A Rescuer’s Worst Nightmare

Rescue organizations structured like ours, with a national network of private foster homes instead of institutions, are at the mercy of a wide variety of city ordinances. In questioning my own city’s planning department, I am told that nearly everyone is in violation of some city ordinance–from where cars are parked at night to how many animals are kept in a city residence. Even in cities where there is no limit on the number of animals kept, a neighbor can complain about nearly anything, such as fur blowing into the next yard or imagined noise (from all those adopters beating their way to our doors to adopt our rabbits). All it takes is one complaining neighbor, for whatever reason, to shut down a foster home.

Nancy LaRoche, chapter manager of Colorado’s House Rabbit Society, has just lived through a rescuer/fosterer’s worst nightmare. However, this story is not intended to focus on the injustice of the complaint but on the ways Colorado House Rabbit Society members, local businesses, and city officials are pulling together to find solutions.

When the Broomfield Animal Control came to check out Nancy’s foster home, they were impressed with the health and cleanliness of the rabbits and with what had been accomplished. Volunteers were coming in Monday through Friday to feed, water, socialize, and groom the rabbits. Four cleaning crews were each responsible for one weekend a month. They were taking the rabbits outside, sterilizing bottles, cleaning cages, and bringing the rabbits in. Most of the neighbors loved watching the bunnies when they were out for exercise and would bring their children to see them. Upon hearing the news that a neighbor had filed a complaint, Nancy was stunned. The animal control officer, not wanting to cite her, tried repeatedly to persuade the neighbor to withdraw the complaint–to no avail. The ninety rabbits fostered at Colorado House Rabbit Society would be forced to relocate. The animal control officer, who had been sent to close the foster home, instead became its first advocate. Impressed by the health, happiness, and cleanliness of the House Rabbit Society facility, she began looking for a new place for the rabbits. Since she was an unbiased party with a professional point of view, no one questioned her judgment when she praised House Rabbit Society’s work.

There are times when the best strategy is to “go public.” Nancy sent press releases to the major newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations. She alerted the Colorado House Rabbit Society members, veterinarians, and shelters as to the situation.

The Bunny Gods at Work

The animal control officer explained to the judge that she didn’t want to cite Nancy for anything and that she wanted the judge and everyone else to do everything in their power to help. This conversation was overheard by a media person, who was waiting at the courthouse. “The idea of the animal control officer fighting FOR us sent her off to spread the word among her media pals,” said Nancy.

Every one of the major TV stations (ABC, CBS, NBC) ran three-minute segments describing the situation. Channel 7 TV had a short spot on its news program, showing the Broomfield foster home and mentioning the need for help. And the Channel 4 interviewer’s comment was especially good: “Although they live in the house with the family, house rabbits enjoy a romp outside, where they should always be supervised.”

Pleas for adopters, land, building materials, skilled labor, and money were widely publicized, and Nancy was invited to several radio talk shows, where she explained what the House Rabbit Society was all about and what its local needs were. Print media also told the story. The Rocky Mountain News and the Broomfield Enterprise printed articles describing the problem and encouraged people to help move or adopt a rabbit.

The results were that several “hard-to-place” rabbits and a fair number of others have gone to excellent homes. The needy bunny count is down to 73 with more adopters awaiting their turn to be interviewed.

Support from the Public

The Willow Run Feed and Supply store has offered free space where the rabbits can stay indefinitely. The duration, of course, would be entirely dependent on the health of the business. The space offered is 67′ x 40′, and the possibilities for the building are: mobile home shell, modular home shell, or wooden shed-like building. Trees, bushes, and grass would be planted; and rabbit runs, built. Half of the building and land would be used as a sanctuary and the other half as an adoption area.

Members of the public have offered small amounts of chain-link fencing, odd bits of electrical equipment, 28 pieces of 40″ paneling (maybe for the inside of the barn). What can’t be used at the new shelter will be sold for fundraising in a garage sale.

Support from the Membership

House Rabbit Society members have been wonderfully supportive. They have taken it on themselves to explore options. They’ve offered to help build and move. “One woman found a small house,” Nancy said, “and talked the owner into donating it if we’ll move it!”

Another is sending for information on “barn kits.” Another is looking into a company that builds plastic buildings and might be willing to put up a building as a demo model. Another found information on a company that makes metal buildings and needs three “demo sites” in Colorado.

Being Civic Minded

Sometimes the cities we live in need to be reminded of the services we perform. The Colorado House Rabbit Society has presented itself to the Broomfield City Council as a benefit to the community that Broomfield should be proud of. Half the local members and five rabbits showed up for the presentation. (After all the bunnies had a lot at stake.) Among the accomplishments, they listed: helping Boulder County reach their goal of “zero euthanasias of healthy animals”; furnishing a learning environment for girl scouts and other young people interested in community service; and providing mutually healthful experiences for rabbits and people with disabilities. They pointed out that several parents have been thrilled to find a place where their kids can make a contribution that they enjoy and that keeps them from boredom and mischief.

Apparently this “human side” of rescue affected some of the members of the city council and the rabbits affected the rest of them.

The City Council, the City Manager, and the Planning Director wound up being extremely supportive. This may be something to bear in mind when we think of our local city officials as “the enemy.” Yes, most cities do have ordinances, but when there’s such overwhelming proof of the good being done, the people enforcing those ordinances may actively want to help find solutions.

Maybe none of the possibilities will pan out, but the remarkable thing is that many of the ideas are coming from the city itself. The biggest hurdle facing the Colorado House Rabbit Society is that $10,000 still needs to be raised to get city water onto the land that will be used for the fostering facility. So there is still a great need for financial support. But when the solution is found, it will be with the city’s blessing.

A Will and a Way

What originated as a disaster has nonetheless turned into a growth experience, and community awareness has been greatly enhanced. When Nancy first notified our home office and the other House Rabbit Society chapters of the plight of the Colorado chapter, we were all dismayed. As events proceeded, we were heartened by the courageous way the challenge was being met and by the unity and support of the House Rabbit Society members. There was never talk about giving up, of getting rid of the animals (other than through adoptions)–no talk of dumping them at the shelter. No compromise could be made to the quality of their lifestyle. Tremendous human effort has been made to save them all. It can be a challenge sometimes to keep animals and live by human rules, but it can be done.

Remember that fact, if you are considering giving up your rabbit because you are moving or because your landlord says you must and you think you have no options. A solution can be found if you work at it and really try.

Marinell Harriman

House Rabbit Journal Volume III, Number 3, Summer/Fall 1994