Communicating with Words

Hand in hand with rescuing homeless rabbits is House Rabbit Society’s other mission of educating the public. Over the years, HRS educators, fosterers, and Journal editors, as well as support volunteers and many of our members, have adopted a particular way of talking about rabbits. In our choice of words and phrases, we strive to reflect our philosophy, to promote respect for rabbits, and to do so in ways that are positive as well as accurate.

For example, almost daily, an HRS hotline volunteer must respond to the caller who says, “I need to get rid of my rabbit.” “Why is it you need to find a new home for your bunny?” is a common reply. “To get rid” of an animal, sadly, is a common phrase in English, which even people who love animals have used without thinking, sometimes because they are preoccupied by the situation. Others just don’t think of animals as being important. Although it ís subtle, “to find a new home” for bunny is a first step in reshaping how people think about the rabbit, by shifting emphasis onto the rabbit. It puts out there, to everyone we talk to, our philosophy that rabbits are important.

People tend to be more receptive to learning if what they’re hearing doesn’t sound like preaching. However, focusing on the positive does not mean that we shy away from presenting negative information. Statements of fact often get a message across very clearly. For example: If you put a pair of intact, sexually mature male and female rabbits together, she will (almost always) very quickly get pregnant, or rabbits are the third most common animal at many shelters in the United States.

Breaking Tradition

Often words that seem synonymous carry implications that the speaker may not have intended. The hopelessly negative and out-of-date term of house-broken is being replaced by the more accurate house-trained; after all, the goal is to teach a dog or other animal where it is okay to do what they need to do, not to punish them for needing to do it.

With rabbits and cats, the term is litterbox-trained, since that’s the convenient spot for these indoor animals to go. Although the spell checker has not yet caught up with HRS, we spell “litterbox” as one word, not two. For one thing, we say it so often, it comes out as one word. The other reason is purely practical: space. With only 12 pages to HRJ per issue, every character (letter, comma, blank space) adds up.

Word Choices

Even the name of our organization reflects our philosophy. We could have been called any number of things. But our name is House Rabbit Society. This emphasizes our commitment to the importance of caring for rabbits in our homes as part of our families. It also puts the emphasis on all rabbits, not just a particular special someone.

When speaking to the public, we try to choose our words carefully and precisely, drawing distinctions between words that may seem to mean the same thing, but are really somewhat different. To us, a hutch always refers to an outdoor enclosure, while a cage is usually an indoor enclosure made of metal with a top and bottom to it. Enclosure is a rare word in that it is pretty neutral.

Where do you shop for your bunny’s food? A pet supply store sells pet supplies; a pet store also sells “pets.” Although some of us need to get our hay at a feed store, we don’t call the pellets we feed our bunnies feed, because that’s a livestock term. However, the word pellets can be confusing. It can be what one puts in the bowl or what one finds in the litterbox. Some organic litters also come in pelleted form.

What do you find in the litterbox? Here there’s lots of room for personal choice. Although they do drop lots of ’em every day, droppings just doesn’t do it for most of us. Growing up, I always heard them called jelly beans. Now, I see (and have heard them called) the more visually fitting (though not so edibly enticing) name of Coco Puffs.

Boys and Girls

Readers who are new to the Journal are either a) surprised by the absence of, b) don’t notice, or c) are delighted that HRS does not use the words buck and doe. These are breeding terms. To us, they are boys and girls, males and females. A dog is only called a bitch or a stud when it comes to breeding. Toms and Mollies are used for cats really only when discussing sexual proclivity or motherhood.

Having rescued over 4,000 abandoned rabbits in the last eight years, HRS emphatically discourages letting bunnies have even one litter. “Spay/neuter” is a message we repeat so often some of us may feel we live with an echo. Also, an animal that is “fixed” is not an “it.” Boy and girl bunnies certainly know who’s the opposite sex, even when the ability to become parents is no longer an issue.

Looking over past Journals and handouts may reveal inconsistencies in style. For one thing, some of us are bothered more by some words than others are. Also, how we feel about certain words changes over time. For a long time, HRJ editors made an effort not to call our companion animals pets, because it’s sort of a subservient term. Why? In this culture, most people think of “pets” as being there to serve the human’s needs. When the “pet” isn’t pleasant or convenient, it’s time to “get rid of it.”

At HRS, we strive to help people think about how the world feels to the rabbit. Also, our rabbits are much more than pets; we think, feel, and refer to them as family members, companions, and roommates. We have relaxed a bit about using pet. For one thing, it’s only three letters. And, most people do know it can also mean “that which is beloved.”

A word we do not use is master to refer to the rabbit’s person; that truly is subservient and old-fashioned. We generally use owner to mean the person legally responsible for an animal’s care. It’s only five letters, so sometimes we may use that instead of guardian, caretaker, or human companion.

Bunny Rabbits

So, is there a difference between a rabbit and a bunny, like a bunny is younger or such? Not to us. (A hare, on the other hand, though a close relative, is different.) Just as a kitty can be a cat or a kitten, to us a rabbit is a bunny, whether newborn, adolescent, or senior citizen, and a bunny is a rabbit. *

Beth Woolbright

House Rabbit Journal Volume III, Number 8, Summer 1996