Great Outdoor Exercise Set-Ups

After going through the adoption screening process and going over all the the reasons why a bunny should live indoors, a frequent follow-up adopter question is, “Can Bunny at least go outside to play?” The answer is, it depends on where you live and on your set-up.

First of all, it’s terribly unsafe to just open the door and let a rabbit outside. A free-running bunny faces severe consequences: risks such as getting lost, getting hit by a car, or becoming a neighbor dog’s plaything. A rabbit’s outdoor running space should always be enclosed and within human hearing at all times. The mere presence of a preditor can frighten a rabbit to death, so vigilence is important. Shade and water should also be provided.

A fenced-in yard may look like a safe environment for bunny to play, but there are many things to consider before bunny ventures outdoors. First of all, rabbits are much smaller than they appear and can easily disappear through small gaps in fences or plants. Parasites such as fleas (yes, rabbits get fleas), toxic plants, and pesticides, are some other dangers to be on the look-out for. Then there’s that natural propensity rabbits have for using their front legs to dig, dig, dig. Though not all bunnies are diggers, you may not know you have a digger until it’s too late.

Depending on where you live, you may be able to get away with merely setting up a tall exercise pen in the backyard (if you’re certain you don’t have a digger). It should also be covered or be high enough bunny cannot jump out-and no items nearby that bunny can climb to assist in hopping on over. Most of the time, though, a lot more planning needs to go into a safe outdoor environment. Keeping bunny in and other animals out are key. Here are some examples of secure set-ups for bunnies to go outside during the day with human supervision.

Enclosed garden

The solution here features chain-link fencing that goes over the top of the entire yard. Debbie and Harry Coplan consulted a zoo architect to design their La Jolla, California, all-over backyard enclosure. It was two (human) stories tall, and the chain link went 4 feet underground. Debbie explains, “We wanted a garden for us and room for bunnies to run free. They actually didn’t need that much space…[but] we enjoyed watching the bunnies run around on their time out of their little areas…. I just didn’t want to have to worry a thing about predators and to give them total room to play. I think the zoo guy wanted it to be aesthetically pleasing, but he knew it had to be safe.”
In photo: rock climbing and hideout caves are offered in this spectacular bunny yard in La Jolla, California. Chain-link fencing arches over the top to keep out preditors. A doorway from the garden allows bunnies access to the house.

Walled, screened, covered playground

Karen Courtemanche of Harvest Home, an animal sanctuary in Stockton, California, built a large play yard for her rabbits, which keeps land predators out. Karen describes it this way: “The solid wood section is 3′ high and has chicken wire sunk into the dirt, which goes 18″ down and 12″ in toward the middle of the enclosure. This prevents the rabbits from digging out under the wood wall. On the upper section we first put up screening material and then covered that with no-climb fencing, which is a heavy metal wire fencing. This way no other animals could come through the top section.”
In photo: at Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary, rabbits can frolic on the hay-covered ground behind a screened wall, with a roof extending over the entire area.

Enclosed courtyard

Margo DeMello and her husband Tom Young had their New Mexico house built in a square donut shape (left), with a totally enclosed courtyard (known as a placita) in the middle. “There are double glass doors,” says Margo, “leading out to thecourtyard from all rooms facing it, so in my office, for instance, as I work, I can just glance to my right and watch everyone play. When the weather is nice, most everyone comes out for much of the day to play, but when it’s really hot or really cold or raining or snowing, just the hardy ones come out.”
In photo: sixty sanctuary rabbits explore their Albuquerque “placita.” Margo DeMello’s indoor-outdoor home-office lets her check the bunnies while working.

Roofed yard with temperature control
Nancy LaRoche describes this set-up: “Here in Colorado, we have two sanctuaries where the rabbits are ‘partially outside.’ One of them is a 100′ x 10′ area enclosed by chain link, set on top of cement that goes down a couple of feet, with smaller mesh around the bottom, making it impossible for animals to dig in or out. (Of course, here, we have really hard clay that makes digging difficult, anyway.) The entire area is roofed and there are all sorts of ‘hideaways,’ providing protection from the elements. In the winter, there are large ‘heat blasters’ and in the summer ‘misters’ that keep the temperatures within tolerable ranges. There are two small heated-and-cooled barns on either end of the area, and if the temp gets really bad, the bunnies are moved into them.”

Large meadow enclosure in hawk area
This could be anywhere there is large open space. Sandi Ackerman of Wash-ington state says, “Our rabbit area is surrounded by chain link fencing, which is then covered with hardware cloth. Wire is laid on the ground and there is sand or straw over the wire… [To keep the hawks and owls out] I’ve covered the rabbits’ area in 2″x2″ netting. That works great, until it snows, and then I have to knock the snow off or it will collapse. Luckily, here in Seattle, we only get snow a couple of days a year.”

Playpens within a fenced yard

The Harrimans use enclosed runs for their bunnies’ outside playtime. The wood frames are 8 long x 3 wide x 3 high, with 1 welded wire over the frames. The hinged tops are covered with heavy ½ hardware cloth. (Corrugated fiberglass panels are laid across the tops on rainy days.) Bob says, “Our latest upgrade is to do away with the wire floors and set each run on a slab of unmortered bricks. Brick surfaces, like concrete, can be hosed down, but the advantage of using bricks-in-sand is that they allow drainage to our nearby trees.”
In photo: hinged tops and full front gates allow human caretakers to walk in with a broom for daily cleanup. This solution works well in small space sanctuaries in a tightly packed urban setting where neighbors looking over the fence can be assured of sanitation.

The playpens offer running room for 3-4 medium-size rabbits per pen. One pen is draped with window screening to protect disabled rabbits who are predisposed to fly strike. Dangers don’t come just from mammals and birds. Flies exist in all parts of the world, and some areas have mosquitoes that carry the deadly-to-rabbits myxomatosis disease. In these areas, HRS suggests covering enclosures in screen or mosquito netting-or not letting bunnies go outdoors at all. In photo: Getting there is half the fun. Exercise is guaranteed when bunnies must hop to and from their runs.

Outside vs. In
Why go to the bother of setting up an outdoor play yard? House rabbits don’t have to go outside. But rabbits are intelligent animals who appreciate variety. Part of their daily exercise is the process of getting in and out of their regular enclosure, so they can kick up their heels. As an alternative to going outdoors, an indoor exercise pen, a bunnyproof room, or a long hallway works just as well.

By Beth Woolbright

House Rabbit Journal Summer/Fall 2006: Volume V, Number 1