I remember clearly the warm, sunny morning when the thought about adopting a rabbit popped into my head: my kindergarten students and I were seated in a circle on a large multicolored rug, and we were reading from a magazine created specifically for young children. The pages were filled with large, beautiful photographs.
I turned a page and my eyes riveted on a perfectly adorable chestnut-brown baby rabbit with eyes the color of dark chocolate and big upright ears. Tracing my finger around the sweet-looking nose, my heart caught. Something shifted inside of me. Time slowed.
A rabbit! I’ve never thought about having a rabbit.
Hermit crabs, snails, fish, our hamsters Blueberry and Strawberry: they all had captivated my students and me. And our lovable guinea pigs — Zeb, Henry, and Potato — were very special creatures. Zeb, named after Grandpa Walton of the popular 1970s television series, somehow looked just like his namesake. Potato, whose striking white fur was patched with little tracts of light brown speckles and dark brown fur, resembled a partially peeled potato — or so thought the children who named him.
But a rabbit…in my more than twenty years of teaching I had never considered one of those beautiful creatures for the classroom.
The kindergarteners, finished with the page, squirmed for my attention. I resumed reading, but the photograph stuck with me, especially those gentle eyes.
A few years later, having moved from New England to the low country of the Southeast, I busily prepared for starting in a new school. I didn’t have a classroom companion animal; each of my beloved guinea pigs had grown old and crossed over the rainbow bridge.
Should I get a new animal? As sometimes happens when I’m contemplating an important step, the question silently posed itself time and again.
I reflected on my classroom experiences. Most children love animals and are touched by them in myriad ways. It mattered not whether the animal was furred, feathered, or scaled, each brought a sense of wonder and created a thirst in my students for learning more about the natural world. My responsibility, as I perceive it, is to nurture this thirst while also guiding children in how to love, respect, and care for the other creatures that populate this planet.
And so I considered my options, narrowed now that I had developed an allergy to guinea pigs. I felt a tug at my heart, and the photograph of the brown rabbit — seen several years earlier — resurfaced in my mind. I could still see the gentle eyes and feel the curious energy of the baby rabbit; it was as if the picture was right in front of me. But would I be allergic to rabbits? I wanted to touch one and find out.
Since my knowledge about the small creatures was limited, researching their needs topped my to-do list. Before I got very far, however, a friend told me about some Netherland dwarf rabbits who needed a home.
That afternoon, accompanied by the discomfort of summer’s heat and humidity, I drove along a winding road until I saw the Yard Sale sign. Two teenage girls sat behind a table strewn with toys, books, and clothes from their younger years.
My eyes focused on the bunnies who sat in the shade of the table: little balls of fluff with big eyes that could have melted any heart — as they certainly did mine. The creamy-white bunny with tan patches had a white blaze on her face and blue eyes, unusual for a rabbit. The other baby’s fur was white and a rich brown — like maple syrup; her eyes were dark. Their little ears stood straight up.
My thoughts warred against each other. Taking just one rabbit meant less hassle: less expense, medical care, space, clean up, and other practical issues. But they were so cute together. They snuggled close, each one seeming a part of the other. And they were content — so much so that I felt they needed to stay together. That is what settled their fate, and I took them both.
All the way home, my mind was a whirlwind: Two rabbits — you don’t even know how to care for one. What if they have babies? You’d better separate them to make sure there are no babies. But they’re scared, and they obviously love one another — it would be cruel to separate them. You’d better find out their gender quick! What if you’re allergic to them?
Around and around my jumbled thoughts went.
I settled little Cream and Carmel into a playpen in my bedroom, relieved that I didn’t break out in a rash when I handled them. Sitting on the floor, I admired my newest family members. Cream’s lustrous fur included tan patches tinged with grey. Carmel’s beautiful coloring and big innocent eyes reminded me of a deer.
The two sat together, delicate noses twitching. Suddenly, in what seemed like one fluid motion, they stood on their hind legs, looking about.
“Hey you two, here are a couple of house rules: You can explore and romp around the house after you are neutered and litter trained. And there are lots of nooks and crannies, so I’ll go along to supervise.”
That night, they introduced me to a sound of comfort and joy: the two of them happily running to and fro. I would hear them when I awoke, and I never failed to smile as I drifted off again to sleep.
Researching rabbit care became a top priority, as was finding out their gender. What a relief to discover they were the same sex — no worry about babies. Whereas they had been frisky with one another prior to the spay, after the operation they settled into a gentle camaraderie. Litter training became easier as well.
Meanwhile, my kindergarten students were impatient for the rabbits’ arrival in the classroom. Even though the children knew the rabbits would live at home with me, they were already talking about “our” bunnies and asking, “When do they get to come to school?”
The kids listened intently as I explained at what times the rabbits would come to the classroom and when they would remain at home (when it was hot or stormy, if a day was going to be unusually noisy, or if we were going to leave for a field trip).
Five-year-old children tend to be very curious, and it seemed they wanted to be told everything there was to know about rabbits. The questions started…and seemed to continue nonstop.
“Why can’t we pick them up?”
I described how the ground-dwelling creatures would likely kick and struggle in fear when lifted off the floor — and that the children would not be able to hold onto the animal. The children’s eyes grew wide as I told them how easily a rabbit could become injured or even die if dropped.
“They’re shy, right?”
I confirmed that rabbits are gentle and shy by nature; the children readily understood because one of their classmates was bashful. The discussion segued into the importance of gentle petting and other actions that would help the bunnies feel safe.
That question yielded a fruitful discussion about the natural diet of rabbits. We talked about hay and that it’s mostly dried grass. The kids wanted to know if they could feed grass from the yard, which led to a discussion about pesticides and how harmful they are for the bunnies. At the end of our talk, the children understood that the bunnies’ only foods would be what I brought into the classroom — and permission had to be granted before anyone offered anything to one of the rabbits.
On and on, the questions came. Each topic about the rabbits, even the importance of washing hands before and after petting the bunnies, became a good learning experience.
Our task of setting up the housing turned into a noisy, boisterous time! I set the large rabbit cage on top of a waist-high bookcase, located near the entrance to the classroom. A water bottle, food dish, litter box, and plastic igloo were put inside. Other essentials such as food, hay, and toys were placed inside a tub on the floor, within easy reach.
The kids had been ready for a while, and now so was the classroom!
Arriving early the next day, I took the rabbits from the carrier and settled them into their spacious classroom space. They were already familiar with it, having played inside the cage at home.
Soon, children began rushing into the room, screeching to a halt in front of the rabbits’ house. Cream climbed her front paws up the side of the cage, wanting to get closer to the children. Carmel, more hesitant, sidled into place behind her sister.
Over the next few weeks, the youngsters — both the children and rabbits — got to know one another. I loved to hear my students talk about how different the rabbits were from one another — such an important lesson, knowing that each has a unique personality, just as humans do.
We settled into a classroom routine and when we finished lessons early, the end of the day became our favorite talking time. The children and I sat on the floor in a circle; the rabbits occupied the center. Cream hopped around, visiting students or standing on her hind legs to sniff the air or to rub noses with a child who bent over to look more closely at her. In contrast, Carmel sat quietly, snuggled against a child’s legs. She would seldom take a sprig of parsley from anyone’s hand, whereas Cream always would. Our special circle time highlighted the temperamental differences of the two bunnies, a fact the kids marveled at and learned from.
My heart swelled with awe as I watched my young students: they knew to remain seated and let the rabbits come to them. The children remembered our talks about how, from the bunnies’ point of view, it was like hopping around in the land of giants. My little kindergartners got such a big kick out of thinking of themselves as giants. They had very quickly grasped the need to treat the Netherland dwarfs with gentle care.
Toward the end of each school day, the rabbits rested safely inside the cage while the children gathered up their belongings. The kids lined up, saying goodbye to their cherished bunnies before exiting the room. Cream hopped down from her lookout spot atop the plastic igloo to stand on her hind legs, sniffing the hair of any child who stepped close to the cage. Carmel remained in the background, content to let her outgoing sister share the goodbyes.
Before she reached her six-month birthday, Cream developed eye problems. She racked up quite a few veterinary bills, including a visit to a veterinary ophthalmology specialist who diagnosed unusual eye ulcers. To maintain eye health, Cream came to need two kinds of eye drops — an antibiotic and artificial tears — administered three times daily. My students were worried that something bad might happen to their beloved bunny. I assured them that the eye drops helped Cream feel better, and that I would contact the vet if she needed additional help.
The children began a vigilant watch over Cream, telling me if her eyes were starting to close, a telltale sign that eye drops were needed. The kindergartners learned that if Cream was not feeling well, she and Carmel would not come into the classroom that day — the two bonded sisters would not be separated. Through all of this, the children learned the important lesson that the animals’ health and well-being are always a priority. In turn, the children have become extra careful with and protective of Cream, teaching classroom newcomers and visitors about her.
Even the seemingly simple task of feeding the rabbits is treated seriously, and obtaining permission from me is the first step. The children know that rabbits can get sick if not fed the right kind and amount of food. If anyone tries to do something that is not okay, the other children immediately put a stop to it. In such a busy classroom, I highly value the many loving and observant caregivers.
Obviously, the rabbits have deeply affected the children, sometimes in ways I’m unaware of. At the end of last year, for example, the children completed a writing assignment about what they liked best about kindergarten. A quiet boy, who eschewed time at the rabbits’ cage or sitting on the floor with them, wrote about how much he was going to miss Cream and Carmel when he went to first grade. Something about their presence — something he could not explain — had deeply touched him. I’m guessing he’ll become one of the regular visitors to my classroom, joining students from past years who come to see the rabbits. The children love to pet them, feed hay, and watch their antics.
Some children like to work on their assignments in close proximity to the rabbits. Other students, finished with their assignments or perhaps returning from the bathroom, wander over to watch the bunnies or enter into silent — and sometimes not-so-silent — communication with them. Without any outside influence, the children develop their own way of being with animals.
There is something that words can’t explain about the nature of rabbits and the feelings they invoke in children, teenagers, and adults. At night, when I carry the rabbits out of the school, students and their parents stop us.
“We’ve heard all about the bunnies,” the adults often say.
“I met them during a conference,” is another oft-repeated statement.
I nod in understanding. In the same way they would introduce a good friend, the children present Carmel and Cream to friends and family members. There is a sense of curiosity and peace that rabbits bring to people. That special essence continually touches our hearts.
In My Classroom: Children and Rabbits
Before bringing rabbits (or other animals) into the classroom, I explain their needs to the children, and this includes talking about what it means to be a prey animal. Safety of the animals and children comes first, and the children know this.
Though I try to keep the discussion focused, I also follow where the children lead me, answering questions that are important to them. When the rabbits are in the classroom, I also observe and follow the children’s responses—doing so addresses immediate concerns and questions they might have, especially ones that may not have occurred to me.
Though it can be a challenge to teach young children to respect an animal’s needs, my kindergarten students more readily reach a level of understanding when they can relate everything back to themselves. As their teacher, I view this as the children’s learning journey, which cannot be taught in a day or week.
One aspect of that journey is respecting the children’s differences and needs. Not all children are animal lovers, so I emphasize that each child has the right to decide how much he or she will interact with the rabbits. Some children are comfortable around the bunnies, some are not. Some children are, by nature, more observant, others more kinesthetic.
Being responsive to the differences in the children is equivalent to respecting the uniqueness of each rabbit. I am always amazed by and appreciative of the children’s openness to such important, life-building lessons.
by Kim Shields and Marie Mead