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  • An Open Letter To Petsmart

    July 16, 2007

    Dear Mr. Moran,

    I am writing this letter in response to PetSmart’s recently announced decision to sell purpose-bred, baby dwarf rabbits in PetSmart stores. For some time now, House Rabbit Society and other rabbit rescue organizations have enjoyed mutually beneficial relationships with their local PetSmart stores, placing rescued and adoptable rabbits through adoption programs at those stores. To say that House Rabbit Society is disappointed by PetSmart's violation of its own commitment to save rescued animals would be a gross understatement. I’m sure you can understand why PetSmart’s decision to sell rabbits feels like such a betrayal, after all the work done by your partnering organizations to place homeless rabbits through your stores.

    PetSmart’s proposed sale of rabbits goes against everything that PetSmart itself claims to stand for. According to the Humane Society of the United States, rabbits are the third most-frequently relinquished species at shelters across the country – a huge, and largely hidden, problem, because many members of the general public are simply not aware of it. PetSmart claims that its sale of baby rabbits will not exacerbate this problem because 1) all PetSmart dwarf rabbits will be spayed/neutered prior to sale, and PetSmart employees will be “trained to instruct the public” regarding their care; 2) PetSmart will perform “customer-satisfaction surveys” after the purchase of a rabbit and will have a 14-day return policy, in case the rabbit “doesn’t work out.” Let me address each of these points.

    1) Although spaying/neutering does indeed prevent further reproduction, it does not prevent – or even acknowledge – the myriad other reasons why so many rabbits end up in shelters. These problems can be prevented only by skilled, up-front screening of all potential adopters by rabbit caregivers with long-term, first-hand knowledge of companion rabbits. This skill is not something that can be acquired overnight. While your sales staff may go through a limited training before being tasked with caring for and adopting out these complicated animals, our own volunteers go through a minimum of a year of training before they are qualified to educate the public about rabbits. Our HRS veterinarians have received substantial additional training and experience with rabbits (since companion rabbit medicine, with rare exceptions, is not part of the curriculum in veterinary medical schools), and as a group, have treated and cared for tens of thousands of rabbits over the last couple of decades alone. It is regrettable that you have chosen to ignore all of this education and experience when considering the sale of rabbits in your stores.

    2) To do its “survey,” will PetSmart contact its customers after several weeks? Months? Years? Throughout the lifetime of the rabbit (up to ten years or more)? In our experience, rabbits can be abandoned due to a change in the owners’ circumstances many months or even years after the initial purchase. PetSmart’s 14-day return policy will simply not provide the window that is needed for all of the PetSmart rabbits that will be abandoned months or years after purchase. Many will be dropped off at animal shelters, where, if not adopted or rescued by groups like House Rabbit Society, they will be euthanized. Others will simply be released into neighborhoods or wilderness areas because of the tragically mistaken belief that a companion rabbit set loose will join a wild rabbit family. Instead, these rabbits fall victim to dogs, cats, raccoons, raptors, and automobiles. Will the numbers of rabbits euthanized thanks to PetSmart’s new rabbit sales program be subtracted from the number of rabbits PetSmart Charities claims to have saved? Will PetSmart agree to take back any rabbit purchased at any of its stores, over the rabbit’s 10-year lifespan? That is precisely what we, and many other rescue organizations, agree to do when we adopt out a rabbit, because it is the only way to assure the rabbit will not end up in a shelter again.

    The HRS members and representatives who have already contacted PetSmart have been given various reasons for PetSmart’s decision.

    We have been told that PetSmart is responding to “market demand:” customers come into a store looking for rabbits, and PetSmart wants to meet this demand. What happens if customers come in asking for puppies and kittens? Will PetSmart let this demand go unmet? Are rabbits less worthy of PetSmart’s protection than puppies and kittens?

    We have been informed that PetSmart made its decision only after consulting with a team of “pet care experts.” House Rabbit Society, the largest repository of rabbit care experts in the world, was never consulted, nor, as far as we know, was any other rabbit rescue organization. HRS not only has more information on the demanding levels of care needed by rabbits than your own staff, but our volunteers know more about the surplus rabbit problem than any pet store ever could, since they deal with it on a daily basis.

    We have also been told that PetSmart selected baby dwarf rabbits as the “best type of rabbit for a family.” This flies in the face of what most rabbit rescuers know from experience, and points to how sadly misinformed PetSmart’s decision is. Baby rabbits – like baby animals of any kind – are more destructive and require much more training and supervision than more mature animals, and dwarf rabbits are often significantly more skittish and harder to handle than larger rabbits. Further, dwarf rabbits have a higher incidence of dental disease due to their small, shortened head shape, and this can mean expensive veterinary care as often as every other month. And finally, the pediatric surgeries that are required to produce sale-ready, baby rabbits may have potentially serious negative health effects. For example, it is known in other small mammals that bone density is decreased when these pediatric procedures are performed. In a rabbit, who already has a lightweight and fragile skeleton, this additional bone loss could be a serious problem in later years.

    Contrary to popular belief, rabbits are not low-maintenance animals. In fact, compared to dogs and cats, they are actually high-maintenance pets. The hundreds of phone calls that we receive every week demonstrate that people who purchase rabbits at pet stores simply do not attain enough information on how to care for them, nor do they commit to the ten years or more that a rabbit will live. While you maintain that your veterinarians will teach your staff about rabbit care, we know that pet store staff, like so many service employees throughout this country, are generally short-term or part-time employees, often teenagers, most of whom have never lived with even one rabbit, let alone the scores that our volunteers have lived with. They simply do not have the knowledge, skills, or inclination to properly educate the public about these complex animals.

    As the world’s largest rabbit rescue organization with a presence in forty states and six countries, and a website that gets over a million hits per week, House Rabbit Society has played the leading role in rescuing and placing abandoned rabbits. In our twenty years of rescue work, we have rescued over 20,000 rabbits, and our members look to us to fight the continued breeding and sale of rabbits, and to prevent as many of their deaths as we can. We are deeply concerned about this issue, since the vast majority of the pet rabbits we rescue and rehabilitate were originally purchased through pet stores and breeders.

    There simply is no excuse in this day and age for a company with a reputation for compassion to continue to sell animals, but especially animals that are abandoned and euthanized at the rate that dogs, cats, and rabbits are. For PetSmart to feign ignorance or imply that the deaths of rabbits do not matter is repugnant to the men and women around the country who have dedicated their lives to saving these animals.

    House Rabbit Society will be informing our members of PetSmart’s decision to place dollars over lives, and will encourage our members and allies to shop elsewhere for their pet supplies. As a national licensing organization, HRS does not prohibit its individual chapters from deciding for themselves whom they will partner with in their adoption activities. We recognize that some of our chapters have built strong and mutually productive relationships with some PetSmart stores, and we will not interfere with these. But as a national rescue organization, we can tell you that many of our chapters do not want to work with any organization that sells or breeds rabbits, and are extremely distressed by PetSmart's decision. We also will be speaking with the many dog and cat rescue groups that PetSmart works with to let them know of your decision.

    In closing, on behalf of the Board of Directors of House Rabbit Society, I ask that PetSmart immediately reconsider its proposal regarding the sale of rabbits in PetSmart stores. PetSmart has honored its policy not to sell puppies and kittens in any of its stores; we ask that you extend the same protection to rabbits, and remember that compassion should not be limited to one or two animal species.

    I eagerly await your response to our request. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need further information or clarification on anything covered in this letter. Finally, if PetSmart executives would like a face-to-face meeting with members of our board, we will go out of our way to arrange this.


    Kathleen Wilsbach, Ph.D.
    House Rabbit Society

    House Rabbit Society is a non-profit rescue and education group.
    We welcome your feedback and appreciate your donations. Please join today!