The Sheltering Spirit

Like rabbits, animal shelters suffer from public misconceptions. Inaccurate stereotypes of the filthy pound and evil dog-catcher are pervasive. For the sake of the rabbits waiting at shelters, I’d like to dispel a few myths. Whatever their shortcomings, shelters are trying to respond to a disaster not of their own making. Constructive criticism is valuable; blaming the messenger for the message is not.Sad things happen at shelters. Animals die there, of course. Equally depressing is the unending stream of humans who stand at the front counter and dispose of those animals. On bad days the shelter seems to me a place where criminals drop off their victims to be incarcerated and in some cases killed. But the shelter is not a prison. In many cases, the first loving hands an animal meets are those of her caretakers at the shelter. Shelter from the street, from cruel or negligent or simply ignorant humans-it’s less than they deserve, but it’s the most society is willing to give.

Truth and Consequences

“I can’t stand to go there. It’s just too sad.” This understandable reaction keeps gentle, kind people away from shelters, the very humans whom the rabbits there most need. Why is it sad at the shelter? Is it the animals’ fault? No, it’s society’s fault. Who is society? We are, all of us. No one of us is fully responsible, and no individual can make it go away all by herself. But each of us can make a tiny dent in the wall of suffering. It’s not much, a single life, if you think of the millions who are being euthanized, and the millions of others abandoned to fend for themselves, a particular cruelty for a prey animal as helpless as rabbits. Peter Singer, philosopher and author of Animal Liberation, writes, “I tend to think more about the suffering spared rather than the suffering that continues.” As an adoption counselor, I have had numerous people say to me, “I wish I could take them all.” No one is asking you to take them all. We ask only that you add a few drops of courage to your love for animals, if that’s what it takes to come in and adopt. Saving one life may not mean much in the big picture, but it’s everything to that one rabbit.

Another comment heard all too frequently by shelter personnel is “How can you work there? I could never do it-I love animals too much.” The implication is that shelter workers love animals less. In fact, they have taken their love and exercised it. Philosopher Mary Midgley writes, in Animals and Why They Matter, “Compassion does not need to be treated…as a rare and irreplaceable fluid…. It is a habit or power of the mind, which grows and develops with use. Such powers…are magic fluids which increase with pouring.”

Animals at the shelter are often thought of as “damaged goods.” Why would anyone get rid of a perfectly good rabbit, right? Stand at the front counter of any shelter and you will hear why, as the same reasons and rationalizations repeat themselves. Among the top three are “Moving, can’t keep”; “Don’t have time for”; and some behavior problem, such as housesoiling or destructive chewing and digging. The first one means that the human did not take the time and effort to find a living arrangement that included the rabbit-hardly Thumper’s fault. The second also brings us to a human shortcoming, not the rabbit’s. The behavior problems are not character defects of the rabbit but habits that a human, usually inadvertently, trained or encouraged. By not spaying/neutering, you make good litterbox habits impossible for many rabbits. Without toys, supervision, bunny-proofing, neutering, and patience, ragged baseboards and shredded carpets are inevitable. But who pays the ultimate price for these human failings? It’s that poor little lop, sitting in a cage at the shelter, wondering what’s become of his home and family. His only mistake was to have been acquired by a human who for one reason or another was unable to say “till death do us part,” which is what all animals deserve. A more accurate way to think of rabbits at the shelter is that they are hardy enough to survive the series of stressful events that landed them there. The rabbits who are up for adoption have overcome hurdles that many humans would find difficult.

Making a Difference

As relative newcomers on the pet scene, rabbits are unknown territory to some shelters. As their popularity increases, however, rabbits are also arriving at shelters in increasing numbers, and shelter staff are beginning to meet their special needs. Here are a few ideas from some that have developed innovative programs. All it takes is a few dedicated rabbit-people, in many cases volunteers, to begin the process of opening people’s eyes and hearts to rabbits. Because most shelters are struggling to keep up with the flood of unwanted cats and dogs, it’s understandable that rabbits, quiet and for the most part unknown, may get lost in the shuffle. Bear in mind that 15 million cats and dogs are euthanized at shelters in the U.S. every year and you will get a sense of why rabbits need someone to speak up for them in order to be heard above the din.

The first step at Peninsula Humane Society (San Mateo, California) was to bring the rabbits indoors. For years they had been housed in outdoor hutches. By bringing them indoors and giving them litterboxes and toys, the shelter’s education of the public began.

Many shelters charge much lower adoption fees for rabbits than for cats and dogs. If the fee is only a few dollars, the risk increases of impulse adoptions. The Dane County Humane Society, in Madison, Wisconsin, recently increased the adoption fee and gives a spay/neuter coupon that gets adopters a reduced rate at local veterinarian clinics. The Oakland (CA) SPCA now includes a spay/neuter fee as part of the adoption charge for rabbits just as for cats and dogs.

In Austin,Texas adopters must come back the next day to pick up the rabbit. This helps to prevent impulse adoptions, which can be a particular problem with rabbits simply because many people are unaware that rabbits are even available for adoption at shelters. “Well, we really came to get a kitten, but the bunnies are so cute we just decided we had to have one of those.” Shelter workers hear such remarks frequently and know that it means the chances of a good permanent home are slim. Volunteers also bring a portable playpen that is used to give the rabbits some exercise and play time. They have prepared a 5X7″ card that attaches to the cage and contains basic information about rabbits.

The shelter in Madison recently developed a rabbit surrender profile, on which the person giving up the animal provides information on whether the rabbit has lived indoors; has been around other rabbits, cats, dogs, children; what if any veterinary care he has received; how many homes he’s had. This helps staff, rescuers, and adopters to understand the source and solution to any behavior problems.

At both PHS and Oakland SPCA, rabbits are spayed/neutered before they go home to their new family. (For animals who are too young for the surgery, adopters pay a spay/neuter deposit and bring them back when they’re old enough.) This ensures that shelters are not inadvertently adding to the overpopulation problem. It also means that veterinary staff are becoming as experienced with rabbits as with their feline and canine patients. Spaying and neutering are the solution to many of the behavior problems that cause rabbits to be abandoned, so starting out with an altered rabbit means starting out on the right foot in terms of housetraining, aggression prevention, and destructive chewing and digging.

While the majority of adopters are new to rabbits, there are also those who come to adopt a friend for their resident house rabbit. The two California shelters allow people to bring in their (spayed/neutered) rabbit so the rabbits can choose their own partners. Staff are on hand to distinguish between the normal chasing and scuffling of first meetings and a real fight that signals incompatibility.

At Austin, the shelter’s concern extends past the initial adoption. Volunteers make a follow-up phone call to find out how the newcomer is settling in and to answer questions that often come up when the actual rabbit meets the actual baseboards and phone cords of his new home. The New York ASPCA has a behavior helpline that offers advice to callers. The shelters provide extensive written material (including copies of House Rabbit Journal articles), not only to potential and new adopters but to anyone who is interested, which often includes people who already have a rabbit but not much information on how to live peaceably with her.

Adoption Counseling

Sometimes saying no is a way of saving a life. A good adoption is the happiest outcome, but it is not the most common. Rabbits are not for everyone! “My kid’s been begging for one.” “We have the hutch all ready out back.” “I just want something I can cuddle and hold.” The shelters have training programs so that adoption counselors can educate people about who rabbits really are. What’s worse than being surrendered to a shelter? Being surrendered twice, because no one explained to the adopter that toddlers and rabbits are not a good match or that being cuddled and held may not be a rabbit’s idea of a good time. The House Rabbit Society is proud to be part of the education effort at shelters. In addition to HRJ reprints, we have available a free booklet that can help shelters develop their rabbit adoption program.

The animals whom we have designated as pets pay a high price. Nowhere is that more evident than in the kennels and cages of your local animal shelter. If everyone who ever loved one individual rabbit could extend that love to include rabbits as a group, together we would make a real difference. Adopt your next rabbit from a shelter or rescue group. Spread the word to friends and family who are thinking of adopting, whether it’s a rabbit, cat, dog, guinea pig, or rat. Volunteer at your local shelter. If those of us who love animals don’t take responsibility for the abandoned ones, who will?

The information in this article is drawn from the first entries in a database regarding care of rabbits at shelters. The House Rabbit Society would like to hear from all shelters that are dealing with rabbits as indoor companions.

by Amy Shapiro

House Rabbit Journal Volume III, Number 1, Winter 1994