Children across America wait eagerly each spring for the Easter Bunny to pay a visit and leave behind colored eggs and baskets loaded with presents and chocolate-coated confections.
But tradition has a dark side in some cases when a cute, live bunny is among the gifts Peter Cottontail leaves behind for the kids as he hops on down the bunny trail. As often as not, the bunnies intended as pets end up abused, abandoned or dead.
“Ninety-five percent of all Easter bunnies don’t live to see their first birthday,” said Sue Rabeaux, director of the Acadiana Humane Society. “But indoor rabbits, with proper care, can live up to 10 years or more.”
According to the Acadiana Humane Society, domesticated rabbits usually cannot survive on their own in the wild. In fact, it is illegal to abandon any domesticated animal to fend for itself. In response to the problem, the Humane Society started an ad campaign informing potential bunny buyers that rabbits are not an Easter toy but a 10-year commitment.
Wendy Lincoln, director and founder of Magic Happens Rabbit Rescue in Baton Rouge, said far more rabbits are surrendered to that organization or get dumped in parks and neighborhoods in the months after Easter.
“Sometimes it’s right after Easter, because grandparents get their grandkids an Easter bunny, unbeknownst to the parents, and mom says no or someone’s allergic to the hay or something like that.”
Lincoln, who has been taking in rabbits since 2002 and founded the rabbit rescue center in 2004, said there are many reasons people abandon or surrender pet rabbits, including the common problem of the baby rabbits reaching breeding age around late summer and becoming too troublesome.
But, she said, there is always a marked upswing in homeless bunnies following Easter Sunday, which this year will be celebrated on March 27.
“I got started at this when I was working at Petco and I would take care of the abandoned rabbits people would dump there,” Lincoln said. “In high school, I always wanted to do animal rescue, but I never thought I’d be rescuing rabbits.”
Magic Happens Rabbit Rescue has 36 rabbits in its program and boasts of having placed 1,054 bunnies into new homes while having saved more than 1,000 during its 10 years as an organization. Lincoln and her crew of volunteers are preparing for the harrowing task of helping this year’s soon-to-be-homeless hares.
“One year after Easter, we had over 70 bunnies just on our waiting list,” Lincoln recalled during a tour of Magic Happens. “Most of the times they don’t tell us they’re Easter bunnies, but I have a feeling some are because of their age.”
The recurring tragedy hops back every spring, and the bunny body count is prodigious, both nationally and in Louisiana. The negative effects have been felt in Lafreniere Park in Metairie, among other venues.
“Rabbits are just a part of the animal abandonment problem here,” lamented Barry McGuinness, the park’s manager. “I don’t know if it’s a metropolitan New Orleans thing or the whole world, but people abandoning animals is a real problem for our park. We’re just fortunate that we have people and organizations who help us every day.”
In the six years McGuinness has been park manager, he’s seen dogs, cats, chickens, roosters, turtles and rabbits abandoned in the park. In 2010, he witnessed someone tossing an 18-month-old chocolate Labrador retriever out of the back of his or her truck before driving off. McGuinness went on to adopt the puppy, but he and his crew cannot take care of the animals that are dumped there on a regular basis. “We don’t have the resources to care for these animals,” McGuinness said.
McGuinness said he suspects owners don’t want pets to die in a shelter but said releasing them is even worse. Domesticated bunnies dumped in the park face a gruesome death when other animals, some feral, get hold of them, he said.
Magic Happens has a potential alternative before someone goes out and buys a baby bunny for the kids, including participating in one of the group’s foster-to-adopt programs.
“Parents can do a trial run and see if a rabbit is right for their family,” Lincoln said. “Then they should probably adopt a slightly older bunny that’s been spayed or neutered instead of buying a baby. We have a lot of great bunnies that need to find homes.”