Jen Macbeth hates what happens every summer, and it has nothing to do with subtropical heat and humidity or severe thunderstorms.
As co-founder of the Southwest Florida House Rabbit Rescue, the instructor in Florida Gulf Coast University’s Department of Marine and Ecological Sciences knows her bunny-loving brigade soon will have to clean up the mess — figuratively and, in many cases, literally — left by irresponsible adults who use rabbits as impulse-buy Easter gifts that become yesterday’s novelty in a few weeks.
“About four months after Easter, we get an influx,” said Macbeth, who has taught University Colloquium continuously longer than any full-time faculty member at FGCU. “That’s when rabbits reach sexual maturity, and they’re not cute babies anymore. They get bigger, they can get aggressive and kids lose interest.”
According to the rescue, eight out of 10 rabbits bought for Easter soon will be looking for new homes. In a best-case scenario for the unwanted pets, either the owner or advocates such as Macbeth’s rescue group find Thumper loving foster care. Worst case, Bugs is set free along the bunny trail, doomed to live in fear before he’s eventually killed and eaten by a predator. Or perhaps Peter ends up in the belly of a big snake after the reptile’s owner responds to a free-rabbit-to-good-home Craigslist ad.
The moral of the story?
Keep walking past that pet-shop display of huggable bunnies unless you’re willing to care for high-maintenance pets that never stop chewing, can get aggressive without specialized spaying or neutering and should be socialized and live indoors in pricey cages.
“People get them as pets for children, but they really aren’t good pets for kids,” Macbeth said. “Suddenly, a pet they bought for 20 bucks becomes an expensive animal to keep.”
Macbeth co-founded the rescue in 2015 with Naples resident Lisa Walkup, a recruiter for Physicians Regional Healthcare System, after the two met by circumstance in the waiting room of a Fort Myers veterinary office as they sought treatment for their respective pet rabbits. They went their separate ways that day, but after a Naples woman took in two wayward bunnies roaming her neighborhood that quickly turned into a pack of six — “Rabbits can reproduce every 31 days,” Macbeth said — the Good Samaritan desperately contacted the Fort Myers vet for help. The vet referred her to Macbeth and Walkup, and Southwest Florida House Rabbit Rescue was born.
“Rabbits are the third-largest pet population in the United States, so there’s a big need for rescues,” said Macbeth, who “tries to keep my limit at 10 bunnies” in her own foster home, which she and the rabbits share with her husband, their 2-year-old child and a turtle.
“We get calls every day. We can’t take them all, but we try to work with people, and sometimes we can resolve socialization issues without them having to surrender the rabbit. We also deal with abuse and hoarding cases, and work with other rabbit rescues as needed. There was one in Georgia we helped out that had 150 rabbits.”
SWFL House Rabbit Rescue is now working with six local foster homes, where the long-eared clients get socialized, litter-box trained, spayed or neutered, bonded with other rabbits and, ideally, adopted out. As part of its outreach, the rescue even sends pet-therapy bunnies to cheer elderly residents of The Terraces at Bonita Springs.
Helping the cause are FGCU students who earn service-learning hours for working with the registered nonprofit. Some students end up fostering and adopting the rabbits they help save, such as Lauren Raponi, a sophomore marketing major and Honors student from Toronto who calls herself “mother to five rabbits — three fosters and two of my own.”
Besides giving and helping to get bunnies good homes, Raponi says working with Macbeth and the rescue has actually made her a better student. “Through all this responsibility outside school, I actually became more organized, even with my studies, because I have such a passion for the rescue and the people I’ve met through Jen,” Raponi said. “I have no doubt that my positive attitude and successes in school correlate directly to the rescue. … This mindset, I believe, is responsible for the mental growth I’ve achieved since moving to Florida.”
- Southwest Florida House Rabbit Rescue saves ‘Fuzzy Pants‘