Dr. Gayle Roberts had never seen an injury like the one suffered by a domestic rabbit lying on her operating table Thursday, Aug. 4, at her veterinary office in Irvine.
The rabbit sustained compound fractures of both tibias, forming a kind of odd mobility enabling her to walk on the exposed bones for weeks. The leg wounds were infected. Mites filled both ears. Because fixing the legs would cause too much trauma, she cleaned out the ears and laid-in antibiotics to cure the infections.
But the heart of the white rabbit with black polka dots around the eyes stopped, most likely from a blood clot.
“She was such a sweet rabbit. I thought about adopting her myself,” Roberts said, processing the loss.
The wave of rabbit patients seen by veterinarians, combined with rabbit rescues throughout Southern California, along with calls from owners wishing to return the furry pets, has exploded. It’s the result of a buying spree during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when parents looked for cute companions for locked-down children and teenagers.
Now that schools and workplaces are reopening, many owners are giving them back, overwhelming bunny rescue organizations and increasing the population in some animal shelters in the region. Some owners dump them in parks, neighborhoods or backyards where they are hit by cars, suffer falls or are attacked by predators.
“We are seeing more rabbits than we are seeing cats,” said Roberts, an experienced veterinarian and owner of Northwood Animal Hospital. She does a “Bunny Day” once a week and that usually means caring for 10 or more sick rabbits brought in by rescue groups, she said.
Bunny rescue organizations are swamped with emails and calls from owners of the cuddly pets who say they can no longer care for the animal and want to return it.
“It is so out of control,” said Caroline Charland, founder and president of Bunny Bunch Rabbit Rescue, with locations in Montclair and Fountain Valley. “We can’t keep up with all the calls — it’s all day, every day, nonstop.”
People wanted them during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. “But when everyone went back to work, they didn’t want them,” she said. “People would call them COVID rabbits.”
Bunny World Foundation, an all-volunteer nonprofit based in Silver Lake, delivers16 to 20 rabbits every week to veterinarian partners, including Northwood Animal Hospital and VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital, said Lejla Hadzimuratovic, president and founder.
That is just a tiny blip on the bunny overpopulation chart.
Her group rescues bunnies from city shelters and from individuals to prevent them from being euthanized or injured, then tries to match them with responsible owners — after getting the rabbits spayed and neutered. In an average year, the group rescues 1,000 bunnies. This year, the group anticipates taking in 1,500, Hadzimuratovic estimated.
“We’ve been doing this since 2008 and this is the worst year ever,” she said. “We are all losing our minds right now.”
Los Angeles Animal Services, a city agency, reports having more rabbits in their shelters than usual. They have 591 rabbits so far in 2022 compared to 364 rabbits at the same time in 2021, said spokesperson Justin Khosrowabadi in an emailed response.
Why the overpopulation?
Though few rabbit surveys are done, rescue organizations, veterinarians and city and county shelters offer several explanations for the sudden boom and bust cycle.
Most bunnies are obtained on a whim, without realizing the cost of getting them fixed — up to $1,200 — and the need for a habitat and a special diet, Hadzimuratovic said. Domestic bunnies can’t survive outside, she added.
“Domestic rabbit caregiving is a high commitment,” she said. “They are very particular animals and require a four-feet-by-eight feet space. You can’t put them in a cage. They are not a disposable fashion accessory; it is a lifetime commitment.”
Often they’re bought through breeders who do not spay and neuter the animals, rescue workers say. Owners end up unknowingly buying pregnant rabbits, who can multiply every 28 days, producing up to 12 babies per litter, Hadzimuratovic explained.
“Someone called and said I have 40 rabbits at my house — and that is not an unusual call,” said Charland, who said she’s heard of an individual hoarding up to 300 rabbits.
Hadzimuratovic strongly advises against buying from bunny mills. Sales are illegal in pet stores except a few with licenses to sell, but illegal breeders sell them on the street. “They are selling them in high-end places like Beverly Hills and breeding them in Riverside County,” she said.
“The illegal sale of rabbits adds to the pet overpopulation as they are often not sterilized,” wrote Khosrowabadi. Animal control officers are cracking down on illegal sales, he wrote.
Often, celebrities or just lonely teenagers like to show off their bunnies on social media, Hadzimuratovic said. “They got them for their children, or people just get bunnies so they can post them on Instagram. Because they are cute.”
Adoption, foster care
Bunny World Foundation has 300 rabbits in its system and most are living at 180 foster homes. These foster home volunteers take care of the rabbits until they can be adopted. They’re sent to vets who spay and neuter them and immunize them against diseases, Hadzimuratovic said.
They work with L.A. City Animal Services, Pasadena Humane Society, Southeast Area Animal Control Authority (SEAACA) based in Downey, and animal shelters in Mission Viejo, Moreno Valley and San Jacinto, she said.
Her volunteers shuttle rabbits from the shelters to homes, and often to the vet. Roberts said they make the 90 minute drive to Irvine with sick rabbits or those needing routine care. They often hold adoption events in Pasadena, Torrance and Burbank, she said.
The group recently received a $35,000 grant from Petco Love, a foundation. This helps with the veterinarian bills, she said. Over the last five months, the group’s vet bill totaled $45,000.
This handsome Dutch bunny boy is about 7 months old. Blue loves to show off and loves attention. He’s a bit of a mama’s boy and loves to cuddle.
If you’d like to meet Blue, email us at [email protected], or contact us on Petfinder: https://t.co/yfvNmnI15w pic.twitter.com/dM9q74jSNu
— BunnyWorldFoundation (@BunnyWorldLA) August 5, 2022
Finding someone who will take these furry animals is the hardest part of her job, she said.
“A bunny is a mix of a dog, a cat and a horse. They can be as loving as a dog and give you kisses. They have the same digestive system as a horse because 80% of their diet is hay. Plus they are freakin’ adorable,” she said.
But often there are too few homes and too many rabbits. “We can’t help them all. So it becomes a Sophie’s Choice every day. You have to decide who lives,” Hadzimuratovic said.
To adopt a domestic rabbit:
• Call Bunny Bunch Rabbit Rescue at 833-3-RABBIT or go to bunnybunch.org.