Building Bridges: Working with Shelters Worldwide

From the beginning, House Rabbit Society has worked in partnership with shelters. “Our activities began at the Oakland [CA] SPCA,” says HRS founder Marinell Harriman. “They defined us as a ‘rescue group’ before I even thought of starting an organization.” Our commitment to shelters has remained an integral part of our commitment to the abandoned and abused rabbits appearing in ever-increasing numbers at their doors.

Getting There

HRS started with a handful of volunteers in the San Francisco Bay Area. So it’s a special pleasure to share this innovative idea from the other side of the globe. Lara Connor, President of the Australian Companion Rabbit Society and Educator-in-Training for HRS, writes, “We have a ‘Virtual Adoption’ program with a shelter in Melbourne that guarantees a rabbit a place at the shelter until he/she is adopted. Sponsorship costs $100, and pays for spay/neuter and food. Adopters get monthly email updates about their rabbit, and a glossy photograph. “We designed this program for those with more love in their hearts than space in their homes. It is a great way to care for a shelter rabbit, and it encourages people to visit their rabbit regularly, and hopefully spend time socializing with the rabbits and becoming more active as a shelter volunteer.”

Closer to our original home, Donna Jensen of HRS’s San Francisco Peninsula Chapter has been volunteering for 12 years at the Peninsula Humane Society (San Mateo CA), one of the first shelters to partner with HRS. “I have seen the population go from 750 rabbits a year coming in and an 80% euthanasia rate to 300 incoming and an 80% adoption rate. The San Francisco Peninsula Chapter keeps a high profile at the shelter. People know that PHS has rabbits for adoption where before they would go to pet stores to acquire a bunny.”

“Here in Rhode Island,” writes Chapter Manager Pamela Hood, “we have our own shelter, Sweet Binks Rabbit Rescue, for buns to come to once their time is up at area shelters. Many shelters that we work with use our rabbit surrender forms, which is a great help to us in caring for and placing the rabbits. We are often invited to do educational events at shelters in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

“Over time, Sweet Binks has changed the way rabbits are perceived by shelter staff, many of whom had not known about litterbox-training, the benefits of spay/neuter, the importance of indoor housing, and more. One animal control officer came back and adopted the rabbit she brought to Sweet Binks who had been turned is as a stray!”

When the eleventh hour has come and gone, HRS fosterers help share the burden and heartbreak. Joy Gioia describes the Missouri HRS chapter’s involvement with The Humane Society of Missouri. “When there are absolutely too many rabbits to save all of them, they trust our judgment on which animals to keep and which to let go. Last December they had their first rabbit-breeder confiscation. Although they’re highly experienced in such situations with cats and dogs, this was a first for them regarding rabbits. They called us before the rabbits even arrived and requested an HRS volunteer be present to assist with triage. Having an outsider participate in something like this was a first for them.”

A Room of One’s Own

HRS fosterers know that the set-ups we have in our homes for foster bunnies can not generally be duplicated within the institutional setting of a busy shelter.

We work with shelters to design spaces that will meet the needs of the rabbits and their caretakers. In New York, HRS educator Mary Ann Maier writes, “Shelter staff has let me show them cage-set up ideas, with cardboard and grass-mat flooring, a full size, hay-filled litterbox, and bun-appropriate toys. Because space at the shelter is tight, I begged a mini-fridge off my bosses at work to give to the shelter for veggie storage. I can keep a week’s worth there, without using up precious “meds fridge” space. I deliver weekly hay (there is no space to store a bale), weekly salads, washed and packed at my home (so I don’t get in their way at the sink), pellets in a plastic storage bag, and toys changed regularly. A rabbit can thus enjoy the niceties of daily greens, good-quality hay, and assorted toys, while the time and space required for her care is minimized.”

Although critters can be a term of endearment, too often the connotation is of “pests.” In St. Louis, in addition to a thorough make-over, the “Critter Room” became “Rabbits and More,” giving a quiet space to all the easily overwhelmed, often overlooked little creatures. In San Mateo, a room of their own means the rabbits are no longer competing for space with cats. They have a huge play area outside, with tunnels, boxes, tubes, and toys for supervised playtime with volunteers.

Healthy Collaboration

A volunteer at Minnesota Valley Humane Society convinced her veterinarian to donate one rabbit sterilization per month to the shelter. Minnesota HRS expanded that idea to another clinic, so MVHS now gets two rabbits altered each month.

“We have definitely encountered obstacles as well,” writes Joanna Campbell, Chapter Manager in Training. “Shelter staff, with their many tasks and responsibilities, doesn’t always have time to consider changes to standard procedure. It can take a long time to see even a little progress. Turnover of staff can result in significant setbacks, requiring a repetition of previous actions on our part. We have found that patience and polite persistence are essential. It is important to approach shelters recognizing that time is short, money is scarce, people are very busy with basic day-to-day chores.

“It is also important to find out what concerns the shelter staff has and find ways to address those. With one shelter, we were trying to make sure rabbits had hay daily and in sufficient quantity. Animal-care staff was resisting because it was messy and added to the time it took to clean cages. We developed a solution using PVC piping as hay racks which addressed the cleanliness and time issues for the staff.”

Over the years, Frederick Animal Control Center [MD] has made great strides. At one time, rabbits were simply given away, without an adoption fee or any questions asked. They were not on display, and few people were aware that small animals were available for adoption. Today interviews and applications are required, and there is an adoption fee. Rabbits are now only adopted to indoor homes. There are biweekly adoption events in a local mall.

A Dream Come True, A Word Gone Wrong

As rabbits become more popular, they pay the same price as other companion animals: Obtained for all the wrong reasons, they are abandoned when the novelty wears off, or the first vet bill arrives. The lucky ones are taken to shelters; the rest face terrifying and painful deaths by the roadside or in parks and fields. As rabbits became the third most commonly surrendered animal at shelters, our foster homes strained to accommodate their numbers. The HRS Rabbit Adoption and Education Center opened in Richmond California in November 2000. They work closely with municipal shelters in the SF BAy Area. Each intake/quarantine cage is allocated to an Adoption Center volunteer, who acts as primary liaison with a municipal shelter. When a cage opens due to an adoption, Rabbit Center staff call the contact person responsible for that cage. This volunteer then contacts the shelters to which she is assigned, and if there is a rabbit on their euthanasia list, the volunteer arranges transport to the Rabbit Center. If the shelters do not need to place a rabbit, the cage is then opened up for emergency use. Since each of the twelve quarantine cages corresponds with two shelters, the Rabbit Center is now working with twenty-four local shelters.

The unfortunate term “no-kill” has been applied to shelters such as ours. A more accurate term is “restricted admission”. When the 12 intake cages are full, no more rabbits are accepted until a space opens up. Open-admission shelters are forced to euthanize in order to make room for the 6+ million companion animals abandoned every year in the US. Without the dedication and courage of open-admission shelter workers, these animals would have no chance of finding a new home. They would not even receive the heartbreaking gift of a pain-free death.

An end to the killing is the dream of all who care for the unwanted and abandoned. Someday we will get there. Because the opposite of no-kill is kill, this term does great harm. The recent additions of “low-kill” and “high-kill” exacerbate the miscommunication. These terms shift the blame for overpopulation from those who dump their animals to the shelter worker who is forced to administer the sodium pentothal.

Restricted- and open-admission shelters both perform important tasks. With millions of precious lives at stake, there is more than enough work to go round. From Australia to California, from Vancouver to Massachusetts, House Rabbit Society volunteers are helping rabbits by helping open-admission shelters.

Amy Espie

House Rabbit Journal Fall 2003: Volume IV, Number 9