RICHMOND, Calif. -- Back in 1988, when the seven founders of the House Rabbit Society first came together at a dining table in Alameda, Calif., just south of Richmond, the idea of keeping a rabbit as an indoor pet was considered fairly smirk-worthy.
Yet the group was able to incorporate as a nonprofit, dedicating itself to promoting responsible rabbit ownership, matching abandoned rabbits with bunny-loving foster caretakers and ultimately setting up perhaps the first rabbits-only adoption center at its Richmond headquarters. Now with chapters in dozens of states, the society boasts of having hosted the first veterinary conference focused exclusively on rabbit health and having saved tens of thousands of rabbits from euthanasia. Its slogan: "Buy a Bunny a Little Time."
But Easter, of course, is a trying time for the group, given the tradition of presenting baby rabbits to children as holiday gifts. Delight soon turns to woe as the family discovers what the organization has been saying for decades: Rabbits require as much care and maintenance as dogs, and -- as heart-meltingly cute and cuddly as they can be -- they must be litter-box trained and spayed or neutered to be effective house pets.
"If rabbits are given as a gift for Easter without a lot of education, they're going to end up giving it away a few months later -- it's a no-brainer," said Margo DeMello, president of the House Rabbit Society.
In 2002, the group's Columbus, Ohio, chapter developed a public service campaign -- "Make Mine Chocolate!" -- to discourage people from taking home rabbits for Easter. The effort is a work in progress, though: Only dogs and cats end up at animal shelters more often than rabbits. More than 1,000 are taken to shelters in the San Francisco Bay Area each year, according to the House Rabbit Society.
Tim Wilson, an owner of Wilson's Feed & Supply in Napa, Calif., has stopped selling rabbits for several weeks before Easter.
"People want them for the day," he said. "Too many years, we opened up after Easter and there were boxes on the sidewalk with ducks, chicks and rabbits."
Because of the abandonment problem, many states ban giving away rabbits as prizes at carnivals and other events. San Francisco, Los Angeles and several other cities have outlawed the sale of rabbits at pet stores. And in 2008, Petco, the giant pet store chain, decided to stop selling rabbits in its shops.
Even so, a wave of unwanted rabbits begins arriving at animal shelters just days after the holiday, once children lose interest. A second wave comes a few months later once the rabbits hit puberty: At that point, the male rabbits spray urine everywhere, while females grow territorial.
And because determining a young rabbit's sex is difficult, owners who thought they had two female rabbits can suddenly find themselves with litter after litter of baby bunnies. While the problem can be fixed, many parents who plucked rabbits from a pet shop window days before the holiday are not prepared to spend up to $300 to spay or neuter a rabbit they bought for $30. Others are jarred to learn only after they bought a rabbit that it could live more than a decade.