It hops about, nibbles sticks and leaves, sniffs the afternoon breeze. Even by rabbit standards, the bunny is little: cup the palms of your hands together, and you could contain its entirety. Fuzzy and white, with black and tan spots, it looks as out of place among the wild brown rabbits that infest Lake Murray’s shores as would a penguin in the desert. And if the bunny minds that cyclists and the like are stopping along the jogging path to snap pictures like paparazzi, it doesn’t show.
“Wait till your mom sees this,” a man on a bike says to his children. He poses the kids on the trail with the bunny in the background. “She’s gonna love it.” But shortly after, the family loses interest and resumes pedaling. Others also move on. The bunny resumes nibbling ditch weeds.
It’s a pet gotten loose, my exercise companion concludes, and it needs rescuing. “Give me your hoodie,” she says. “I know how to do this.” She pounces, and the small white rabbit rockets into the trees.
“I’m sure the lake wardens know about it,” I say. “They’ll trap it somehow.” My friend is dubious. Who knows how long the bunny can survive out here? “Maybe it’ll stay hidden,” I say. I am secretly hoping we won’t see it again.
But after we jog the lake and return to our starting point, there is the spotted bunny, hopping about in roughly the same place. By now, the warm June afternoon is turning to dusk. I walk up the bank, alone, and sit near the bunny in the lengthening shadows. For the next half hour, I tell it mindless things about wild dogs and coyotes. The lights in the parking lot come on. Finally, the rabbit hops over and sniffs. My fingers sink gently into fur so plush I understand immediately why they make coats out of rabbits.
Image by Howie Rosen
Later that night, tweezing bloody ticks from around the thing’s neck in the clinical glow of my halogen desk lamp, I see it: a word has been tattooed inside the rabbit’s left ear. “Stoopid.” Now we’re getting somewhere. A poor choice for a name, yes, but I am thinking that whoever commissioned the offensive tat likely misses their pet. The next day, I cover the floor of the guest bathroom in my La Mesa home with hay. I lock the bunny inside with water and rabbit pellets and drive back to the lake.
“Oh, it’s probably coyote poop by now,” the counter man at the bait shop tells me. “That’s what happens to rabbits that get turned loose out here. They keep the coyotes fed.” Well, not this time, I say. The counter man seems shocked that I’ve caught the animal. As if to explain his jaded attitude, he says, “People let rabbits go here all the time. They just dump any kind of animal off.” A short list of rejected pets includes turtles, goldfish, even frogs and snakes. “You see all those ducks?” He points out the window at a gaggle of large white birds with gold beaks. “Not a one of them is a native.” I ask for permission to post some lost-bunny flyers around the lake, and the counter man writes down my phone number.
Outside the bait shop, a painfully thin man holding several fishing rods approaches. “I overheard you in there,” he says quietly. “We run a rabbit rescue, my girlfriend and me.” He licks his chapped lips. “If you can’t find the owner, we’ll take it.” He licks his lips again. “Okay?” I write down his phone number. Meanwhile, can he spare a loaner cage? No, he cannot.
The receptionist at the Humane Society in Mission Valley politely informs me that La Mesa is not within their service area. I’m told to instead contact either the El Cajon or Bonita shelter to report the missing bunny. There is no room at the inn, otherwise; all three of the Humane Society’s locations are full-up with rabbits.
Calls to El Cajon and Bonita get the same answer: full to capacity, not accepting any rabbits at this time, but do check back. The receptionist at Bonita suggests I place an ad on Craigslist.
“My neighbor lost her bunny a couple of days ago,” says the first responder to my found-bunny-at-Lake-Murray posting. I’d purposely not mentioned the ear tattoo to separate opportunists from the real owner. I press the caller for a description. “It’s little and it’s white, and it has spots with black eyes,” he says. Close, but no cigar. The caller insists that the bunny belongs to his neighbor. He gives me her address. He wants me to show it to her. I do the map math: Does the caller realize that, from his neighbor’s house, the rabbit would’ve had to hop across eight lanes of freeway to get to the lake?
“Anything is possible,” he says.
Another Craigslist responder claims that he, too, saw a spotted rabbit. It had been hopping about his Lake Murray neighborhood during the last week or so. He fed it lettuce. According to the caller, the bunny was very friendly. Then, he says, it just sort of disappeared one day. I ask if it ever occurred to him to call Animal Control — or if pet bunnies simply roamed about loose in his neighborhood. He has no answer to this. Then he says, “I have a video of the bunny. Do you want to come over and watch it?”
An internet search produces a list of local independent rabbit shelters, including the Companion Rabbit Society and the House Rabbit Society (one and the same organization, it turns out). Like their civic counterparts, none of the shelters has room for rabbits, stray or otherwise. I’m told to check back. Meanwhile, why don’t I take the rabbit to a veterinarian to have it scanned? Possibly, whoever tattooed its ear also had it tagged with an identifying microchip.
I purchase a used animal carrier from a thrift store and drive the rabbit to a clinic in Rancho San Diego. A veterinary tech runs a small electronic wand over the bunny again and again, but no dice. “She’s not been chipped,” the tech says. I show her the ear tattoo and she is somewhat taken aback.
“You might,” she says, “call the 4H club.”
According to statistics, says Margo DeMello, rabbits are the third-most euthanized animals in shelters across the country. Raised in Poway, DeMello is an anthropologist/author now based in New Mexico. She’s also the president and executive director of the House Rabbit Society, a nonprofit founded in 1988 that is dedicated to rescuing abandoned rabbits and educating the public about rabbit care. DeMello says that, each year (not counting humane societies or animal shelters), thousands of unwanted rabbits funnel into 30 chapters across the country and into satellite locations in locales as far-flung as Italy and Japan. When we talk by phone, she points out that, while shelter dogs and cats get the lion’s share of publicity, rabbits are the most exploited of all companion pets.
Margo DeMello, president and executive director of the House Rabbit Society
“They are eaten, slaughtered for their fur, and used in experiments,” she says. If you add the word “hunted” to this list, here in San Diego County rabbits are subject to all of the above.
Rabbit-hunting season opens in our backcountry in July; it ends on the last Sunday in January. According to the Natural History Museum checklist of mammals in San Diego County, we have three types of wild rabbits: the desert cottontail, the black-tailed jackrabbit (a type of hare), and the brush rabbit. All are genetically distinct from the strain of European hares we breed for meat, or for pets, or for show.
For non-hunters, fully dressed rabbit meat is available for sale at retail butchers, such as Iowa Meat Farms in Grantville and at Siesel’s Old Fashioned Meats. Rabbit skewers have been offered at the Tractor Room in Hillcrest; ditto for rabbit taquitos at El Take It Easy. But diners at North Park’s Linkery did without rabbit in October due to a late-summer heat wave that affected production at Taj Farms in Valley Center, their rabbit-meat supplier.
Kevin Whaley says that, in the 1970s, San Diego was considered to be number one in the country for rabbit-meat production. Whaley has been building cages for rabbit keepers (among other small-animal enthusiasts) for decades, at his Santee-based KW Cages. KW is featured in an upcoming documentary about the world of show rabbits, titled Rabbit Fever.
Over a quarter-million rabbits are used in laboratories across the country each year, says PETA, as living tests for products and medications. For example, in 2004, researchers at UC San Diego induced strokes in their lab rabbits in an attempt to study the effects of a compound thought to have potential for human stroke victims.
PETA also says that, each year, over a billion rabbits are slaughtered around the world to supply the fur industry. On Black Friday 2012, a local group calling themselves the IDA Fur Free Friday Event marched in Fashion Valley to protest the sale of animal-fur garments, items such as the rabbit vests sold at Nordstrom.
Finally, consider the rabbit’s role as cultural icon, from Bugs Bunny to Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Bunnies to the wearing of a mummified rabbit’s foot as a good-luck token and fairy tales that use the rabbit as a sort-of moral compass. In 1901, a British illustrator named Beatrix Potter wrote and published The Tale of Peter Rabbit, based in part on her own pet bunnies. It became one of the best-selling books of all time. The origin of that most famous of mismatches, Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare,” a children’s classic, dates back to pre-biblical Greece. The Easter Bunny is another thing entirely.
In spring, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus along with the annual return of a rabbit figure with magical properties. In turn, some rabbit breeders ramp up springtime production because baby bunnies at Easter are to the retail pet industry what red roses are to florists on Valentine’s Day: dollar signs. Most of the rabbit advocates I spoke with for this story pointed to Easter as a prime source of eventually unwanted rabbits.
“Easter bunnies grow up,” says Shelly, a San Diego House Rabbit Society volunteer. She prefers not to publish her last name and is private about the number of rabbits she currently fosters for fear of running afoul of zoning regulations in her Spring Valley neighborhood. “When Easter bunnies grow up, they get dumped,” she says.
This is a fact of pet-bunny life that the San Diego Humane Society knows all too well, even going so far as to build a slogan-based campaign intended to dissuade the gifting of baby rabbits at Easter: “Make mine chocolate.”
My calls and emails to three area pet-rabbit breeders were not returned.
“I know whose barn your rabbit came out of,” says Paulette Sauln, the 4H county council president for San Diego. “I’m a volunteer,” she explains. “In the past, I’ve run the small-animal program.” That involves training new 4H club members in leadership and things like showmanship qualities.
She is familiar with my rabbit’s odious ear marking. The animal, she says, was bred by a 4H member in Jamul. “Then it was sold to an El Capitan high-school student. I don’t know the name of the person.” Sauln says she could probably find out if I’m interested. The El Cap student was in an agriculture class and belonged to an organization called the Future Farmers of America. Stoopid, it turns out, was part of a class requirement.
“The rabbit was shown at the Del Mar Fair in 2011 by the student. It was tattooed on the day of the show.” An ID tattoo inside an ear is a condition of showing a rabbit at the fair. “And then,” she says, “it was dumped.”
Dumped? Yes, Sauln says. Dumped. Turned loose to fend for itself. It’s a fairly common solution among students who no longer need a classroom animal or know what to do with it in that circumstance. “I’m pretty sure it was a case of a graduate going off to college.”
Are there best intentions involved — as in, possibly thinking that the domestic rabbit will enjoy living with its wild cousins?
“I’d like to think that, but it’s not the truth,” Sauln says. “They just don’t want it anymore.”
She is quick to differentiate between 4H kids and Future Farmers. “For the most part, the kids who let animals loose are not 4H-ers.” Sauln says that rabbits are the most numerous of the 4H small-animal projects, “because kids can have a rabbit in an apartment.” Some kids have breeding projects while others have meat projects.
Sauln would willingly be part of a solution if only she were informed that the student could no longer care for the animal. “If they’d call me,” she says, “I’d help them find [the rabbit] a home.”
“We found Moe in a plastic Target shopping bag in a parking lot.”
Patricia Mulcahy is president of the San Diego chapter of the House Rabbit Society. Mulcahy once lived on St. Thomas and worked as a sailboat captain. She moved to La Mesa in 2000 and now works as a legal secretary. She’s alert, 50-something, with a plume of frizzy hair.
Patricia Mulcahy, president of the San Diego chapter of the House Rabbit Society
The first thing a visitor encounters upon entering her home — aside from the computerized loom — is a series of wire pet barriers strategically placed to restrict her pet rabbits to certain areas and to keep them from encountering each other. Rabbits chew; rabbits fight.
The first such pet to greet a visitor is named Katie. She’s a large, reddish female of the “silk” breed. Katie is friendly and curious, with big feet and big ears. Two other rabbits, Antonio Bun-deras and Big Buns, live up a small flight of stairs, in a sitting room off the kitchen. They, and Katie, come hopping when Mulcahy raps loudly on the hardwood floor: her signal for a treat. She feeds each a special grain cookie made for rabbits.
An entire back bedroom has been given over to stacks of wire cages. This is where Mulcahy pens her foster-care rabbits. At present, all fosters — 14 of them — are outside on the covered patio, lounging in large exercise pens. They represent a fraction of House Rabbit Society bunnies awaiting adoption.
I meet Walter and Gracie first, then a small three-legged bunny named Shaggy.
“They come in sometimes with a broken leg because the owners don’t want to pay the money to take them to a vet,” Mulcahy says. “In most cases, due to a rabbit’s high level of activity, a broken leg must be amputated, because if they don’t get a chance to set correctly, infection can ensue.”
Clover, a gray-and-white Dutch male is also a “tripod,” similarly abandoned with a broken hind leg. Mulcahy lets him out of his exercise pen. He hops about the back yard at considerable speed, considering his disability, and investigates everything. “We don’t have any problem adopting out tripods,” Mulcahy says. Does she feel a twinge of sadness when they go? Not at all. “I don’t cry. I’m happy. I can’t give them all the individual love and attention they deserve.”
When Katie hops by for a visit, Mulcahy gently picks her up and plops her in my lap. She then explains how the Society’s hotline works. “We get what we call ‘dump calls’ — people trying to get rid of their pets — five to six times a week.” To solve the problem, they try to find out why a caller needs to loose the pet rabbit; in many cases, the best-case scenario is to keep it in its home.
Earlier, when I spoke with Shelly, who also volunteers as a society hotline worker, she told me, “People threaten us. They say, ‘If the shelters are full and you can’t take our rabbits, we’ll set them free.’” Shelly talks about trying to corral six black bunnies released at a Jamul stable and about following up on bunny reports on Cowles Mountain in San Carlos, another popular dumping ground.
“Domesticated rabbits can’t live in the wild,” Shelly says. “For one, there are coyotes, hawks, foxes, and raccoons. Domestic rabbits don’t know how to forage for food in the wild. I don’t think they know how to get water.” Most people are shocked to learn this. “They see wild bunnies, and they think pet bunnies will adapt. We tell them that, instead of turning them loose, [they should] advertise on Craigslist or put up flyers at their veterinarian’s office or in pet shops. We tell them to call the shelters every day to see if there are openings.”
For the record, it’s illegal to turn a pet loose anywhere within San Diego County. It’s considered Willful Abandonment, a misdemeanor offense, according to California Penal Code 597s.
How long do rabbits generally remain in a foster home such as Mulcahy’s? Walter and Gracie, Mulcahy says, have been with her for about a year. Another rabbit remained in foster for five years, or potentially half its expected lifetime. She explains that the society holds two adoption events per month. Adoption chairman Judith Pierce prequalifies prospective bunny adopters. “If they insist on keeping a rabbit outside, we won’t adopt. A rabbit is such a different animal.”
Mulcahy points out the rabbit named Moe in the lot on her patio. He’s the one that survived being abandoned in a plastic bag. Moe is two shades of brown. “He’s been sun-bleached,” Mulcahy explains, a normal condition. “At least the people that dumped him did the right thing. They left him in the parking lot in front of the Pet Emergency Hospital, and they called us.”
Author Dave Good and his rabbit
Something in my attitude is changing. It’s been a gradual turn, not anything I can time-stamp, simply a growing awareness that the found rabbit with “Stoopid” inked into its ear has indeed found a home — mine.
My friends are not amused. “You’re the only single man we know with a bunny.” I hear that a lot, and indeed, the people I meet at the House Rabbit Society, and bunny-owners elsewhere, tend to be women and children. An ex-girlfriend says, “You’re the last person I’d think of that would own a rabbit.”
“It’s a cult,” a fellow bunny owner tells me. We’re waiting in line at the House Rabbit Society’s weekly rabbit-grooming and nail-trimming session at the headquarters in Kearny Mesa. A Flemish Giant rabbit with feet the size of a small child hops about the room, sniffing everything. “Rabbit people,” the woman says, “are a cult.”
I purchase a dog’s exercise pen and set the rabbit up in my office on a square of secondhand linoleum. In time, the rabbit trains itself to use a litter box, gaining free run of the house, which might once have seemed as inconceivable to me as sprouting wings and flying to the grocery store.
I’m still marveling at this transformation — my journey down the rabbit hole, if you will — the day Linda Harrison brings her pet rabbit over for a play date with my little found bunny.
Snow, Harrison’s pet, is a large white lop with bright pink eyes. The rabbit is myopic, somewhat ill-tempered, and a biter. Harrison adopted her for precisely these reasons: she wanted a challenge, a foster rabbit that was undesirable as a pet.
We set up a large wire exercise pen on the front lawn.
“You may get us kicked out,” she tells Snow. This is in reference to the rabbit’s habit of chewing baseboards and door jambs. Harrison is renting a room from a friend while in the process of selling her Mission Hills condo. I mention that her roommate is progressive in allowing her to have Snow there in the first place, let alone allowing the rabbit to roam about the house. Rabbits have chisels for teeth. I would not allow a renter to have such a pet.
“They’ll chew up your stuff,” I say.
“Yeah,” Harrison says in a way that makes me feel small for having had such a thought. “If you place importance on your stuff.”
She tells me that two pairs is the ideal number of bunnies for her, four house rabbits in total. She owned such a configuration when she lived in Mission Hills. When I ask if guests found it odd to see four bunnies loose in the house, she indicates that things were more low-key than a rabbit “outsider” might expect.
“One pair stayed under the bed almost all the time,” she says.
At the Humane Society headquarters in Mission Valley, I meet Dr. Cecelia, who is not a person, but a large and curious white rabbit similar to Snow and named after a veterinarian. This rabbit, it turns out, is the personal pet of education manager Annie Petersen. She, Humane Society public relations coordinator Kelli Herwehe, and I all sit on the floor inside a wire exercise pen. Dr. Cecelia nibbles dried-apple treats. I scratch under her jowls. She grinds her teeth: rabbit-speak for contentment.
I ask what the average stay is for a bunny in the shelter.
“Longer than the average stay for a dog or a cat,” Herwehe says. “Thirty to 60 days on the short end, and, sometimes, as long as a year.”
“Connor was here for a year,” Petersen says. “People overlooked him because they didn’t understand his personality.” He was social and friendly, but in a rabbit sort of way. “He didn’t like being held and nuzzled so much.”
Herwehe explains that there are Humane Society facilities in both Oceanside and Vista, collectively referred to as the North Campus. She’s not sure how many rabbits they currently have under their care but estimates the number at greater than 100.
“In regards to the cost of care, we estimate that basic care for all animals costs us approximately $16.50 per day. This doesn’t include veterinary care, spaying or neutering, the microchip, etcetera.” With medical expenses, the cost can ratchet up to between $500–$2000 per rabbit. “But not less than a couple hundred dollars each.”
Petersen says that a bunny adoption starts with a meeting with an adoption counselor. The process takes a long time, but she thinks it’s paying off. “We have a lower return rate than the national average. If the option is to send a rabbit out three or four times or to keep him for a year, we’d rather let him stay here.”
That philosophy means that the Humane Society is often closed for incoming bunnies. “Right now,” says Herwehe, “at this location alone, we have about 30 rabbits that are ready for adoption.”
“Some breeder in Rancho Bernardo called me and said she was gonna come and kick the crap out of me, if, as she put it, I didn’t call off my hounds.”
Apparently, House Rabbit Society’s Judith Pierce is not a popular person among some rabbit breeders. Volunteers regularly comb Craigslist for listings offering pet rabbits for sale, and, as Pierce explains, “We will tag ads, especially the ones that say they are re-homing babies and they happen to have a lot of different kinds of baby rabbits.” Multiple bunnies in a listing is a dead giveaway of a breeder trying to unload surplus stock.
“You’re not allowed to actually sell pets in the ‘pets’ section,” Pierce says. “That’s reserved for true re-homing.” But unscrupulous breeders, or even pet owners, will lie about accidental pregnancies and attempt to sell their animals online.
Volunteers also occasionally find bunnies for sale at area swap meets; for example, Kobey’s. Pierce says, “We complained about them for years, but I think they still sell baby bunnies. We especially don’t like pet stores, either.” Breeder mills take baby bunnies away from their mothers too soon. “And pet-shop workers don’t know anything about their care.”
Later Pierce says, “Our biggest problem is education. People still think rabbits live in hutches and eat carrots.”
One retail outlet that changed its approach to small-animal sales as a result of the House Rabbit Society is Petco. In any Petco store in San Diego County, one can find pet rats and mice and guinea pigs, and even the occasional chinchilla for sale. But there are no rabbits.
That wasn’t always their policy, explains Paul Jolly, who serves as the executive director of the Petco Foundation. Since their inception in 1999, the focus of the foundation has been on helping animal-welfare organizations via about $15 million a year in donations and grants. Jolly estimates that the foundation has funded various other rabbit-welfare groups across the country to the tune of $1 million to $1.5 million.
As for the corporate decision to ban in-store rabbit sales, Jolly says, “In years past, when someone wanted a rabbit for a pet, there weren’t many options for places they could go. That changed over the years, when more and more shelters began taking rabbits and working with them. Now we promote adoption first.”
The local House Rabbit Society chapter has also been the recipient of Petco Foundation money. “What Judith Pierce has done for rabbits in San Diego appealed to us,” Jolly says. For example, they were given 2000 dollars to purchase a storage shed. At present, the society awaits board approval for a grant proposal that would fund San Diego’s first dedicated rabbit shelter.
At BunnyFest 2012 in Balboa Park, which the Petco Foundation helped underwrite with a $4000 grant, I meet Rochelle Gonzales of Rancho Peñasquitos. BunnyFest is the San Diego House Rabbit Society’s annual fundraiser; as such, it’s a festival of veterinarians, cage-builders, food suppliers, and 600 or so rabbit enthusiasts.
Some, like Gonzales, have brought their pets. She nods toward cages in the shade, in which six small black bunnies cavort. “We had an accident,” she says. “Six accidents.” Gonzales would like to find homes for each. “Not just any homes. Good homes. My husband? He wants to give them to anybody. But I just can’t.”
Roger Gonzales sits in a lawn chair with a tan lion-head lop rabbit in his lap. Of the 13 rabbits in their home at present, Rochelle Gonzales says, “eleven are mine. And two are my sister’s.”
She introduces me to her pets, beginning with a Netherland Dwarf. “His name is Story. I don’t trust this bunny. He’s so smart, he opens the cage.” Lapine is a Dutch. “And we have a blue-eyed bunny over there.” She directs me to a cage that contains an American blue with eyes so startlingly bright it looks as if it’s wearing contact lenses. “He’s my baby.” Gonzales lifts a different Netherland Dwarf, gray, from an enclosure on the lawn. “I watch TV with this bunny on my shoulder.” She demonstrates the position.
Among the enthusiasts at BunnyFest 2012 is Karen Callow. She is 40-ish, has owned two house rabbits in the past, and now fosters a friend’s rabbit. She lives in University Heights. “I’m an occupational therapist by trade. I work with cancer patients.” She tells me a story about a coworker who found an escaped pet rabbit nibbling greens in her garden. “She threw it in the pool and tried to drown it, but rabbits can swim. So she fed it watermelon, to try to explode it. She was a professional,” Callow says in amazement, “who worked at the hospital.”
In 2004, Callow adopted a female rabbit from the Humane Society. “That was the one that destroyed my house.” She says it finally stopped chewing holes in the carpet, but then another problem surfaced: rabbit depression. “I was gone 10–12 hours a day. She stopped eating. Rabbits are social animals, and she was lonely. I took her to the shelter and introduced her to a male.” But when Callow got Chester, the new adoptee, home, the two rabbits fought. “I went to the store for an hour. When I came back, there was blood all over. I couldn’t find Chester. For a moment, I thought she’d eaten him.”
After Chester’s wounds were treated, Callow put them in two separate pens. “Two rabbit pens in my home,” she says in a tone that sounds surprised at the idea.
The female bunny, her depression long since cured by the presence of Chester, eventually died of kidney failure. “I had her for seven years. She was sick for two years before she died. In the end, I had to have her euthanized.”
Chester died suddenly in April 2012. “He had stomach bloat,” Callow says. “He died within 24 hours of getting sick. I spent 700 dollars at the vet for nothing. They stuck an IV in his ear. They gave him an X-ray and pain medications. Warm water. That’s all they did.”