The Volunteering Spirit

First, the good news: There’s a place, not far from you, where you can get your Ph.D. in Rabbit, by studying with the experts; meet humans who care, passionately, for and about animals; save lives; and increase your compassion budget as you spend it. The sad news is that the number of rabbits being abandoned at animal shelters across the country is increasing rapidly.1 While their numbers are not yet in the millions, every life wasted marks a great loss. Here’s some more good news: By getting involved with the animal shelters in your area, you can make a difference. Volunteers all across the country are saving lives every day.

Getting to Know Them

The term animal shelter encompasses a wide range of organizations. Like the House Rabbit Society, humane societies and SPCAs are private, nonprofit groups. They may or may not also have the city or county contract for animal control. Animal control means the enforcement of local ordinances relating to animals, such as leash laws, licensing, and responsibility for strays. If the humane society or SPCA does not “do” animal control, the city or county will have its own shelter and animal-control officers — commonly and derogatorily called the “pound” and the “dog-catcher.” City/county shelters may be run by the police department or the health department, or the city/county may have a separate animal-control department. Sound confusing? But wait; there’s more. Local SPCAs have no official connection with one another. They vary widely in their facilities and policies. They are not branches of some national organization, nor are humane societies linked in any way.

Your local shelters may fit any or all or none of these descriptions. They may have a well-organized volunteer program or none at all. They may have more rabbits than they can handle, or they may not accept rabbits. Most shelters do use volunteers, and in urban or suburban areas most accept rabbits. The first step is to find out about current volunteer positions available at the shelters in your area. This will vary from shelter to shelter but generally includes cleaning chores such as laundry, litterbox, and cage-and-run cleaning; exercising dogs; grooming/bathing; office work such as photo-copying, collating, and filing; assisting at the infirmary or spay/neuter clinic; and participating in fund-raising events. If there are no programs related directly to caring for rabbits, you have two options. The first is to volunteer anyway. You will get to know shelter operations and staff, and you will be helping the other creatures at the shelter. Another option is to donate rabbit supplies such as educational materials, fresh vegetables, grass hay, and toys. The House Rabbit Society has a wide variety of hand-outs on rabbit care, available at our website (www. or from our local chapters or educators. Most shelters welcome donations; if your offer is not accepted, come in once or twice a week just to visit the rabbits. “The best way to get the trust of the shelter is to be regular and reliable, and to help without criticism or demand for change,” writes Julie Smith in the newsletter of the Wisconsin HRS. “Remember that the staff has many animals to care for and that change comes slowly, occurring as people see the rabbits in new ways as a result of your work with them.”

Even if the shelter is not well managed, or not receptive to your offer of help, it’s important to keep in mind that they are not the bad guys. They are trying to clean up society’s mess, and they get very little appreciation for it. People constantly say to shelter workers, “ I could never work at a shelter. I love animals too much!” The fact is that it takes love plus a great deal of courage to face the daily ocean of suffering (with the occasional island of a life saved) caused by human ignorance and irresponsibility.

Seeing Is Believing

Living with a house rabbit has many advantages, one of which you may possess without realizing it. Like Jimmy Stewart in “Harvey,” you see things invisible to others. Looking at a rabbit crouched in a corner of a cage, you can visualize the lively, intelligent, mischievous house rabbit waiting to be set free. You can read rabbit body-language. You know that even in a small cage most rabbits welcome the presence of a litterbox, with the security its enclosing sides offers. You know the pleasure a rabbit feels at being stroked between the eyes. You can share this wealth with others, and the rabbits at the shelter will profit. In the course of cleaning litterboxes or stuffing envelopes, you can talk about rabbits to other volunteers and staff. In time you will be in a position to suggest rabbit-related volunteer work.

Changing the World, One Rabbit at a Time

Most House Rabbit Society fosterers and educators volunteer their time at shelters, in addition to their volunteer duties for HRS. Holly O’Meara, Chapter Manager for Los Angeles HRS, describes the effect of giving shelter rabbits an opportunity to exercise: “We brought pens and put the shelter’s rabbits in them. Several staff members had never seen a rabbit play! One shelter volunteer was gushing over the energy and charm of a rabbit, not realizing he was one of their normally caged and inactive rabbits.”

HRS Fosterer and Educator Linda Oleszko has carefully, caringly built a relationship with Michigan Humane Society. She writes, “I provide bales of timothy hay, fresh weekly vegetables and straw baskets for the rabbits to chew on. I visit every few days and take each bunny out into a large ‘Get Acquainted’ Room, where I lie on the floor and socialize them. Needless to say, we tend to draw a crowd. This year we were featured in the MHS video, because the video crew came in and saw me with bunnies on my shoulders, snuggling up. I make sure to help clean cages when I am there and usually have very thankful staff who are trying to clean cages and take in unwanted animals at the same time. I always clean up after myself, sweeping up stray hay and putting away everything I use.”

I finally figured out a way to bring hay for the rabbits and guinea pigs at the shelter where my husband and I volunteer. Ideally rabbits should have lots of hay, everywhere, so they can pick through it, snooze on it, toss it around, and generally make a Really Big Mess. While this is acceptable in the privacy of our home, such a scenario is not feasible at an institution open to the public. Necessity gave birth to the invention of the hay tube. The hay is stuffed into cardboard tubes found in rolls of toilet paper, paper towels, tin foil, etc., with plenty of hay sticking out from both ends. It is simultaneously loose and contained. Used as both toss-toy and chew-toy, hay tubes enrich their environment and provide needed digestive fiber.

Your contribution to shelter rabbits can take many forms, depending on the shelter’s needs and programs, and your schedule and preferences. Some people find the shelter environment too painful. If so, you may want to donate money or supplies such as blankets, towels, newspaper, office supplies, chow, or fresh fruits and vegetables. Hold a bake sale, and earmark the proceeds for the shelter. Donate copies of House Rabbit Handbook to the shelter library or to be given with each rabbit adopted. Give a subscription to House Rabbit Journal. Holly O’Meara suggests, “Find out the shelter’s needs and ask a business in the community to donate the item. For example, at a volunteer meeting I attended, they needed a banner for an upcoming event.”

“Expect many frustrations, and approach each one with patience and tact, doing what you can for the moment and keeping your eyes open for ways you might slowly and gently increase your activities,” says Julie Smith. “Remember that even if you are going to the shelter on a regular basis only to pet the bunnies in their cages and to take them hay, you are making a difference.”

Amy Espie

House Rabbit Journal Fall 1999: Volume IV, Number 1