Editor’s note: This story was updated on April 19, 2019, to include new information about the Fairfax, Virginia, Petland.
It’s the Saturday before Easter weekend at Petland in Fairfax, Virginia. Sixteen baby bunnies sit in three open pens, all for sale. Two teenage girls reach into a pen, scoop one up, and plop down on the floor, squealing over its cuteness: “I need it!”
The rabbits are all very young. No adult rabbits are for sale here.
“What happens to the babies who grow up before they’re sold?” I ask a salesman. “The breeder picks them up,” he says.
“What does he do with them?”
“I don’t know.”
Rabbits are the third most popular pet in America, after cats and dogs, according to the Humane Society of the United States—and the third most abandoned. Most Americans have a sense of how long cats and dogs live, the kind of care they need, their behaviors. But rabbits? I asked several of my colleagues how long they think domestic rabbits live. “One to two years?” “Maybe three?” In fact, with proper care, rabbits live 10 to 12 years. People’s understanding of them seems to be out of step with their ubiquity.
This disconnect appears to drive impulse pet rabbit purchases, says Anne Martin, executive director of the House Rabbit Society, the largest rabbit rescue organization in the U.S. Because many people think they’re short-lived, low maintenance, cage-bound animals, rabbits are seen as “starter pets,” akin to hamsters or goldfish, perfect for kids. This misconception may help drive a glut of baby bunny sales ahead of Easter—and a subsequent rise in rabbit abandonments.
Jennifer McGee, co-manager of the Georgia chapter of House Rabbit Society, a shelter in the southeastern part of the state, says they normally receive one to two calls a week about abandoned rabbits. But in the six weeks after Easter, the shelter gets three to four calls a day. House Rabbit Society chapters in Idaho and Chicago report a more noticeable rise in summer, as “Easter bunnies” hit puberty and reality sets in for owners.
And here’s the reality: Although rabbits can make delightful companions, they’re not easy-care pets. Vets and insurance companies consider them exotic pets, so medical care can be more expensive than for a cat or dog. Rabbits need a lot of exercise and shouldn’t simply be pent up in a cage. This means they need to learn to use a litterbox (yes, rabbits can be potty trained), which takes patience, just as it does for cats. They’re also prey animals, and we’re, well, predators. They generally don’t like to be picked up by humans; they prefer to be in control, their feet on the ground.
“It takes a patient person to become friends with these silent and subtle animals,” says Margo DeMello, president of the House Rabbit Society.
Rabbits’ complexity means they often face a grim fate when purchased on a whim. Seemingly cute and cuddly, once baby bunnies mature, at between three and six months old, they can become aggressive and even destructive. Proper exercise, litterbox training, and spaying or neutering curbs the problem for most rabbits. But many new owners assume that the undesirable behaviors are the sign of a problem rabbit and get rid of it. Others may do a little research and balk at the time and money it takes to change bunny behavior. McGee says she’s often met with shock and frustration from parents: “What do you mean I have to spend $200 to fix a $30 rabbit?”
ABANDONMENTS: A YEAR-ROUND PROBLEM
It’s unclear how many rabbits are abandoned in the U.S.—and how many are Easter bunnies. There isn’t a central organization collecting data, DeMello says. Most individual shelters track how many dogs and cats are found, adopted, or euthanized, but they typically lump rabbits in with birds, reptiles, and small mammals in the “other” category.
Rescuers in local rabbit shelters from California’s Bay Area to rural Georgia to suburban Connecticut all tell National Geographic that although abandonments spike in the weeks and months after Easter, they’re a big problem year-round.
According to Martin, about two-thirds of rabbits rescued in Northern California are strays left to fend for themselves. In some cities, Las Vegas and Spokane, Washington, for example, public parks and empty lots have become dumping grounds overrun with hundreds of unfixed, unwanted rabbits. People abandon many rabbits outdoors, likely unaware that this is a death sentence. Domestic rabbits lack the survival instincts of their wild cousins, Martin says, and are unable to fight infection, build safe shelters, or adapt to heat and cold.
Shelters struggle to keep up. The Georgia House Rabbit Society gets more than 500 requests a year from owners looking to get rid of their rabbits—far more than they have the resources to save. Edie Sayeg, a rescuer with the group, believes thousands of rabbits are simply ditched outdoors in Georgia.
Elizabeth Kunzelman, a spokeswoman for Petland, a major national pet retailer that sells rabbits, says the spring months are “a perfect time for a child to begin caring for a new pet and learning responsibility.” But DeMello believes this mindset is problematic. “Children, honestly, want something cuddlier and more obviously attentive and are often frustrated when rabbits don’t respond to them the way they expect.” Other pet stores, including Petco and Petsmart, stopped selling rabbits several years ago because of concerns about abandonment. Kunzelman says Petland has a take-back policy for rabbits and other animals.
But two years after I visited the Petland in Fairfax, Virginia, the Humane Society of the United States released undercover footage documenting alleged mistreatment and deaths of rabbits at the store. Fairfax County police investigated and found 31 dead rabbits in a freezer in the store in April 2019. Lieutenant Ronnie Lewis, who oversaw the investigation, says that his team seized the dead rabbits as well as 17 living rabbits from the store. Police placed the surviving rabbits in custody of a municipal animal shelter. All 17 rabbits are now in foster homes and will be available for adoption shortly.
Petland has since terminated its franchise agreement with the store, saying in a statement that the company is “saddened and outraged at this alleged gross violation of Petland’s animal care standards.” The store is now closed. The cause of the rabbit deaths remains under investigation by police.
It’s not just pet stores that promote rabbit purchases. Farm stores, 4-H clubs, backyard breeders, and Facebook and Craigslist users across the country advertise baby bunnies ahead of the Easter season. Suzanne Holtz, director of Illinois-based Bunnies United Network, says these sellers can be even more problematic than pet stores because the rabbits often have a misplaced “halo of rescue” about them. Her shelter will get calls from people looking to surrender a bunny they “saved” from Craigslist, where selling animals is ostensibly banned.
It’s a challenge to discourage people from buying rabbits as Easter gifts without discouraging responsible would-be owners from having them at all, Martin says, because for those who understand how to care for them, they make fantastic pets.
I know: I have two rescue rabbits of my own. Roger, a Blanc de Hotot (a French breed notable for black-rimmed “eyeliner” eyes) was found abandoned in a small cage in a park. Rescued by D.C.-area group Friends of Rabbits, he’s curious, fearless, and loving. Penelope, an English Angora, was found on the street as a baby. A Washington Humane Society rescue, she’s bonded with Roger—they’re companions who groom and play with each other—and is opinionated and ornery. They’re litter-trained, have free rein of our apartment, and bring me and my husband joy every day.