Gabrielle (Gaby) Flavin is an early childhood teacher and an animal advocate. With Easter around the corner she penned a set of articles around one of the most commonly considered ECE ‘pets’ – rabbits. Beware: it’s a cautionary tale based on her 15 year love affair with fluffy bunnies, her even longer experience working in early learning services, and her knowledge as an animal rescue volunteer and foster carer.
In this first story, Gaby covers the basics of rabbit welfare and begins outlining their needs in a children’s service setting by focusing on housing.
Popular culture teaches us that fluffy bunnies are perfect first pets for young children, but despite my love for rabbits I simply cannot agree. In fact, as we get close to peak rabbit season over Easter I think it’s time to talk turkey!
For fifteen years, rabbits were a big part of my life. As an early childhood teacher and director, I’ve considered how my personal experience might inform the profession about these beautiful animals.
Like any animal (or human), rabbits are unique in their personalities and abilities. Some rabbits thrive in early learning services, whereas others do not, so before you protest how happy your Peter Rabbit is with the children, yes, I know! Sometimes it can work out. But all of us can improve and reflect, so let’s look a little closer before making that call on your current arrangement, or for other people considering adding an animal ‘for the children’.
Rabbit risks and benefits
Before we invite any animal into our service, we must research their needs and conduct risk-benefit assessments covering all aspects of their wellbeing, interaction with children, physical space, and human responsibilities. You aren’t doing this just to tick a compliance box. You need to look carefully at the risks to the animal as well as the benefits and risks to the children and staff.
Rabbits are hard work. In fact, correctly caring for any companion species is hard work. Like cats and dogs, rabbits are intrinsically social creatures. They form strong loving bonds with either people or – sometimes – other rabbits (watch next week for the story of Bumble the Bottom Biter).
Unlike, say, stick insects, rabbits are not creatures you can leave Friday afternoon and return to on Monday morning. As for the typical family weekend roster approach, it can be a high risk plan to ferry rabbits between an education setting and children’s homes like a traveling teddy. There’s exposure to unknown stresses and unforeseen dangers no matter how carefully you make your plans.
Rabbits are sentient beings who need us to advocate for their right to a safe and healthy home. Children (and their families) need us to set the boundaries and role model an appropriate level of caution and care.
Rabbits can live 10 years
Bunnies are beautiful and amazing creatures, but their needs should be considered very carefully before being introduced to an early learning environment.
Rabbits can live 10 years. Are you ready to commit to a 10 year relationship that might involve a chunk of daily educator time, special purchases, and potentially big medical bills? Rabbits are also highly social creatures and your best option is to purchase two rabbits as a ‘bonded pair’ so they will have one another for company overnight and during close down periods such as weekends.
However, even when they have good company, you can’t just leave a rabbit in a cage over the weekend with enough pellets to see them through until Monday morning and expect a healthy outcome. Mentally, they will be bored and fretful without the stimulation they are used to during the week. Physically, that boredom may lead to injuries – by developing nervous biting habits or making escape attempts – that could go untended for 60 or more hours between human visits from Friday to Monday. Rabbits can also quite literally die of fright, more on that later.
Rabbits need suitable secure housing. They need to be protected against fleas and mosquitoes which transport diseases such as the myxomatosis virus which was introduced to Australia to target wild rabbits but can of course affect pet rabbits too. House rabbits have none of the immunity to the virus that the feral rabbit population has built up.
Rabbits need protection against extreme weather and temperatures – cold weather and most certainly hot weather. SO many rabbits pass away in the heat! There are two physical reasons for this. Firstly, they can’t pant to lower their body temperature the way dogs and cats can. and secondly, the bottoms of their feet are furry so they don’t sweat the way dogs and cats do either. In warm weather rabbits need to have cold tiles or wet towels to lie upon, frozen water bottles to lie up against, wet towels over the tops of their outdoor housing or better still, be brought inside to enjoy air-conditioning or fans.
As you know from reading children’s stories, there are also predators who love the scent of bunnies! Foxes live in all Australian cities, and both pet and stray dogs and cats will also find their way into the grounds of services. In fact, this happened to a friend of mine in a Sydney suburban service twice and they lost their service’s beloved rabbit as well as their new rabbit despite many additional precautions put into place. This was very distressing for her to navigate personally and with the children and educators.
I mentioned that rabbits can die of fright. Bear this in mind if you think that strong housing is enough to protect them from predators. A growling, barking dog or a fox attempting to chew the timber or wire of the hutch (and they will) will send a rabbit’s heart rate soaring to potentially fatal levels. I lost one of my own rabbits this way when a neighbour’s dog got into our yard: the rabbit was untouched by the dog but passed away of a heart attack induced by fear.