LOWER KEYS — When Cathy Baier received a call of a displaced albino rabbit living in the woods on Big Pine Key, she sprang into action to deal with a problem that’s multiplying like, well, rabbits.
The little white bunny was marooned in the thick mangroves surrounded by tidal flooding. When Baier, as part of “Bunnies and Buddies of the Florida Keys SPCA” and an animal control officer, attempted to reach the rabbit, it fled further into the mangroves.
“She had no safe place to go. She was in an area where both an alligator and hawks were often seen. It required some very agile athletic skills, but our officer was able to make her way through the water and thick mangroves and finally reach the bunny. This was no easy task and we are grateful to the staff for their efforts,” Baier said.
The white rabbit was brought to the Marathon animal shelter and given the name “Taffy.”
She had a badly infected wound that required surgery, according to Baier.
“Judging by her appetite and her bony little body, it had been a while since she’d had any good meals. She is recuperating now and eating well. Taffy is one of the lucky ones,” Baier said.
There’s a never-ending flow of unwanted bunnies being released into the wild in the U.S. Abandoned domestic rabbits are becoming a problem across the country, Baier said.
“Bunnies are typically ‘dumped’ when they’re no longer the irresistible little babies they once were and families lose interest when the novelty wears off. As rabbits mature, hormonal changes affect behavior and caring for them becomes more challenging. That’s when the idea of ‘setting them free’ often occurs to people,” Baier said. “They’re the third most common animal surrendered to shelters because of what they require. A lot of veterinarians also consider them exotic, so they tend to be very expensive pets.”
Bunnies aren’t an easy pet to take care of.
“Rabbits have some weird health problems. Eighty percent of their diet needs to be timothy or grass hay and of good quality. Because they’re prey animals they don’t really like to be picked up and they don’t always show that they’re sick,” Baier said.
“There are a lot of things to consider about the reality of having a rabbit or guinea pig. The right kind of cage is so important. It’s not just sticking them into a cage. They chew things. They need enrichment and other things to enjoy. Animals are work. That’s the bottom line. People interested in getting bunnies need to be educated about their needs and do what it takes to give them a quality life.”
As rabbits age their hormones change and they become territorial and aggressive in the cage. They are a lot messier. Spaying and neutering helps tamp down the mess.
Guinea pigs are similar but may be a little easier, according to Baier, but regardless all small animals take time to build trust.
Domestic rabbits are not wild rabbits and may pose a threat to native species like the Lower Keys marsh rabbit.
James “Skip” D. Lazell, a wildlife biologist who first identified the threatened Lower Key marsh rabbit as its own subspecies in 1984 after magazine magnate Hugh Hefner funded population research on it, said that domestic rabbits could wreak havoc on the small, threatened population through interbreeding.
“This is the worst fear that all of us biologists have. Certainly they can start co-populating and that would the end of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit,” he said. “This is a real threat and risk to the population.”
While domestic rabbits may survive initially in the wild, their lives are typically short. Releasing bunnies or any other domestic pet is highly discouraged. Outside enclosures are also not recommended.
Owners of rabbits experiencing problems are asked to call the experts. Bunnies and Buddies of the Florida Keys SPCA is knowledgeable and willing to help with behavior counseling and resources.
If you have any questions about rabbits or would like to inquire about our adoptable rabbits, find them on bunnies and buddies of the Florida Keys SPCA on Facebook or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305-294-4857.