This is a recent picture from Canadian BIB VRT, Marina Hebert. (The facilities do NOT allow picture reprints or posting on social media.) I notice first how relaxed and happy the rabbit appears-- "loafing" and very content with her friend at a children's hospital in Vancouver, BC. I love the ample blanket, and the gentle handling. The little girl's smile melts my heart.....truly.....and I can only imagine how much happiness this visit is providing. BIG TAKEAWAYS: The "lap visit" is working beautifully here. The blanket is very appropriate. The petting is soothing and respectful. The rabbit and participant seem very happy. I need a kleenex!
My first thought---what a GREAT carrier! I love that it's open for petting, has handles, and provides space, security and several inches of comfy lining. The rabbit is facing the participant (in an adult facility for developmental challenges). The participant's hand is safely (and affectionately) petting the rabbit's back. The potential for eye contact in this encounter cannot be minimized---it's a powerful way to connect. The participant is comfortable, the rabbit seems very happy and the "box" is a wonderful idea!
This group setting seems to be working well for Marina's rabbit and the participants. Not all rabbits enjoy the freedom to engage this way, but if yours does, it's a great way for several people to have an experience with one rabbit in one visit. The rabbit appears to be seeking attention, but I'm not concerned that the participants are focused elsewhere. It's a nice distraction to have "rabbit energy" included during a difficult (or even ordinary) meeting, or discussion. I don't know what the topic is, but I do know that teens are more likely to engage when an interested animal is present.
Some bunnies are REAL kissers! Sophia is a bun-kissing-bandit, and she surprised Jackie! Jackie is very familiar with the rabbits, but she wasn't expecting this kiss. I try to "warn" people about Sophia's kissing. I don't make promises, but I definitely state, "Sophia is very interested in necks and faces. If you feel some whiskers, she isn't trying to bite---she's showing affection."
The other thing Sophia LOVES to do is play "look out." She likes to watch the room over a shoulder. While some people think she's trying to "escape," I'm quite sure she's just getting a "bun's eye view" of the situation. Jackie is smiling and talking with Sophia, and the table is really helping to keep both stable and able to focus on the visit.
Here is little Harley. He seems to be feeling aloof. He usually likes to be the "center of attention" but there are several "brothers and sisters" here tonight sharing the visit. We have many people come by, and hosting a table visit is a good way for so many to have a positive experience. No one has to wait for a pet, and some people choose to just watch and socialize. This behavior is NOT usual for Harley, however, and I'm going to pay close attention.
Harley and Sophia are bonded. Sophia is much more adventurous, and Harley likes the comfort of her affection. Here he steals her "show." He hopped right between Jackie and Sophia! She enjoys petting both. Jukebox is being held and cuddled in a chair. Note the blanket barrier. Juke is safe and happy with Paula, who knows him well.
Jukebox is on the left, Hannah in the middle and bold Sophia on the right. Sophia loves to be the "fairy bun" and flit from person to person, and even bun to bun to get attention. Hannah? Not so much. She loves petting, but prefers to cuddle with other bunnies at the same time. Normally, these three are in separate exercise pens with their mates. At home, they would fight. A visit is neutral "territory" and they are getting along well!
This is a reprint from Elizabeth Olson (Rabbit Advocates; Portland, OR)
I have a bit of a different take on desensitizing rabbits and other prey animals, based on experience training our llama (under the tutelage of an expert, whose techniques come from horse training) and working with our own rabbit, Amelia. The basic idea is not to completely shield your rabbit from normal everyday experiences that scare him/her. Rather, it is to repeatedly, gradually, humanely expose the bunny to experiences that frighten him/her, while the bunny is in a safe place.
NOTE: Don't over vocalize with "It's OK, it's OK," because the rabbit will pick up on any tension in your voice. If possible, use your calm body language rather than your words to soothe the rabbit. Of course, if you are teaching a trick (like standing up for pellets), use your training word consistently.
Here are several examples:
Example 1: Rabbit is afraid of being transported. Put the carrier in the room, with a litterbox, hay, and some pellet treats inside. Let rabbit explore, go inside, have door closed, have door opened. Relax. Progress to picking up the carrier while animal is inside. Return carrier to room and open. Eventually, progress to putting carrier in car, returning. Driving around the block, returning. Driving to the vet (no exam), and returning. You get the idea.
In other words, break the scary experience into very small steps that help animal realize each step is safe and, therefore, the "big step" is also safe.
(In horse/llama halter training, we start by having the halter hang around the animal's living area until it's no big deal. Then we move the halter close to the animal's head, and back away. Then close to the nose and away. This progresses until the halter goes on the face without any scared response. We do similar activities with noisy objects such as empty soda cans in a bag, things touching their legs, and many more activities.)
Example 2: Scary sounds. Amelia was terrified of even the tiniest sounds, such as a nose sniff or a door opening. She would literally flip out, as Mary's rabbit has done. The solution involved two people and the rabbit. Person #1 sits with the rabbit in an enclosed area, calmly petting and not paying attention to Person #2. Person #2 performs the "scary" act while Person #1 remains calm and makes it clear to the rabbit using body language and petting that this is NO BIG DEAL. Over time and repeated exposure in small doses, bunny learns the situation is not scary any more. The key is for Person #1 NOT to react, stay calm, and either distract or soothe the bunny while Person #2 takes care of making the noise.
Example 3: Picking up the rabbit. Start in a small, enclosed area such as an ex-pen or a bathroom. Be sure the rabbit is comfortable with you sitting calmly in the area and can accept petting or touching before you start this. Lift the rabbit just an inch or so from the ground (in a safe, fully supported position) and put him/her down again WHEN THE RABBIT IS CALM; let the rabbit relax fully before trying again. Be calm and matter of fact. Do not talk to the rabbit other than to use a training word such as "pick up." Repeat the process, gradually lifting a bit higher each time. Do this in several sessions over a period of time.
The KEY: Rather than avoiding the scary issues altogether (unless they truly are unsafe), address them head-on, but in a gradual way that helps the rabbit understand he/she is safe. Be patient. Take your time. Break everything into small steps. Stay calm. Transmit that calm to your rabbit. Keep your voice quiet or very low.
Over time, your rabbit will learn he/she is safe, and these "scary" activities are not to be feared. Eventually, vacuum cleaners, doors slamming; human sneezes, coughs, sniffles; cleaning in the area; being picked up; etc. will be much less scary (if scary at all). Of course, a NEW and slightly different situation might cause alarm, but then you just start back at square 1 with THAT issue and work it piece by piece.
I hope this is helpful. These desensitization techniques have worked well for us and for many prey animals we've worked with.
I stopped at a garage sale on Friday and as I'm sorting through neat vintage items, I overhear children talking about their rabbits. I look up, and behind the house was a large hutch filled with rabbits...a mother doe and two litters. I quickly checked my "big three"---water (yes), hay and food (yes), cleanliness (not bad). "Would you consider spaying?" I asked. "Oh NO. They are meat rabbits." "Oh," I replied. I wanted to scoop all of them in that instant. I realized, however, they would quickly be replaced.
I introduced myself, told the woman what I did, and she smiled. We were interrupted as a truck pulled up the long, unpaved driveway, and a tiny, crying, baby goat was handed to the woman. She instructed the driver to get the goat milk ready in a bottle. "We take in unwanted farm animals when they can't find homes," she explained, holding the shaking baby. And I sold a lady a bunch of our rabbits last week for her petting zoo. When we set up the chicken wire, they'll get to run around again." The baby goat cried, and soon three goats, a calf, two sheep and a German Shepherd stared at her from the fence.
I paid for my items, petted the baby goat's head, and took a deep breath, avoiding the rabbit hutch. Clearly, she had her hands full. "Do the rabbits get to enjoy fresh greens?". "Oh yes. The boys pick all kinds of garden stuff for them." "Good. That's good." I blinked back tears and walked to my car.
Is it better to see and feel helpless----or to avoid these situations and pretend rabbits don't live in crowded outdoor hutches and aren't eaten? I'm not sure. I'm just not sure.