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Why I’m a Rabbit Person

July 31, 2010

Anybody who has spent five minutes with me knows that I have pet rabbits that I adore.  Among my current writing projects (which include a historical fantasy of Minoan Greece and a third edition of my Key West travel guide) is an outline and first chapter of a pet care book tentatively titled The Happy Pet Rabbit: From Head to Feet (And Everything In Between.)

I’ve been keeping, fostering, and volunteering with domestic rabbits for over a decade.  Rabbits are challenging pets, and very few people take the time to learn what rabbits need physically and emotionally to thrive. Those who do find life with a rabbit as rewarding an experience as sharing your home with a cat or dog.

Rabbits have their own unique way of communicating and interacting with the world: once you understand their needs and motivations, body language and gestures, your eyes are opened to their individual personalities. To the observant rabbit-keeper, rabbits display an array of emotional states and personality traits.

Bean, the alpha-bunny of the house-warren, eyes the photographer warily while napping in his burrow.

Did you know that most rabbits are easily insulted? In the wild, rabbit warrens form a hierarchy, which in the home may include humans.  A quick touch on the flanks is an insult: rabbits discipline one another by nipping the flanks and pulling out tufts of fur.  Putting your hand in front of a rabbit’s face is also an insult–unless you are friends with that rabbit. Generally, a rabbit will deal with insults from humans by turning its back or hopping away with a series of foot-flicks.  A very disgruntled rabbit (such as one whose keeper is taking too long to get veggies out of the fridge) may thump its back legs to display grave impatience.

A rabbit’s subtle gestures of affection and friendship may be missed by humans, especially those familiar only with the exuberant, sloppy affection of a dog or the seductive dance-like moves of the domestic cat.  If you ask me, the fact that this small “prey” animal, wired to run and hide at the first hint of danger, can relax at all around big, clumsy meat-eating–humans is amazing. Though some pet rabbits like to cuddle and groom their people, many rabbits show camaraderie in a more reserved manner by nudging their keeper’s hands or ankles with their noses, lowering their heads to be petted, or moving their mouths and clicking their teeth softly while being stroked.

In my experience, the kind of people who love rabbits–I don’t mean people who raise ’em in backyard hutches or breed them for cash or have one that stays in its cage in their kid’s room or a cage in the basement,  I mean people who consider their rabbits part of their family, people who LOVE their rabbits–have an astounding ability to appreciate animals for what they are rather than what they do for humans.  For example, many rabbit people birdwatch and enjoy wildlife watching, while not many rabbit people hunt.

Rabbit people know that Descartes’ view of animals as automatons was disproved years ago.  We are aware that non-human creatures possess an active internal life.  Evidence both anecdotal and scientific supports our belief that animals feel pain, communicate, have reasoning processes and are capable of emotions.

Check out John-Paul Flintoff’s article Do Animals Have Emotions? which appeared in the U.K.’s Sunday Times, or Do Animals Feel Empathy? on Scientific American.  Peruse the writings of Oxford Zoologist Marian Stamp Dawkins or University of Colorado Professor Emeritus of Biology Marc Bekoff regarding animal emotion. If you are unconvinced that animals communicate in depth check out Dr. Irene Pepperberg‘s work with parrots, Dr. Penny Patterson‘s work with gorillas or Dr. Constantine Slobodchikoff‘s decades-long studios of prairie dogs.  Anyone who thinks animals can’t reason better pick up some science magazines like National Geographic and Discover and do some reading about animal intelligence.

"Pardon me, have you brought me any grapes?"

Perhaps because we rabbit people are a minority among all the dog-and-cat lovers of the world, when we meet someone else who keeps house-rabbits, we bond with them instantaneously. I have made lifelong human friends thanks to my rabbits.  I would even argue that my rabbits have made me a more caring person: because of my rabbits, I began volunteering with animals, which led to work with wildlife and a desire to be an advocate for animals and the environment.

I’ve worked with seabirds, raptors, songbirds, shorebirds, sharks, rays, sea turtles, frogs, butterflies, fish, fowl, and iguanas. I have cared for many displaced exotics such as a skunk, a prairie dog, rats, cavies, gerbils, and one beloved Richardson’s ground squirrel.  Rabbits–big souls with big ears– remain one of my favorite animals on the planet, and rabbit-people will always be among my friends.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jackie permalink
    August 6, 2010 8:46 pm

    How validating to hear your words. People are skeptical when I speak of my rabbits intelligence, curiosity, sense of humor/playfuness/bravery I am the only house bunny possessing family member and NOBODY understands my devotion to my beloved Bunny Zoe. They think I am nuts when I say how sensitive she is and how she is affectionate but in her own way (nose nudges on foot, tooth chittering while petted). I find rabbit owners are the ultimate in pet guardians because you have to really make an EFFORT to LEARN the SUBTLY of rabbits ways. So thank you…nose nudges and binkies from me and Zoe

  2. August 7, 2010 4:00 am

    You summed it up beautifully. I wish I could convince more people to just sit back, watch and learn from the bunnies. They have so much to teach… if they would just listen.
    Thanks for being another “rabbit person” that is out to save the world… one bink at a time.

    Double Bunny Binkies to you…
    – Rhonda, BuddyBunny, LucyGucy and all the WildBunnies that have come through my door.

  3. April 25, 2011 7:29 pm

    I second all of the above!

    My Barnaby has more personality than most people =)

    http://irreverentguidetolife.com/2011/04/24/how-to-think-like-a-rabbit/

  4. love bunnies! permalink
    June 18, 2014 9:11 pm

    Thank you for your article! What started as an attempt to have pets when we couldnt have a cat or a dog turned out one of the most profoundly spiritual experiences of my life. Caring for 2 house rabbits (litter box trained with free roam of the house) has opened my eyes to lessens that can be learned from the most unexpected of friends. The lessons Ive learned about love, life, compassion, and simplicity are too many to name here. An example though is my inability to eat any type of meat since discovering that even the most simple of all animals has a distinct and unique personality. Its difficult for others without bunnies to understand how much they have changed my life. I’m so comforted to know there are others out there who have experienced what I have. Thank you for your work and Im looking forward to your book!

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