Working with Pet Stores to Promote Rabbit Adoptions over Rabbit Sales

Jul 10, 2012 by

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Why Work with Pet Stores?

Working with pet stores is a controversial topic that evokes strong emotion on both sides of the continuum. Regardless as to where your emotions fall on the continuum, one important point to consider when working with pet stores to promote rabbit adoptions over rabbit sales: each pet store that has rescued rabbits for adoption, instead of rabbits purchased from breeders, saves lives.

The lives saved include the rescued rabbit housed and adopted in the store as well as the (many) unaltered baby rabbits that would have been sold during the same time period. These unaltered baby rabbits are largely sold to individuals not equipped to deal with hormone-crazed adolescents, unaware that spay or neuter would solve many of the problems they are experiencing. Even when these individuals discover that spay or neuter would solve many problems, many are reluctant to spend $100-250 on surgery for an animal they paid $10-20. Unfortunately, these unaltered baby rabbits are many of the rabbits surrendered to an already burdened shelter system.

How to Get Started

Contact Pet Store upper management. Discuss the benefits of rabbit adoptions over rabbit sales for both organizations.

Benefits to the rescue organization include:

  • Increased visibility for the plight of shelter rabbits
  • Increased visibility (and adoptions) for other adoptable rabbits in the organization and area shelters
  • More shelter rabbit lives saved
  • Decreased shelter surrenders long-term
  • Ability to educate the general public during store hours of operation (see volunteer needs and literature and other materials)

Benefits to the pet store include:

  • Improved public relations with the community – value the adoption option over sales
  • Increased sales of appropriate rabbit-safe cages and supplies
  • Decreased costs for rabbit care – litter box trained rabbits use a fraction of the supplies that unaltered baby rabbits use and eat a much smaller quantity of pellets
  • Decreased staff time for rabbit care – spayed and neutered rabbits do not create the mess that baby rabbits create, freeing staff to focus on other tasks
  • Decreased staff time educating prospective adopters – free on-site educational materials answer many questions to educate prospective adopters as well as help current rabbit owners in crisis
  • No costs incurred with purchasing baby rabbits
  • No costs incurred with veterinary costs if the baby rabbits become ill

Building Trust

Building a rabbit adoption partnership is a new enterprise for many groups – Pet Stores and Rescue Groups alike. The best way to alleviate Pet Store/staff fears is to have buy-in from upper level management and the small animal companion animal specialist first. Discuss the program with top management and the small animal companion animal specialist in the store and answer any questions that they may have. The first store is the longest meeting. After successfully implementing the program in the first store of a chain, upper level managers are on board and things go much more smoothly in subsequent stores.

Having volunteers in the store to interact with the rabbits and answer questions from the general public helps build trust very quickly with staff. Staff learn from the volunteers and really appreciate how passionate they are about rabbits. Often, Pet Store employees are very protective of adoptable rabbits, since they are in the custody of the Rescue Group. Rescue Groups get great feedback on prospective adopters from Pet Store staff as well as volunteers.

Volunteer Needs

Pet store partnerships benefit tremendously from having rescue group volunteers actively involved in the program, especially at the beginning. Appropriately trained volunteers must visit the pet store daily to exercise adoptable rabbits (minimum 1 hour out of cage time), feed them their daily salad, and assess health and behavior. Most shoppers have never seen a rabbit out of a cage. An in store rabbit hopping around an exercise pen, using a litter box, and playing with toys is a great magnet for shoppers.

Some shoppers are captivated by the rabbit and enter the pet pen to interact with him. By observing their family interact with the adoptable rabbit, volunteers provide valuable feedback to the rescue organization.

Volunteers are great advocates for rabbits as indoor companions. Volunteers answer questions from the general public, which present great educational opportunities: rabbits are intelligent, can live indoors as a member of the family, are litter box trained, “binky” when they are happy, and play with toys. Volunteers’ passion helps to recruit the next generation of rabbit advocates!

A volunteer sign-in log is a great communication tool between all volunteers and the rescue group. Volunteers document any observations about the rabbit and escalate to the “Lead Volunteer” or Rescue Group as appropriate.

Groups or shelters that do not have adequate volunteer resources to be actively involved in the program can still participate, however, by putting their efforts into training Pet Store staff to do the socialization, the proper feeding, exercise, and adoptions; Pet Store staff can still refer customers to the Rescue Group for further help.

Providing Literature & Other Materials

Conspicuously posted signs advertise the benefits of rabbits available for adoption. Provide individuals “at a glance” information for the organization by including a website address, phone number, and general e-mail address. The second side of a horizontal sign holder can be used to recruit additional in-store volunteers.

Despite the best intentions of the pet store and rescue group, some individuals want a rabbit immediately. Providing shoppers with alternatives to purchasing baby rabbits helps save lives. A binder of local adoptable spayed and neutered rabbits placed on the in-store living space will enable impatient individuals the opportunity to see photos of many rabbits at one time. These individuals then have the opportunity to obtain a rabbit from another shelter or rescue organization, instead of another pet store, and still help save a life.

Providing a take-home rabbit adoption packet with educational materials enable individuals to make an informed choice concerning a rabbit companion. A two-day adoption process allows prospective adopters time to read the material and ask questions. After reading the material and consulting with the rescue group: all individuals are better educated on the unique needs of companion rabbits; some individuals may decide that a rabbit is not an appropriate companion for their family situation; other individuals may discover that another adoptable rabbit in the rescue group would make a better match for their family situation. All situations presented result in a win-win for the rabbits.

Providing a checklist of appropriate supplies for sale in the adoption packet sets adoptable rabbits up for success: housing, pellets, hay, and toys. Providing the same checklist in store provides a resource for current rabbit owners to make improvements in the supplies that they purchase for their rabbits in residence.

Providing a variety of printed materials in the pet store (outside of the rabbit adoption packet) enables a rescue group to educate the general public about rabbit care, behavior, diet, and veterinary care during normal store operating hours, even when volunteers are not on-site. Examples of handouts include: living with a companion rabbit, housing, litter training, pellets and hay, greens, toys, veterinary care, and pairing rabbits.

Brochures describing the organization increase visibility. Information can help explain the mission and vision of the organization, recruit adopters, members, and volunteers. Including a wish list can help drive donations.

Handling Adoptions

By owning the education and adoption process, the Rescue Group ensures the prospective adopter and rabbit are a good match and are set up for success. A two-day adoption process is strongly recommended to reduce “impulse adoptions.”

Closing the adoption at the Pet Store enables the rescue group to verify that the adopter has acquired the necessary supplies to set the rabbit up for success. Moving the next rabbit into the Pet Store at the time the adoption is closed enables the adopter to see the impact they have to help save additional lives.

Caring for Rabbits in a Pet Store Environment

Work with Pet Store upper management to create suitable housing to mimic an in-home living space. Provide suitable flooring, litter box, a hiding box, and enrichment activities for the rabbits to be happy and healthy. Negotiate with the Pet Store on daily supply responsibility for stocking and payment – litter, pellets, and hay.

Negotiate for Pet Store staff to care for rabbits per rescue group guidance (e.g. litter box piled high with hay, limited pellets, water crock). When rabbits are housed in clean enclosures, they are viewed more positively by the general public as an indoor companion and are more likely to be adopted quickly.

Partner with Pet Store staff to provide supplemental cleaning for in store living spaces. Rabbits appropriately dig phone books, shred cardboard boxes, and chew toys. Cleaning up the “fruits of their activity” demonstrates the rescue groups’ commitment to ensuring the rabbits and the Pet Store are viewed positively by the general public. Supplemental cleaning is especially important during rabbit molts, when hair accumulates in the living space.

Follow through on commitments you make to the Pet Store. If you have adequate volunteers to visit the store daily to check on conditions, exercise or food, ensure that those volunteers indeed make their visit. When a volunteer cancels at the last minute due to a family emergency, and another volunteer cannot be recruited quickly, let the Pet Store know. To maintain a healthy digestive tract and maintain health, request that Pet Store staff feed the rabbit their daily salad.

Costs

Setting up the supply infrastructure to adopt rabbits through Pet Stores can be expensive.

Purchases to directly support the rabbits include: daily greens, pet pens for exercise, sheets to cover the floor, grooming supplies, hidey boxes, litter boxes, a steady supply of toys that will be destroyed, a tote to keep all supplies, and a binder for volunteers to communicate information.

Purchases to directly support the adoption program include: magazine rack to house handouts, folders and copies for adoption packets, horizontal sign holder, handouts (multiple colors recommended), brochures, binders, and page protectors.

Daily costs to care for the rabbits must be negotiated with Pet Store management. If the rescue group incurs costs for daily greens, budget $5-8/week per in-store rabbit.

Getting Your Shelter Involved

Communicate your plan to local shelters. Educate shelters that working with Pet Stores to promote rabbit adoptions over rabbit sales will result in decreased euthanasia due to space, saving shelter rabbit’s lives. An added benefit of the program, which eliminates the “impulse purchase” of baby rabbits, results in long-term shelter surrender decreases.

Partner with shelters. Look for guidance from shelter staff on the best “rabbit ambassadors.” The friendly rabbits that actively seek human affection and interaction and enjoy being petted will be adopted quickly. This will enable the rescue group to save more rabbits over time.

As the Pet Store adoption program becomes more popular over time, the general public recognizes that rabbits have different personalities that are all valued. This results in increased adoption opportunities for rabbits with special needs in traditional foster care.

Teaching Classes

Many Pet Stores offer animal care classes and provide free advertising. What a wonderful opportunity for the Rescue Group to educate the general public on the benefits of rabbits as indoor companions! These classes are great venues for individuals interested in adopting a rabbit who wish to acquire knowledge. The classes also benefit rabbits in their current home, expanding the knowledge of their animal caretakers.

Potential Issues and How to Solve Them

An effective training program is the best way to avoid potential issues associated with rabbit care. Staff turn-over in Pet Stores can be as high as staff turn-over in shelters. To improve care of rabbits, Rescue Groups partner with shelters to educate staff during periods of turn-over. Rescue Groups need to adopt the same operational paradigm with Pet Stores.

Lack of communication between Pet Store management and Rescue Groups is the largest pitfall in the adoption partnership. Maintaining open lines of communication is important at identifying issues and resolving them while they are still small issues.

Potential issues include:

  • Overfeeding pellets, resulting in cecal overproduction: Provide an appropriately sized measuring cup and instructions on the pellet container for each rabbit. Train volunteers to watch for pellets fed in excess and communicate to rescue group. Rescue Group alerts management that staff are overfeeding rabbits pellets. Instruct volunteers to link with staff and discard excess pellets when overfed until the issue is resolved.
  • Underfeeding hay, resulting in smaller fecal pellets: Reinforce with Pet Store staff that hay is the most important part of the rabbit diet and provides an important enrichment activity for rabbits living in the store. Train volunteers to watch for an appropriate amount of hay in the litter boxes, communicate to rescue group if not enough hay is present. Rescue Group alerts management that staff need to provide more hay. Instruct volunteers to link with staff and provide large handfuls of hay during daily run time to supplement until the issue is resolved.
  • Timeliness of litter box cleaning, resulting in ammonia odor: Pet Stores frequently rotate staff caring for the rabbits. Daily litter box cleaning is recommended to ensure that all staff members are accountable for cleaning litter boxes every day. Volunteers should link with staff and clean litter box if ammonia odor is apparent. Alert Rescue Group to escalate to management. Volunteers will continue to link with staff and supplement litter box cleaning until the issue is resolved.
  • (Rarely) Rabbits not fed: Pet Stores usually have a feeding schedule for their animals. Train volunteers to verify that rabbits have been fed pellets. Probe Pet Store management to ascertain whether rabbits have been fed. If rabbits have not been fed, provide pellets and communicate to the Rescue Group. Rescue Group alerts Pet Store Management. Instruct volunteers to link with staff and feed pellets until the issue is resolved.

An HRS Chapter’s Success Story

In January 2005, Indiana HRS (IHRS) replicated an adoption partnership program with Petco stores. This program originated in 2004 through the innovation of Minnesota Companion Rabbit Society Manager, Joanna Campbell.

In this program, Petco has agreed to stop selling baby rabbits, instead housing IHRS foster rabbits in-store. IHRS handles all adoption of Petco adoptable rabbits, which have the same adopter requirements as any adoption from our regular foster care.

The goals of the Petco adoption program include finding forever homes for local shelter rabbits, educating the general public about rabbit behavior and care, and reducing the number of rabbits surrendered to local shelters. IHRS is excited to be part of such a significant program and credits Petco for being a willing and wonderful partner in helping homeless rabbits in Indiana.

We have successfully expanded our Petco adoption program to 5 Indianapolis locations: Carmel, Fishers, 72nd and Keystone, Speedway, and Greenwood. We have successfully negotiated shelter rabbit adoptions at the sixth Indianapolis location, the Northwest store. This translates into the cease of sales of baby rabbits at Petco stores in Indianapolis, the 12th largest city, by population.

Since the inception of the program, IHRS has been able to accept 85 rabbits into foster care for which we did not otherwise have space. For these 85 rabbits:

  • 70 have found forever homes
  • 9 are in stores waiting to find their forever homes
  • 6 are waiting for their spot as soon as space is available

The cooperation of local shelters and rescue groups has made this program possible. Our rescue partners include:

Petco foster rabbit candidates are chosen based on age, health, personality, and appearance. All rabbits are spayed/neutered, litter box trained, and examined by an exotics vet before placement in the store. The best “rabbit ambassadors” are chosen for this program, which we find increases visibility for our rabbits in traditional foster care, driving adoptions.

Each in-store living space has a carpeted floor, litter box with rabbit-safe litter and Oxbow hay, fresh water and pellets, hiding box, and toys. Petco staff provides daily care by feeding pellets, changing water, and cleaning litter boxes. The success of this program would not be possible without the tireless dedication of our in-store “Bunny Buddies,” who provide daily exercise, 1:1 attention, and daily ration of greens for our foster rabbits. Our Bunny Buddies also answer questions and teach the public what it is like to have a house rabbit. To date, 1500 volunteer shifts have occurred in the stores, representing more than 3000 volunteer hours.

Through the use of free educational materials, we are able to reach the public even when our Bunny Buddies are not in the store. Our educational material is available during store operating hours. The public has taken more than 6000 educational handouts on living with a companion rabbit, housing, litter training, pellets and hay, greens, toys, veterinary care, and pairing rabbits [please place links to our handouts]. Our volunteers answer phone calls and e-mail questions resulting from our literature, answering 300% more requests over 2005.

Building on the success in Indianapolis, we have replicated this program at the Mishawaka location (March 2007). IHRS has the volunteer support to expand the program to the Fort Wayne, Merrillville, and Highland locations. We are working diligently to build the necessary volunteer infrastructure in these cities. We hope to complete implementation in these three stores by the end of Q2 2007.

We look forward to recruiting volunteers and replicating this program in other Indiana cities: Bloomington, Columbus, Kokomo, and Terre Haute. Collaborating with Petco, we hope to complete implementation of rabbit adoption programs in all stores by the close of 2008. This will make Indiana the first state with only adoptable rabbits available in Petco stores!