As HRS completes twenty years of service, we celebrate the 20.000 bunnies whose lives were saved, as well as those whose lives were improved by education of their caregivers. House Rabbit Society, as we know it today, is the result of the effort from that went into its creation and, more importantly, its continuation. For those volunteers who are no longer with HRS, we appreciate their efforts at the time they were greatly needed. As they passed the torch to the next generation of volunteers, HRS has enjoyed astounding continuity for the past twenty years. Likewise our first bunnies are no longer with us, but their legacies continue in much the same way that the work of rescuers and the organization itself continues into the next decade.
The Preliminary Years
On December 15, 1985, Bob and I held a book-signing party in our home for the special people who had participated in the first edition of the House Rabbit Handbook. These people were special because they shared a devotion to their bunnies that we didn’t know existed outside of our own home. Some of the attendees-Beth Woolbright, Amy (Shapiro) Espie, Betty Tsubamoto, Ron Westman, and Donna Duguay-continued to keep in touch.
During the next year (1986), we socialized-attending Beth’s birthday party, Amy’s photography exhibit, and Ron and Donna’s art exhibits, as well as frequent get-togethers for dinner. After all, we had rabbits in common. We also boarded Beth’s bunny, Patrick, while she finished her school year at Mills College, so she stopped by often to visit.
During this same time, the response to the House Rabbit Handbook was more than we had anticipated. I became pen pals with several readers, who later became the first members of the yet-to-come House Rabbit Society.
On September 23, 1986, a local animal advocate, Zeida Rothman, called to inform me that four rabbits were going to be euthanized at the Oakland SPCA the following day. That’s when I learned that many shelters allowed rescuers to remove animals whose time was up. We already had Dinah, Dominique, and Phoebe, but I came home with three more rabbits (Zeida adopted the 4th). Bob and I ran an ad in the newspaper and placed all three in new homes. We had a lot to learn about adoption screening, but we think we found the bunnies good homes. Amy was working at the San Francisco SPCA and volunteering at the Berkeley Humane Society as a fosterer. She gave us a lot of tips.
During the next sixth months, Bob and I rescued about ten new rabbits a month. But eventually the bunnies were not going out as fast as they were coming in. Our veterinarian in 1989, Dr. Marliss Geissler, suggested that instead of being private rescuers, we should start a nonprofit to help support our efforts.
It seemed logical that the same group of friends who had worked on the House Rabbit Handbook would comprise the first board of directors. Since we had already put a lot of energy into promoting the idea of “house rabbits,” we all agreed that House Rabbit Society would be our first choice in a name. On October 17, 1987, after the seven of us signed as incorporators, I mailed the application papers and waited.
In December of 1987, Susan Stark volunteered to foster rabbits, after attending one of my rabbit-care classes. During the next few months, Susan became a super rescuer, who took on a great load of foster work. She conducted about five adoptions a month, sometimes calling me in tears after a special bunny went out. “Does it get any easier?” she asked. Susan went on to gain so much fostering experience that she later became our first Fostering Director.
On January 18, 1988 our corporation papers were endorsed, but we still had to be approved by the IRS for our tax exemption. Assuming it would be forthcoming, we mailed our first House Rabbit Journal on May 8, 1988. Bob designed it in a square format the way he had the Handbook, and the rest of us wrote articles. Beth, Amy, and Betty came over regularly to do editing and proofing. How did we know who to mail to? We already had a list of customers who had bought the House Rabbit Handbook. Many had already written to me, requesting a “magazine.” Ironically, the local printer who did our press work, wondered if we would have enough material for a continuing publication. “Aren’t you going to run out of things to say-about rabbits?” he asked.
We also bought a nation-wide mailing list of veterinarians and mailed complimentary copies of the first issue. Handbook readers responded with subscription checks. Veterinarians placed the HRJ in their lobbies, and many of their clients responded. That’s how our membership started. In June, 1988, we received our IRS letter of tax exemption, so the “founding” of House Rabbit Society stretched out over the year.
Branching outside the Bay Area
I had been corresponding with Holly O’Meara of Los Angeles. During the summer of 1988, she joined our editorial staff as a “field editor.” This meant that she had to work by phone and mail because she didn’t live close enough to drive over and word process on my computer (although she has frequently visited). In her article, “Dodging the Bulldozer” (August 1988), Holly described the county’s decision to bulldoze an area of public land, where abandoned domestic rabbits were being kept alive by volunteers who fed them. It was a now a monumental task to get the rabbits moved out of harm’s way. Holly asked for help from HRJ readers in her area, and started fostering rabbits herself. Out of this situation grew the network of volunteers and supporters soon to become the L.A. Chapter of HRS.
In the October 1988, HRJ, we were encouraging people to go out and rescue rabbits from shelters the way we were doing in the San Francisco Bay Area. Susan put together manuals that she mailed upon request. We also encouraged people who couldn’t foster themselves to help the fosterers educate the public. We hadn’t thought much about starting chapters, but this laid the groundwork for their formation. In December, we compiled directories of people within certain geographic areas, who had given permission to be on the list. This was the only way for HRS members to meet each other before the Internet.
Early in 1989 Margo DeMello signed on as a fosterer, after she had read Susan’s HRJ article, “Rescued Rabbits Get a Second Chance.” Margo said she wanted to do something that counted, and she has never stopped doing that. She later became a chapter manager and a national board member (now president) and has co-authored two animal-related books, Stories Rabbits Tell and Why Animals Matter.
We began to get better acquainted with readers from the Midwest. Summer, 1989, HRJ ran a bonding article, by Helen Lau and Franklin Chow of Chicago. (Helen and Franklin were soon to become fosterers.) In October, 1989, HRJ featured Carolyn Long’s bunnies and their marvelous habitat in Milwaukee. (Carolyn later became a sanctuary fosterer for the Wisconsin HRS.)
Also in 1989, Sandi Ackerman began rescuing rabbits in Washington; and Sandy Koi, in Florida. In September 1990, Sandi flew down from Seattle to meet with our local fosterers. Her most ambitious undertakings for the next few years were: publishing Rabbit Health News for veterinarians, a highly valued pre-internet resource; opening a shelter/supply store for rabbits, rodents, ferrets in Seattle; relocating 600 feral rabbits from the Eddie Bauer property to several acres of her own land; and pioneering the first local chapter newsletter with articles that were borrowed by other chapters, as they began to produce their own newsletters.
We started hearing a lot more from Chicago. Anita Richter teamed up with Helen Lau to become co-managers of the fledgling chapter. Their paperwork was amazing. Completed adoption and health forms (better than mine) were submitted to us regularly. They were way out in front with an administrative structure. We felt pressured to keep up.
With the growing need of fosterers and educators to use our name and materials and to belong to a substantial organization, we decided to make it our responsibility to provide that organization. In early 1991 the board approved an official mission statement, philosophy, and a set of policies. On September 23, 1991, Beth, Holly, and I sat down at the “conference” table in my dining room, and we ironed out the details of what constituted a chapter. Basically, it would share our mission and philosophy and abide by our policies and would maintain both a fostering and an education program to serve the local community.
In 1991, Nancy LaRoche set up a foster home in the Denver area. One of her foster bunnies was featured in the Spring 1992 HRJ. In 1992, as told so eloquently in the June ’07 WHRS newsletter, Julie Smith started the Wisconsin chapter, after temporarily fostering Chicago bunnies for Helen Lau. Julie has remained a sanctuary fosterer through seamless transition to the management of George Flentke and Susan Smith. Bob and I were thrilled to attend the first Bunny Day in Madison in 1992, as well as the first Chicago bunny conference.
In May 1993, Holly invited us to her house in Los Angeles, where we met Orange County volunteer Laurie Gigous (who later became a board member and is our current Licensing Director) and Kathleen Wilsbach (who later became manager of the Maryland/DC/Northern VA chapter, as well as president of HRS). Meanwhile, down in San Diego, volunteers were rescuing and educating. They produced their first information-packed newsletter in 1993. Their chapter history will be covered in a future issue.
About this time we were all getting modems for our computers. Sandi kept nagging me to do this thing called “e-mail.” It sounded like a lot of bother. “Is it like a phone conversation?” I asked. “Or do you have to type everything?” Soon everybody was typing, and Chicago volunteer Troy Denkinger set up an e-mail group for HRS educators to communicate with each other.
Education gets a boost
Most supporters were highly focused on rescue. Many asked for pictures of the bunnies they were helping. However, in early 1994, a woman called from Boston, who wanted to make a donation to our education program. As a “techie” from MIT, she was able to explain this great thing called the Internet and even offered to set up a web site for us. Bob and I met Paige Parsons at the January 1995 Macworld Expo in San Francisco.
Paige had the foresight to register our domain name early off and got our website up and running with a prominent web presence. This was the turning point for our whole education program. No longer did we have to mail bulky packets to educators, or answer letters individually on paper, or send out photocopies of HRJ back issues. Articles and FAQs went online. Bunnies still needed to be physically rescued, but many were helped by having their caregivers better informed. The Winter 1995 issue of HRJ boasted of our rabbit information on the Internet and our national network of volunteers.
By the end of 1995, we felt mature and competent enough to hold a very special rabbit-only veterinary conference. After a year of planning and preparation, under the guidance of Dr. Carolynn Harvey, we booked the Berkeley Marina Marriott for March 7-9, 1997. The event was a huge success with over 200 veterinarians attending. We flew in renowned veterinary speakers for the presentations that were videotaped by volunteers. Our twenty chapters were represented in an exhibition room. In addition to the veterinary sessions, in-service classes were given for HRS volunteers who showed up from around the country to help with the conference. Volunteers and veterinarians came together in the banquet hall, where 300 guests were seated for lunch.
HRS’s tenth anniversary year was 1998. We celebrated in August with a high-ticket fundraiser at the Waterfront Plaza hotel in Oakland, CA. By this time we were well underway with a fund drive towards a building purchase. We gave presentations, showing our progress and what our plans were. We were fortunate in having a large attendance of local and national members. Guests from out of state made it a vacation stop, which we hope will be the case for the national events planned for 2008 (be sure to check our website for their dates and locations).
That’s how HRS ended its first ten years on a positive note. Strengthened by the loyalty of our supporters and with the growth of our building fund, we all felt optimistic in moving into the second decade.
By Marinell Harriman
House Rabbit Journal Winter 2008: Volume V, Number 3