Every year as Easter approaches, children want a pet bunny of their own. But then, pet store owners and animal advocates say, it outlives the child’s interest, leaving thousands of rabbits cast away from homes and, if they’re lucky, left in the care of animal-welfare rescues.
At 14 years old, rabbit farmer Anna Underhill of Barberville, 30 miles west of Daytona Beach, knows how finicky children can be, and how accommodating their parents wish to be.
The Easter bunny tradition, Anna said, is quite pagan.
“Easter is the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, but the seasonal chocolate eggs and the bunny who delivers them are nowhere to be found in scripture,” she said.
Anna has a waiting list for her rabbits – it could take five to six weeks – but is careful about who she lets adopt them. Her Chesser Bunnies website states a sales policy in cheerful colors.
“We do not sell our bunnies for Valentine gifts or for Easter,” a blue line reads. The last line, in orange: “Yes, they’re cute, fluffy and sound simple in theory, but they are a serious commitment of a daily responsibility for the next 8 plus years. So please make sure you are prepared to care for your bunny for possibly that long.”
The homeschooled student began raising rabbits six years ago. Now she raises purebred and pedigreed Netherland Dwarfs and Holland Lops on Chesser Farms, where her family also raises cows, goats and more. Her rabbits cost between $30 to $60 each.
But at the Gainesville Pet Supermarket on 13th Street, rabbit prices jump to capitalize on the holiday frenzy, assistant manager Jake Holton said. “They’re $20 usually,” Holton said. “But around this time, they’re $90 because we get premium rabbits in.”
“Premium rabbits,” according to Holton, are smaller and don’t grow as large, making them easier for children to handle.
Sometimes, Holton sees parents looking for rabbits for their toddlers. They put them in baskets to surprise the child on Easter, he said. “What’s a 2 year old going to do with a bunny?” he asked. “I’ll straight up recommend (to store colleagues) not to sell to them.”
Five days before Easter this year, there was one left at his store. The white, dwarf rabbit huddled in one corner while guinea pigs played in the other. A sign read: “Imported from Europe. Bred for calmer temperament.”
At another store up the street, Rural King was sold out of rabbits.
Sarah Preston, an associate director at the national PETA offices in Washington, said “it’s hard to find statistics about the number of rabbits who are abandoned after Easter each year, because there is no central sheltering database, and because many are simply dumped outside.”
Those left to fend for themselves often die from stress, starvation, dehydration or attacks by larger animals, Preston said. As a result, rabbits are considered the third most-surrendered animal to shelters, behind cats and dogs, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Many rabbits are abandoned on roads or in backyards when their “families” decide that they no longer want them, Preston said. Most die within weeks, she said.
Gainesville Rabbit Rescue is caring for 100 rabbits, said its director, Kathy Finelli. Most come from pregnant rabbits that they retrieve from owners who don’t want them anymore.
“We get calls all the time from people who no longer want their rabbits,” Finelli said. “Either their child is going to college, they’re moving or their children lost interest.”
The most common reason: Children realize rabbits aren’t cuddly.
Finelli said children expect that rabbits like to be picked up like dogs or cats. When they realize that a bunny is much more timid, they lose interest. Even worse, children often aren’t gentle enough, breaking the rabbit’s fragile back in their excitement to catch it, she said.
“They can squeeze so hard that bones break,” Finelli said.
Ultimately, the rescue director said, it’s the parents who should be accountable.
“It’s not the animal’s job to teach the child responsibility,” she said.
Finelli suggests that parents take their children to a pet store – and buy them a stuffed rabbit.
“And when they get tired of it after two weeks,” Finelli said, “that’s exactly what would have happened to the real thing.”