Citizens of the Warren

Libraries in the homes of rabbit caregivers usually include a mixture of rabbit literature/entertainment, some “how-to’s”, and some health references. In caring for our rabbits and understanding their behavior, we, of course, separate fact from fiction. Rabbits in literature are expected to entertain us rather than give real insight on how rabbits live and think.

Rabbit fiction is, after all, not written necessarily by rabbit experts (unless maybe the writers have lived with rabbits for many years themselves). It is possible, however, for fictitious events to realistically portray life in a warren–because rabbits are social animals, and their cultural composition may at times become surprisingly analogous to that of humans.

Model Communities

HRS fosterers watch rabbits relate to each other within foster homes and sanctuaries, where rabbits who are not adopted through our fostering program live in pairs or groups. In HRS’s larger sanctuaries, up to 25 spayed/neutered rabbits might live in one big, spread-out community, with enough space for each rabbit to find his or her own “niche.” Or they might be divided into carefully matched compatible groups in smaller spaces. We (my husband and I) use baby fencing in our house to divide living spaces for our sanctuary groups.

Outdoors, we have six covered runs with wire floors for daytime activity. We mimic nature somewhat. Our bunnies don’t burrow underground, but they are given large boxes of straw to play in and cardboard tunnels (concrete forms) to run through. These housing/run arrangements are natural enough to allow normal group behavior. In a wide variety of groups spanning quite a few years, social patterns have repeated themselves often enough to be observed.

Rules of Conduct

Our communal rabbits have a sense of law and order. They know furniture arrangements and who their next-door neighbors are. When these things have been misplaced, they set about to put them in order again. While more daring rabbits may at times test their limits, they know, nonetheless, when they are out of line (in someone else’s space). Disputes are over territory rather than food. They would all like to be landlords. You won’t find them snarling over a morsel, as carnivores might. In fact, when a plate of parsley is placed between them, adversarial rabbits may postpone a territorial feud to nibble from the common plate.

When rabbits live together, they form a hierarchical system. Their roles have little or nothing to do with breed types or gender. Leaders are not so because of might but more often for innovative ideas. They are first in line for treats and first to try out new toys. Chief rabbits may also be accepted as authority for reasons unknown to us. Last year, Melanie and Colleen came in as a bonded but somewhat scrappy pair. A third female, Noel, a rescued one-eyed waif, was introduced into the mix. Noel became the leader of the trio-perhaps because she’d had a rough life and knew how to get ahead, or maybe she brought in a worldly wisdom that the others respected. Chief rabbits also demand affection from their subjects. In doing so, Noel has put an end to the bickering between Melanie and Colleen.

Other Public Servants

Besides the chiefs and their loyal attendants, a rabbit community may also have law-enforcement officers, peacemakers and nurses. The duties of law enforcement usually relate to border patrol-seeing to it that no foreigners invade their territory.

Perhaps less recognized in the rabbit community, when one is fortunate enough to have one, is the peacemaker. These are docile creatures with a soothing aura that makes others feel comfortable. We used to refer to our little Lillian as the welcoming committee. Lillian was a small fragile Himalayan who greeted all newcomers, regardless of size, with a few licks on the face. No one ever objected to her courtesy. It was also her instinct, when tensions arose among other rabbits, to place herself in the “line of fire.” She would run to the site of the squabble and sit between the two contenders. How often have human peacemakers provided such valuable service? We’ve had others, not quite so dedicated, but with plenty of good will and a quiet calmness that contribute to a peaceful environment.

Nurses are the most fascinating phenomenon that I’ve seen in a social group. With only one or two rabbits, you may not recognize the traits for a potential nurse. These are simply the animals who show a compulsion to take care of others. I have been blessed with nurses in my rabbit population to help me care for my older disabled rabbits. I can provide clean bedding and meals and medication but not the constant snuggle-up care and grooming that a nurse rabbit provides.

I noticed this trait a few years back in Jefty, a big white New Zealand-Californian mix. I knew that he got along with anybody. When his partner died, I was able to move him easily to other partners. As our sanctuary population of geriatric and chronically-ill rabbits increased over the years, my husband and I were strained for time and needed helpers. Jefty was the first we enlisted. Jefty gave comfort and care to Sieglinda, then Belle, then Ozzie.

Blondie, a sweet golden lop, came into our sanctuary late in her own life. She had never been with other rabbits, but she was a natural nurse. She moved right in with Edgewood and Wilbur, a couple of disabled males, and took care of them until cancer took her life.

Our little gray Dutch-mix Heidi has nursed a total of eight rabbits in the past two years. Taking over with Edgewood and Wilbur after Blondie died, she went on to care for Scottie, Louise, Leonard, and Henry. She is currently administering to Myrna and Richard. At ten years old, she is less mobile herself, but her passion for caregiving has not lessened, as she warms and grooms her friends.

Certainly much of the humanized behavior portrayed in bunny stories is completely fictitious in rabbit communities. On the other hand (and perhaps unknown to the writers), some is incredibly real. While human attributes may often be projected inaccurately onto rabbits, if you watch a rabbit community long enough, you will see that admirable characteristics are not limited to our own species.

Marinell Harriman

House Rabbit Journal Winter 2000: Volume IV, Number 2