One of the things that gets me (okay, I admit the list is long) about the back and forth struggle over proper rabbit husbandry is that both parties – the house rabbit side and breeder side – feel pressured to be “perfect.” We feel pressured to paint a picture that both sides know is unrealistic and unattainable.
And I admit, I’m not immune to that. In fact, I put unrealistic expectations on myself – I don’t need anyone else to do it for me. Ideally, my rabbitry would always be as spotless and eye-catching as in the photo above. Do you see the sparkle? This was taken after one of our deep cleans in 2013. I work HARD to keep as much of that condition as I can in between major cleanings, but I often feel maxed out and exhausted over the things I don’t have time for.
The reality is that we’re working with animals. All of us are. We may like our floors spotless, our dishes clean, our laundry hung in the yard, and our beds freshly made. Animals have a different idea, and it takes a super-human to maintain an animal’s living conditions as if you might eat off the floor.
Anyone who is a mom probably understands where I’m coming from. Some days, you really feel like you have it all together. Other days, there’s dirty laundry in the sink, food on the couch, and a naked baby under the kitchen table.
That doesn’t make you less of a parent; it doesn’t make you less of an pet owner. It’s life, and it’s the same one we’re all living.
So if you expect to come in my rabbitry, take off your shoes, and snack on some finger foods, let me warn you now. It might be best to leave your snacks in the car and pull your boots back on.
Here’s 10 things you might find in a real rabbitry:
1. Poop. Lots of it. It might be in the drop trays of the cages, it might be in a food dish, it might be on the floor. It might be under your foot. If it’s not there yet, wait five minutes. If you’re going to raise “animal awareness,” it’s important to realize that poop is good and healthy. If the animal isn’t standing in it, there’s no concern. It’s best to accept it, scoop it up, and move on.
2. Healthy animals. Before you crucify the breeder for the poop that either already exists or will within minutes, take a glance at the animals in the barn. Do they appear healthy? Are their eyes bright and wide? Are they active? Is their fur shiny and soft? If the animals are healthy, there’s a good chance they’re well cared for and loved. Even if their bottles don’t feature Brita filters.
3. Sick animals. Before it becomes a headline, consider this: Animals get sick. Animals get old. Ask the breeder what steps they’re taking to correct the issue, but don’t expect any vet references. Rabbit savvy vets are far and few between, and breeders have spent decades honing their first aid skills. One or two downtrodden animals aren’t a reflection of the breeder’s husbandry.
4. Dead animals. Sometime last summer, I walked into a dairy barn and found a small calf laying in the middle aisle, covered in a blanket. Among further inspection, he was dead. An experience like that definitely pulls on your heartstrings and may appear sad or cruel, but there is a difference between dead animals and decaying animals. Just like animals get sick or get old, an animal occasionally dies. Sometimes it’s conveniently after the owner arrives home for the evening and can deal with the “arrangements.” Other times, it happens when the owner is running out the door, already late to work. We can’t time these things. We don’t want them to happen either. But sometimes there is a block of time between the death and when the owner can properly dispose of the body. If PETA breaks down the door before disposal happens…well, it looks worse than it is.
5. Fur. If you visit in the spring or fall, wear your hair-resistant body suit or you’re in for a real treat. Rabbits molt twice a year, meaning they let their ENTIRE COAT loose and then run around, shaking and kicking every fiber into unreachable places (at least, this is what I imagine happens as soon as I leave the house). If the fur is below eyeball level, my shop vac will suck it up as soon as I arrive home. If it’s over your head…well, that’s what we call “redneck insulation.”
6. Hay. In no place specific. Just everywhere. At least it’s clean.
7. Medicine, syringes, and needles. It doesn’t mean the rabbits are sick. This is how I keep them healthy; I stay prepared. There is a rabbit waiting until each bottle expires. If I’m a day late to restock, I’m a rabbit down.
8. Dust. I like to pass the “clean finger test” as much as the next person, but there are more important things in life. Like dealing with all that poop I mentioned.
9. None of these things. “Whaaaat? But you just said…” I know, I know! The most important thing to remember is that these are all realities of raising rabbits (or any animal). At any given time, any one (or more) of the items on this list might be present. But they shouldn’t always be present. There will be poop – but that doesn’t mean we stop cleaning it. There may be healthy animals – that doesn’t mean we stop caring for them. There may be dead animals – that doesn’t mean it happens every day. There may be hay – I still sweep it. There’s probably dust – I still clean it. There is probably medicine, syringes, and needles…they’re the exception. They’re always present.
My point is that the reality of raising animals is that it’s a constant circle of cleaning and care. There are days I look around and think, “What a mess!” But that’s why there are days I spend 14 hours on my knees scrubbing the crevices I had never noticed before. Farmers, ranchers, and breeders are just normal, everyday people. In this day and age, they’re not only maintaining animal projects but often keep one or more full- or part-time jobs outside the animals to make ends meet. We should absolutely strive to meet standards of cleanliness and “perfection.” But we’re humans and sometimes we fall short.
That leads me to…
10. Passion. A good animal shepherd isn’t negligent or self-serving. He isn’t malicious or unaware. Somewhere along the way, he loved an animal and never looked back. Even if he can’t dust today, he will tomorrow. And it’s not because anyone else told him to.