Free Range Bunnies: A Story of Rabbit Emancipation
Is it Okay to Let My Bunny Roam Free?
Setting my bunny free from its cage is one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had since owning pets. It has always seemed sad to me that rabbits are almost always kept in cages. Imagine a dog or cat spending their entire life suspended in a cage, their feet never once touching the ground. Most animal-lovers would despise such an idea. Yet it is perfectly acceptable to do this to a rabbit. Bunnies love to hop, raise up on their hind legs, stretch, run, kick, and dig. Who am I to take away these bunny liberties?
After deciding I was not going to abide by the “cage your bunny” rule, I was still a little nervous about bunny’s first adventures on the ground. Obviously predators are the first enemy of a free bunny. What about diseases? Pests? Off to the internet I went, determined to see what Google had to say about this. Interestingly…not much. Through my own searches, I found lots of good information about rabbit care. That is, rabbit care for people who raise them in cages or inside their homes. Yes, it seems popular nowadays to litter box-train your bunny and let him roam around your house like a cat! Sounds like fun, but animals living inside my house is not an option for me right now. I already have a boyfriend and he is enough to clean up after. Where are the articles on raising bunnies out of their cage and outdoors?
Well, this is my attempt at adding one. I still have not found all the answers, but I have some interesting observations to add to the subject of free-range bunnies. I look at it as an ongoing experiment. Yes, my bunnies are more at risk to predators and disease since they are no longer confined to their cage. But I like to think that even if they meet an untimely death, they at least got to (literally) “kick up their heels” in life. Bunnies absolutely love life on the ground, and why wouldn’t they?
I got my first rabbit to use in Easter photos with children. After doing this for a couple years, I learned that rabbits are much easier to handle when they are young. My first rabbit was a female, who is pictured above and below. I have begun calling her “Mama Gray” because of her lovely color and because she has since birthed multiple litters. She started out in a cage all alone.
The Sweet Taste of Freedom
Next Easter, I aquired 2 more baby bunnies and put them together in a cage beside Miss Gray. They were 2 white ones, and I was not sure yet of their sex. They aquired the names “Stew” and “Gerald” from some of my friends. After a long steamy summer of panting and almost dying in their cages, autumn finally came and the growing fur balls began getting frisky. Stew had begun chasing Gerald round and round the cage relentlessly. I began to think Gerald was a girl and was obviously being tortured by Stew’s insatiable adolescent yearnings. Finally it was just too much. “That is enough of that, mister. Your horny butt is being set free!” I proclaimed as I let Stew’s fuzzy white feet get dirty for the first time. It was liberating to watch and wonder what his little bunny brain might be thinking as he explored the world for the first time. The taste of a leaf, the smell of bark, the feeling of nails scratching the soil, the freedom to run in any direction for quite a long time without stopping. How exhilarating it must be!
Stew had been liberated! After a few days, he had survived quite well, though his coat was no longer virgin white. You see, all along, under Stew’s cage, there were other animals living. A pot-bellied pig, a rooster, and 5 hens also call this area of dirt and trees home and were interested in meeting Stew. Even though Stew was not in a cage, he was still in a fence. The fence is about 50 x 40 feet and keeps the pig from roaming the yard. [I would allow this, if I could find a way to train my pig from peeing on my porch. Shoo-wee!] The fence is not buried though, so I figured it would not keep Stew contained for long. To my surprise, he did not venture out of the fenced area for about 4 months.
A Free Life
Soon after Stew, Gerald and Gray were set free of their cage. I found that the initial caging taught the rabbits to associate me with food. When I went outside to feed them, they would hop up to me. I began feeding them by hand anytime I could so that they would stay moderately tame. I recommend hand-feeding (or holding the cup they eat from) as early and as frequently as possible.
I knew they needed a home. We adapted an existing shelter to include a front wall and a small opening that was big enough for bunnies but would keep hens and pigs OUT. It also had a hinged access door for cleaning out poop, and putting in food and water.
It is true that rabbits can easily be litter box trained because they usually choose a designated pooping spot. You can watch for this spot (usually a private corner somewhere near to their food) and place a potty there. (Any container that will not easily be tipped over should work.) The trick to this is to let the bunny choose the spot. Then try not to invade their space very much. Bunnies like their privacy. You could try attaching a food dispenser in a way that you do not have to invade the space to feed. Also I have found that in the spring and summer, when there is plenty of grass growing, I barely need to feed them. I still provide pellets in a number of ways. If they hop up to me, I hand feed or pour some feed on the ground in front of them. Sometimes I toss some pellets around on the ground inside the fenced area to encourage them to come back to "home base".
I have found that "home base" is best established by initial caging or fencing for the first month or two. Babies that grow up on the ground and have never been caged tend to stray further from home, increasing their chances of being eaten or lost to the unknown. Although it does depend on the personality of each bunny. Some of my buns that were never caged are still in eyesight 90% of the time, though they do not approach me to be fed. I do believe having multiple buns (at least 2) also increases their desire to hang around.
Buns Gone Wild
The bunnies seemed to enjoy getting to know each other and the other animals. I learned some interesting things about bunny behavior. Here are some things you may not know.
1. Bunnies, like other animals, have distinct personalities. Some are more shy than others. Some like to be touched and some do not. Some like to share food with a pig and some do not.
2. Bunnies are social. They love to hang out with each other. When they greet another bunny, they touch noses. I have also seen 2 male bunnies fight to the point of injury. However, the injured buck still stayed with the group.
3. Bunnies are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. During the day, my rabbits love to munch grass, then stretch out in the dirt in a cool, safe spot. They are cool-weather animals, and prefer temps around 60 degrees. Letting bunnies dig dens in the ground gives them a place to hide and also an escape from the blistering southern summer heat that can be deadly to buns.
4. Some plants taste yummy to rabbits and some do not. Coleus is especially yummy. Daffodils are not. Some plants cause sickness or death to rabbits if eaten and should be removed from their exposure.
5. Male rabbits spray urine all over everything if they are not neutered. They also rub their chin on everything to mark their scent. Both sexes love to strip bark from small trees and chew on roots, tree trunks or anything woody.
6. Female rabbits can have babies every 28 days. They can get pregnant on the same day they give birth. When a rabbit starts pulling out her fur, or running around with leaves or hay in her mouth, it means she is trying to make a nest for her babies. Babies can be born underground and not be seen for weeks.
7. Bunnies can be quite capable of holding their own in a fight. I have seen a bunny do a flying ninja kick to a pig face accompanied by an aerial twist. I have also seen a confident male bunny chase a large rooster around a yard.
My bunnies have now been living, breeding, and roaming free in my yard for over a year. They go in and out of the fenced area as they choose. Why have they not been eaten by predators? I think these are the key factors:
-I live on a large farm at the end of a dead end road. I do not have a public road or a neighbor in sight. I do not have the danger of a hungry neighboring dog.
-My own dogs are extremely passive and have been trained to leave rabbits alone. Once I caught my cat chasing a bunny and yelled out loudly to break it up. So far, it hasn't happened again.
-One of my dogs is a self-trained guard dog. During the night, he barks at nosy visitors, and chases them away. He has no idea he is keeping rabbits from becoming tasty treats, he is only doing his dogly duty.
-Rabbits are naturally afraid. They know to run and hide when they hear a hawk. I have allowed them to find refuge in certain areas like the rarely-used barbeque pit out back. Do not shut them off to areas they choose for hide-outs.
-I do not use any pesticides or chemicals on my property that could be harmful to animals.
I understand that not everyone has these perfect circumstances for letting pet buns run wild. But I do think it could be considered more often, with some adjustments to the environment. If your yard is not protected, consider a fenced-in area with a top and buried sides. Remember that free-ranging bunnies is not typical because rabbits are prey animals. However, rabbits are social and curious creatures that deserve more than a boring cage their entire lives.
Nothing thrills me like watching bunnies lounge together next to a shade tree. They must love the feel of the cool dirt on their bellies, the endless choice of grasses to munch, and that tingle of excitement when they hop-kick through the air. Free at last!