CAUTION: may not be appropriate for readers under the age of 10 (contains spoilers about the Easter Bunny)
In an age long before man, the German Goddess of Spring, Eostre, was wandering about during the winter time when she came upon a bird in the forest with a broken wing. The bird was close to death in the snow with no way of surviving—whether frozen to death or eaten by predators, the outcome was dire. Eostre took pity on the creature and transformed the bird into a hare so she could hop away and live through the winter. In the spring time when the hare was ready to give birth, she discovered that she had retained the ability to lay eggs, and colored ones at that. The vibrant eggs were placed around the forest in celebration of the Goddess Eostre who had saved her.
Such is the origin story of the Easter Bunny first accounted for in the late 1800’s in Germany. This was around the time the Brothers Grimm were wandering the countryside, scooping up fables that had, up until that point, been merely spoken at the hearths on windy, chilly nights and setting them down in writing. What hearth, and how, the story came to be is still not known.
When Germans migrated to the United States, they brought with them their gods, goddesses, and folktales—although not the hares, and so the lead character of this story subtly morphed into the more common native animal, the rabbit. The holiday traditions themselves have morphed over the years as well. Originally, children created nests for the Osterhasen (Easter Hare) on their doorsteps and found eggs there in the morning she left for them. As centuries passed, the nests became baskets, and the baskets were moved indoors. The brightly colored eggs transformed into chocolate and other trinkets, and if kids want eggs, they need to find them themselves—as so many Easter Egg Hunts have proven.
One American tradition is to forego the eggs and go straight to the source. What child wouldn’t want to wake up Sunday morning and find a cuddly bunny with twitching nose and big ears looking back at them from their Easter basket? As a parent, the joy on your child’s face is as radiant as it is when she opens her birthday presents.. But try to look at Easter from inside the basket looking out at this tradition—from the bunny’s perspective. How alone she must feel being away from her momma and siblings. How loud and scary it must be to hear the sounds of a human child scream in delight for the first time. The terror when she is picked up and is mishandled, not because anyone means her harm, but simply because it is not known how to hold her properly. And then think beyond that moment of Easter morning. This isn’t a toy to be discarded in a few day’s time. This is a living, breathing animal with physical and emotional needs. But maybe this tradition started because people think a rabbit is an “easy” or “starter” pet. They don’t require walks like dogs, and they don’t race about the house knocking over knick-knacks at 3 a.m. like cats.
While the comparison to dogs and cats is accurate, rabbits are not necessarily “easy.” They have different physical needs than dogs or cats, but they require the same level of love, commitment, and time as any canine or feline companion.
A house rabbit can live 10-13 years—the entire span of childhood itself. Although you mostly see rabbits in small cages at pet stores, this is not where they should be living for their entire lives, any more than a cat should live in a carrier or a dog in a small kennel. Rabbits require space—someplace safe where they have room to hop around, play, learn, and socialize. Prefabricated rabbit habitats allow rabbits to explore, hide, and sleep on multiple levels, like a cat tree but designed for rabbits. You can also design and build your own. . They should not be kept outside in hutches. They are members of the family as every pet is, living and sleeping indoors. If they are lucky enough to have a fenced outdoor area protected from aerial predators like hawks, then supervised outside time is welcome.
Rabbits can (and should be, for your own sake if no one else’s), litter-boxed trained. While some people have one room set aside for a rabbit to hang out, live, eat, play, and poop in, with a fully bunny-proofed home free from predators and dangers (like exposed wires they can chew on), rabbits can live free-roaming in your home like a house cat—and use the litter-box the same way.
While interspecies friendships are possible, it takes a lot of care to foster such relationships. You can’t just let the rabbit loose in a house with a dog. Nor do all cats wish to have a rabbit hanging out with them. But some do. As a herd animal, house bunnies mostly would like to hang with those of their own kind. However, not just any bunny of their kind will do. Rabbits need time to get to know one another and decide if they have that special connection for life-long friendship. Reputable rescues will provide a matchmaking service, allowing your spayed or neutered rabbit to meet others and give them the time needed to choose their own companion.
If two rabbits isn’t your thing, there are play days like the Rabbit Rescue in Paramount, California hosts, allowing spayed and neutered bunnies to hang out. Much like a day at the dog park, your bunnies play and socialize with one another in a safe environment while you and other bunny guardians chit-chat and share stories while chaperoning.
Rabbits are prey animals. They don’t like to be handled unless they implicitly trust the human doing so. They have frail skeletons, bones that can break easily if a person drops them. The fast-paced nature of children may not be well-suited to a rabbit. However, if your child is calm and gentle, a rabbit may be the right pet for him for her. A human of any age can be a rabbit guardian as long as they can provide them with enrichment and stimulation in the space they need and truly understand and respect their needs—both physical and emotional.
As with any pet, a rabbit should not be an impulse buy. This January, California banned the sale of dogs, cats, and rabbits in retail stores unless they are from a shelter, humane society, or rescue. But it is only the first state to do so. Everywhere else in the nation, you can walk into a feed or other retail store and possibly find baby bunnies for sale this week. The fate of these rabbits is bleak. While some may go to homes where someone truly desires a lifelong commitment to this quiet, often misunderstood animal, most will be presented to an exuberant child on Easter morning. The rabbit will most likely live her shortened, stressful life in a small cage on a desk in the child’s room. Perhaps she becomes depressed or crazed from lack of socialization. Or perhaps she is simply forgotten about when the child gets a new toy. And so the parents either send her to the shelter, or worse, simply “set the bunny free,” believing she can survive on her own without any wild animal survival skills.
Rabbits are wonderful pets. They are fascinating beings we can share our lives with, but not because it is Easter. A pet is not seasonal. At the time of this writing, there are 170 homeless rabbits in the Los Angeles City shelter system alone awaiting homes. A search on Petfinder.com brings up almost one thousand rabbits currently looking for their forever homes in rescues and shelters within 100 miles of Los Angeles. If you truly want to bring a rabbit into your home, contact your local shelter or rabbit rescues near your home. If you’re not ready to make a lifelong commitment, or you would like to learn more about rabbits, contact rescues for volunteer and foster opportunities.
All rabbits are magical, but not because they are the reincarnation of the Easter Bunny. They’re magical because they experience the world so differently from us, and yet we can share our homes with them and learn from them by how they live. On this Easter Sunday, give the gift that the Goddess Eostre gave to that bird: a second chance. Foster or adopt a pet in need of any species—but only if you’re ready and able to commit to him or her. If you’re not ready or not able, you can still give: volunteer at your local shelter or rescue to offer the support every homeless animal needs to get his or her second chance at a new life.