in a tiny box bedroom. If you stop and think about this image for just a minute it becomes deeply disturbing and upsetting. Can you imagine having to live 24 hours a day in one small space? I can’t and don’t want to.Yet so many people perpetuate this problem over and over again by keeping highly active animals in little more than ‘boxes’.
As I type i am surrounded by house free-range house rabbits. Rabbits who have lived that miserable experience and now have the freedom to come and go as they please. In the wild rabbits will travel up to 5 miles a day and so our domestic companions need the opportunity to travel at will too. (Take a look at this link.) They also need to be able to express themselves when they choose – which is most commonly at dawn and dusk.
We keep our bunnies in a bunny hotel (because we don’t have our own animal centre). Our bunnies come out to play at 7am and don’t get locked away until 7pm a night. But arguably this in itself is not meeting their needs in the lighter, warmer months when the days are longer and dusk and dawn are so little apart, but at least we go a lot longer way than most to meet their needs, and besides, in theory, the bunnies we have are only with us on a temporary basis. Reality, however, is altogether a different matter.
Like many other animal charities we struggle to rehome rabbits. I don’t strictly know why, but I can hazard a good guess as to the reasons why:
1. My first thought is that people are not willing to pay the adoption fee of £35. Last year we reduced it from £40 but it didn’t make any difference to adoption figures. To buy a pet rabbit from a shop it probably costs around £10, maybe £20. But how many of those rabbits will then be vaccinated (£40), microchipped (£20) and neutered (£45 male/£90 female)? Well, I think we all know the answer to that.
2. Housing – we have very strict criteria for how rabbits can be housed with minimum hutch sizes and an essential permanent run attached. I’ve had people in the past argue with me over the dimensions (because their yard can’t fit a larger hutch) or because they aren’t prepared to attach a run to the hutch. People don’t hear the rational explanation for the ‘rules’ and instead just want to hear what they want. When they don’t hear what they want they go elsewhere, buy a rabbit from a shop and condemn it to an inferior quality of life so it meets the human’s needs rather than the animal’s.
3. Single rabbits should never live alone outdoors. Rabbits are sociable creatures that need company; they crave it, just like you and I. Single rabbits kept outdoors alone, unless they have several hours of human company a day are unlikely to have their needs for contact met. Neither is a guinea pig sufficient company for a rabbit; they are entirely different species with an entirely different set of communication signals that neither can read. And all this is without the health/physical implications of pairing a rabbit and a guinea pig.
4. Diet – this is probably my biggest bug bear of all. It’s simple, really, just ask yourself, “What do rabbits eat in the wild?” Are there dried food dispensers? Are there carrot and lettuce patches for them to eat in abundance? No. Rabbits need to eat grass and hay in infinite abundance and not fed bowls of processed dried food. It takes effort to feed a rabbit a proper, well balanced diet, not to mention money. They need to be fed really good quality hay, access to grass or dried grass and a range of leafy green vegetables, and if you really have to, an egg cup full of pellets a day – not muesli mix, not overflowing bowls of dried food, but fundamentally hay!
5. The actual average lifespan of a pet rabbit should be around 8-10 years. I’ve had 2 rabbits that nudged 12, but others that have barely hit 5. The average age of a hutch rabbit, living alone, is around 4. If loneliness hasn’t killed them then it’s likely to be dental disease as a result of a dried food diet or, worse, death as a result of not being neutered (by the age 4 80% of female rabbits will contract uterine cancer).
6. Rabbits are commonly sought after as pets for children and responsible animal charities will not rehome rabbits for this very reason. There are a whole host of reasons why rabbits don’t make good children’s pets but the brief version is best expressed by the House Rabbit Society: “Many people are surprised and disappointed to find that rabbits rarely conform to the cute-n-cuddly stereotype in children’s stories Baby bunnies (and many young adult rabbits) are too busy dashing madly about, squeezing behind furniture, and chewing baseboards and rugs to be held. Also, rabbits are physically delicate animals which means they can be hurt by children picking them up. Because rabbits feel frightened when people pick them up, they kick and struggle which means children can also get hurt Rabbits are also built to react to sudden changes which means they may either run away or try to bite when approached too quickly and too loudly. Stress-related illnesses are common. For these reasons, many children, especially young children, will find it difficult to interact with a rabbit and soon lose interest.”
It’s the loose interest that is the focus of my last point.
7. Did you know there are more than 67,000 rabbits in UK animal sanctuaries looking for homes at anyone time? I think this is a shocking statistic but believe or not it’s actually thought to be even higher. Few people actually do know that they can get rabbits from sanctuaries and so we need to do a lot more to encourage people to go to charities first before stopping in at the pet shop.
The thing is, let’s face it, going to a pet shop is easier, isn’t it. What we all want these days, is an easy life, instant access to things and everything our own way, on our own terms and now. But that’s my point, animals shouldn’t fit in with us, we should fit in with them. We should be meeting their needs not solely having them meet ours.
Caring for an animal is hard work, but it is a privilege that no-one should ever take for granted. I know more than anyone how much work it is, how time consuming and how expensive it is. The estimated annual cost of caring for a cat, dog or rabbit is £1,000.
So, the next time you go into a pet shop and see the baby rabbits on sale I hope you’ll see what I see – a future ahead for those animals that potentially holds loneliness, misery and pain. In my opinion the main reason people don’t adopt rescue rabbits is because they aren’t prepared.
This isn’t a happy Easter for us, and never will be because we will forever be waiting for hundreds of unwanted Easter presents to be freed from their life of misery. To see some of the rabbits we have in our care please take a look at this link, all the rabbits featured have been removed from unacceptable conditions, abandoned or found stray (which often equates to abandonment too).
N.B. The opinions expressed in this blog are solely thos of the author and do not represent the views of RSPCA Manchester and Salford Branch (registered charity 232255) or the RSPCA (registered charity 219099).