Uni is beautiful, with big brown eyes and velvety, dark brown fur. She is a breed of rabbit known, appropriately, as a "walnut rex." She loves to be petted and seems to enjoy the attentions of strangers who come to watch her romp with her rabbit friends.
Uni and about a dozen other bunnies had a glorious two-week run outside their cages at Animal Friends. The Ohio Township shelter has two "free-range" rooms for cats, and they experimented with giving rabbits the same kind of freedom.
As expected, the rabbits loved the lifestyle, but there was an unanticipated effect on people.
"This room causes logjams," says Suaz Forsythe, marketing coordinator at Animal Friends. People coming to the shelter to look at dogs and cats were fascinated by the rabbits, standing at the viewing window for extended periods of time.
Many people don't realize that rabbits make wonderful house pets. They can be trained to use a litter box. They are smart. They can be charming and funny. They love to cuddle with people. They don't have to be taken outside and walked, but they should not be kept in a cage 24/7. They live 10 to 12 years, which is longer than many "pocket pets" such as rats and hamsters.
Rabbits are now No. 3 on the list of pets most frequently turned in to shelters. There are about 130 rabbits at the three big Allegheny County shelters -- Animal Friends, Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania and Western Pennsylvania Humane Society -- at any given time. Many live in shelter cages while others are in foster homes.
Easter is coming, and people will be buying baby bunnies at pet stores. All three shelters are expecting some of those rabbits to be turned in to shelters in the weeks and months after Easter. It happens every year.
Baby rabbits at pet stores sell for $40 to $100. The cheaper rabbits have not been neutered, and both the males and the females become unpleasant when they hit puberty, according to shelter workers. The adoption fee at shelters range from $30 to $60, but the rabbits have been neutered, inoculated and checked by a veterinarian. They've also been litter-box trained and observed by shelter workers who know their quirks and personalities and can help match the right rabbit to the right family.
Uni, for instance, came from a home that had cats so Animal Friends wants to place her with cat owners. Rabbits can usually safely co-exist with cats and dogs, by the way.
Uni has another special need. She came to the shelter with one ear, though the former owner was vague about what happened.
Animal Friends has Bun Runs from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. You can see Uni and the other bunnies up close and you can even sit on the floor and see which rabbit comes to you.
The Western Pennsylvania Humane Society has Bunny Romps from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturdays at its North Side shelter. It's the same kind of deal, with more than a dozen rabbits running and playing in a big open room.
Both shelters and Animal Rescue League have also arranged "blind dates" for potential adopters who already have a rabbit. You bring your rabbit with you, and see which shelter bunny gets along with yours. Rabbits are social animals, so two's company. But rabbits don't necessarily get along with every other rabbit, hence the "blind dates."
All of the shelters work with rabbit owners or potential owners, helping them with training and nutrition tips.
Members of the Pittsburgh House Rabbit Club help at all three shelters, and are always willing to help rabbit owners. Check out their Web site, pittsburghhouserabbit.org, as well as the shelter Web sites, which contain pictures of rabbits that need permanent homes.