The House Rabbit Network

Looking for Some Bunny to Love – Written by Crystal Ward Kent

Rabbits rule at the House Rabbit Network in North Billerica, Massachusetts. Here, the focus is on helping rabbits find good homes, and educating the public about these wonderful animals.  In traditional shelters, rabbits are sometimes overlooked, as people tend to gravitate toward cats and dogs, but here bunnies get to shine.

     Suzanne Trayhan, president, and one of the founders of the House Rabbit Network, has had a long love affair with bunnies.  She was allergic to cats and could not have a dog in her apartment, so opted to get a rabbit.  The more she got to know her bunny, the more she realized that rabbits were often misunderstood. She also discovered that there was a great need when it came to fostering rabbits and helping them get adopted.  Her involvement started informally, as she answered  questions about rabbits, and occasionally helped find a bunny in need a good home. However, her desire to help soon evolved into something more. Despite working a demanding job as a principal software engineer, she jumped in and helped launch the House Rabbit Network.

     “Most rabbits turned into shelters are less than two years old,” she says.  “People buy that cute little bunny without having any idea what these animals are really like, or what their needs are. Rabbits are great pets, but you need to understand them before you bring one into your home. At the House Rabbit Network, our primary goal is to get rabbits into good forever homes. Our second goal is to educate people about rabbits and the importance of getting them spayed and neutered.”

    The Network takes in about 200 rabbits every year; some are housed at the shelter, while others are fostered through a network of volunteers.  Sometimes there are more rabbits at the shelter than initially planned as a surrendered bunny may turn out to be pregnant—which is not unusual. Trying to reduce the influx of unwanted bunnies takes a multi-faceted approach, and tackling bunny birth control is high on the list. “Bunnies have only a 28-day gestation period,” Trayhan explains. “They can also get pregnant immediately after giving birth. Bunnies are also difficult to sex. Many pet store employees cannot tell the difference between males and females, so someone adopts what they think are two of the same sex, and surprise! Next thing you know, they are mating and babies are on the way. Vet care is more difficult since you need to find an exotics vet used to treating rabbits. We have resources that do this.  Overall, though, the best advice is to not get two rabbits unless you know they have been spayed or neutered.”

     Trayhan points out that many parents think a bunny is a great first pet for a child, but this is not the case. “A bunny can live to be eight years old or more,” she says. “If you get a bunny for a child when they are 10, will they still be interested in caring for and paying attention to that bunny when they are 18? Probably not—they will be busy with their lives and possibly leaving for college.  Bunnies should never be a child’s pet, but rather the family’s pet. Everyone should be involved in caring for the bunny and building a relationship with them.  That way, as the child grows up and their life changes, there are still those who have a bond with the bunny.”

Another misconception surrounding domestic rabbits is that they can live outside—a misunderstanding that can cost bunnies their lives.  “Sometimes people think that they can move their bunny outside, to live in a hutch,” says Trayhan. “But this is a bad idea. Even with bales of hay, bunnies can get cold and get frostbite on their feet. In the summer, flies lay their eggs on them, and the maggots burrow under their skin. Predators can also get into hutches. Chicken wire will not keep out a raccoon, and coyotes have been known to jump up and pry fencing loose.  In addition, bunnies are smart and social, if they are stuck outside in a hutch, they are not part of the family.  They are basically abandoned.”

Tragically, some people who no longer want their rabbits as pets, turn them loose, believing that they can survive as their wild cousins do. Instead, this is usually a death sentence.  “If you no longer want your bunny as a pet, or cannot keep the animal for any reason, please, please turn them in to a shelter,” urges Trayhan.  “An indoor bunny cannot live in the wild. They are not the same species as wild rabbits. Wild rabbits are agouti colored, which is a brown fleck that helps them blend in. Our domestic bunnies are not—a white rabbit especially stands out. Basically, indoor bunnies become an easy target for hawks and other predators. Domestic bunnies have also lost their wild instincts and do not know how to hide or forage as wild bunnies do.  Turning them lose is just sending them out to be eaten.”

A Bunny for Everybody

Trayhan currently shares her home with three bunnies, Cadbury, Calvin and Oscar, as well as her Labrador Retriever, Baxter, and her husband, Gary.  “Bunnies can be a wonderful addition to a home and bring you a lot of joy,” she says.  “If you think a bunny is the right pet for you, please know that there is the perfect bunny for every personality.

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“There are shy bunnies, outgoing bunnies, ones that are timid and ones that are bold,” she continues. “There are bunnies who are curious and playful, and others who are quiet and more apt to cuddle. We have bunnies who are active and others who are couch potatoes. We also have ones who are downright mischievous. One of my previous bunnies, Daisy, was very smart and very impish. She knew that if she got into things she shouldn’t that she had to go in her crate. One day, I knew she was into something and I just said ‘Daisy no!’—and she turned and ran into her crate. She knew she was doing something naughty. Two minutes later, she was creeping out of her crate and looking for something else to get into!  I had to laugh—she was clearly making it a game.”

Rabbits are smart and some can be litter-boxed trained or taught to play with balls and other toys.  Most rabbits do NOT like to be held, although many like to be petted and are happy to sit next to you on the couch for some cozy time. Understanding rabbit behaviors will help people build a better bond with their bunny. 

Trayhan and her team are constantly working to raise funds to support the bunnies in their care, and also hope to see the House Rabbit Network have a bigger shelter one day. “We are getting there, but it’s a lot of work,” she admits.  “Still, much as we want a better shelter, my deepest dream is to one day put myself out of business. I’d love to see all these bunnies find good homes and know that our work is done, but in the meantime, I’m happy to do what we’re doing.”

Despite the often long hours, and emotional ups and downs that go with rescue work, Trayhan is motivated to stay the course.  “How can you look at a bunny and not want to help?  The reward is seeing rescued bunnies happy, healthy and safe and know that we can help them find good homes.  We are making a difference and that’s what matters.”

To learn more about the House Rabbit Network, to adopt or make a donation, please visit www.rabbitnetwork.org or call (781) 431-1211. 

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