A teen girl who has been in my 4-H rabbit group for five years and her family set out to adopt a rabbit for another girl and her family who are new members to the group. After some discussion, all came to the consensus that a smallish rescue rabbit was the best option since the 7-year-old new member is a beginner and will be participating in the “fun” events and observing. Her goal is to learn about rabbits by caring and interacting with her rabbit and the group.
The journey started with high anticipation and several local Bay Area shelters were visited before happening upon the Oakland Animal Shelter, where a smallish rabbit was selected, and through the course of interacting with the rabbit, the family mentioned 4-H. The staff person helping indicated that anyone in 4-H wouldn’t be a good match for the rabbit. The family was taken aback and did not adopt the rabbit, which is still at the shelter.
Later, the teen girl reported, “I can deal with the fact they don’t like 4-H. People are people; they’re not going to like some people. It was mainly the fact that I could tell this lady had no idea what she was talking about. It seemed like she had heard from her neighbor’s friend’s boyfriend’s dog’s groomer’s 2nd cousin that 4-H was planning on destroying the world. It seemed like she had a problem with my mom turning the rabbit on its back to check the rabbit’s teeth.”
My question is what happened? Both 4-H and rescue care for animals. Why is there a split between them to the point that a homeless rabbit loses a prospective home?
I spoke with a fellow 4-H parent, who indicated that it is probably the breeding/showing aspect. Rescue organizations have more animals than suitable homes and the thought of more animals being breed is daunting.
For 4-H, showing animals does generally mean breeding animals, but 4-Hers are, for the most part, taught to be responsible. There are exceptions for any good-intentioned organization, but the animals that result from 4-H breeding are shown, sold, traded, or given/sold as pets. 4H-bred litters are not the rabbits dumped at shelters. In fact, the breeder from whom I bought my English Lop stated that any rabbit she sells can be returned at any time if it doesn’t work out. (Because of their extremely long ears, English Lops can be more challenging to care for than you might think.)
I have been volunteering for rescue organizations and for about five years now, and by far the largest number of rescued animals results from unintended “backyard” breeding: An average person gets a couple of rabbits and doesn’t fix them, and then they breed like, well . . . rabbits. Fairly quickly a couple rabbits can turn into a hundred before the person/people get desperate and call a rescue organization. An example happened just this year in Martinez when rabbits were being sold at a garage sale and a concerned customer got curious as to where these rabbits were coming from only to uncover a backyard filled with over a hundred busy burrowing buns.
Another issue that comes up is housing. Rescue groups insist that their rabbits are house rabbits – no backyard hutches. Since 4-Hers are generally raising more than one rabbit at a time, their rabbits are usually outdoors in a barn, shed, or in a garage. Rescue organizations argue that it is dangerous for a rabbit to be housed outdoors, which is true if proper precautions are not taken. 4-Hers care greatly for the rabbits and most are not leaving their prized buns neglected in a hutch. Again, this is usually what happens with the average person that gets a rabbit (as with any other pet) on a whim and loses interest. 4-Hers are involved in the daily care of their charge and measure their success by the well-being of their herd. Outdoor enclosures are therefore designed with safety in mind and are diligently tended.
Perhaps the most difficult issue over which to bridge the perspective gap is with meat rabbits. It is true that many 4-Hers compete with meat pens in county fairs, and this is difficult for anyone with a heart for rabbits to consider – whether they be rescue or 4-H.
First of all it is important to consider that we (unless vegetarian) eat meat. If you have even eaten meat, you have eaten an animal, and all animals are worthy creatures. The animals that are breed for consumption demonstrate animals as a resource. Our stewardship and humanity for them marks us. There is something fundamentally important about having a connection with where one’s food comes from. 4-Hers learn and have an appreciation for the process. They learn how to raise food properly in a humane environment. Otherwise all food is left to mass production and the meat animals magically become packages in the grocery store. The reality is removed. I suspect most from rescue organizations are not vegetarians, and just because they have never met the animals killed for them doesn’t mean those animals didn’t die.
In the course of 4-H, I have met chickens, turkeys, and cows that I discovered to be wonderful beings. Most are pets or show animals, and as such, these animals would never be consumed. They are clearly pets. But the animals marked for consumption have their place too, and they deserve dignified care from people knowledgeable of their needs. There is a certain respect gained in the knowledge of their journey as opposed to a conscious effort of denied acknowledgement (a.k.a. the fingers in ears la-la-la “it never happened” approach).
And this brings up the issue of flipping the rabbit on its back to check its teeth. 4-Hers are taught about animal welfare and husbandry. Part of this training is pragmatic and vet-like. Malformed teeth (malocclusion) and snuffles (sneezing and nasal discharge) are common health problems in rabbits that 4-Hers check for routinely. Rescue volunteers may see this treatment as hash as they prefer to use a more gentle hand, but how else would one check a rabbit’s teeth? Isn’t it important to assess the animal’s overall health? 4-Hers practice having control over the animal just as a vet would. In fact, a fair number of 4-Hers have the goal of being a vet in mind and being able to handle animals confidently is a skill developed over their years in 4-H projects. Ask you vet about 4-H. Chances are he/she is a former member.
The issue that arises in these different views of animal care is the notion of partnership. Many rescue groups will refuse partnership with 4-H in light of the points discussed above, and in order to accept full responsibility, I would be remiss not to mention that many 4-Hers do not willingly open themselves to working with the rescue organizations because of the rescue ways (all rabbits spayed/neutered, house rabbits only).
But my question is what opportunities are being missed on both sides for lack of understanding and compromise? It is pointless to try to convert or damn one another; instead, can’t we just work together?
What if 4-Hers promoted adoption and adoptable rabbits at their events as well as sale rabbits? Is there room for both? Events such as petting zoos and fairs generally draw a large diverse crowd, many of whom are perfect candidates for adoptions – more home opportunities for needy animals! Additionally, 4-Hers are perfect adoption event volunteers, foster homes, and triage assistants in rescues – more help for already-burdened volunteers!
What if rescue organizations helped 4-Hers promote responsible pet ownership, maybe even advertising low-cost spay/neuter options at rabbit shows and fairs. It is true that most of the rabbits purchased under these circumstances are for show/breeding, but a good number bear the designation of “pet quality.” (Some of these will go on to be sold at pet stores.) In order to break the “backyard” cycle, those who purchase “pet quality” need to be educated and provided with responsible options.
In the end it is true that 4-Hers and rescue have different viewpoints, but there is a common goal: animal welfare. 4-Hers care about animals and are looking for experience. Rescues care about animals and are looking for help. Doesn’t that actually make them an excellent partnership?