As more than 30 people mill around the main room of the nonprofit rescue Friends of Rabbits’ open house, 13-year-old Sophia Houston and her brother, 11-year-old Levi, are oblivious to the noise and activity. They sit inside a metal playpen on the floor of the Columbia home, playing with and petting Willow Leaf, one of the more than 40 rabbits up for adoption at the event.
Sophia’s mother, Jamie Griffin, hadn’t planned on adding another pet, but five days earlier Sophia had presented the family with a well-researched report on how she would care and provide for the new addition to the household. With a tentative go-ahead from her parents, Sophia started searching for a rescue organization and found the open house for Friends of Rabbits, whose stable of adoptable animals can often number more than 100.
“A lot of time rabbits are trafficked near Easter time,” Sophia says. “A lot of people think that rabbits are no work, they just give them some carrots and pellets and then throw them out in the yard. And they’re abused a lot.” She’d always planned on adopting rather than buying.
While cat and dog adoption tend to grab the most notice, Sophia and her family are part of an increasing trend to adopt smaller animals – hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, ferrets, rabbits, birds and reptiles – that find their way to local shelters and rescues.
Nationally, more small animals are joining families by adoption, according to statistics compiled by the American Pet Products Association in its 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey. The association found that of the households with small pets, the number adopting instead of buying increased steadily between 2012 and 2016. For instance, the study found that 46 percent of the households with guinea pigs adopted them in 2012, compared with 53 percent of households that adopted in 2016. There were similar increases in adoptions of hamsters, birds, rabbits and reptiles.
For the past seven years, the number of the small domestic pets coming into Howard County Animal Control and Adoption Center has remained steady at about 100 each year. Most animals are surrendered by owners who can no longer care for them.
“A lot of people do not remember to look to us when they’re looking to get a hamster or guinea pig and they’ll go to a pet store,” Nancy Blood, Animal Control’s kennel supervisor, said. The “cute furry guys” can sometimes be at the shelter for a month before someone puts in an application to adopt them, she said.
Some of the smaller animals are easier to adopt out, like the four parakeets who came to the shelter after they were discovered abandoned in a cage in a parking lot. Guinea pigs and hamsters also tend to move from the shelves of the shelter’s small animal room, built specifically to house the “small domestic other” pets.
Overall, she said, the wait times have improved. “They didn’t move as quickly before social media,” she said. “I think it’s helped raise awareness that different types of pets can be adopted other than just dogs and cats.”
That’s been much of the success for Friends of Rabbits, which was founded in 1994 and has grown to become the largest rabbit-specific rescue in the Maryland-Virginia and Washington D.C. area, according to volunteer Executive Director Alex Deckert.
Friends of Rabbit’s events in pet stores, its extensive social media presence and its top listing in Internet searches for the keywords “rabbit rescue” has helped it increase the number of people it reaches.
The organization won’t shut its doors to other small pets that need new homes, either. Deckert often rescues guinea pigs, hamsters, mice and an occasional chinchilla, animals she encounters at shelters, and adds them to the roster of adoptable pets.
At Howard County Animal Control, most of the small animals are adopted from the shelter directly. The shelter only euthanizes when there are chronic or extreme health issues for the animal, or if there’s extreme aggression, Blood said.
When they get a large amount of the same animal, or when a particular animal has languished in the shelter without interest for a while, they turn to rescues including Frisky’s Wildlife and Primate Sanctuary, Days End Horse Rescue, the statewide Charm City Reptile Rescue and Friends of Rabbits.
“We’ve really had a lot of great rescues that have stepped forward over the years and pulled [out] animals like rabbits and small animals,” Blood said. “I know a lot more people will come in and say ‘we wanted to adopt, we didn’t want to buy,’ and I think over the years that awareness has grown in general.”
Unfortunately, many small animals may not make it to the shelter, according to Friends of Rabbits President Susan Wong. “Rabbits, mice, guinea pigs, birds even: I have a feeling that a lot of times they just get released,” she said.
“Look how cute they are,” Wong said, pointing to four newly-born bunny rabbits housed in the organization’s front room. “This is why Easter bunnies are so bad — because they’re so cute. But then when they become Mama-rabbit size, people are less interested. Because young rabbits are so easy to control, and once they become adults any animal may not be the personality you want them to be.”
Many people who adopt from Friends of Rabbits do so after encountering the rescue at one of the community events or pet stores they attend each weekend. “They never considered a rabbit because they didn’t think rabbits had personalities or they didn’t think rabbits could be litter box trained,” she said. “It’s really fun when people learn they are more than just a statue.”
Despite not planning on leaving with a rabbit that day, by the end of the Friends of Rabbits adoption event, Sophia was armed with a carrier for Willow. She’d secretly brought money with her and bought supplies Willow would need from the rescue.
“At this point, it’s just another drive here in five days,” Griffin, who lives in Tacoma Park, said before adding with a shrug, “It’s happening.”
With Willow loaded up in a carrier in one hand, and a red bag from Friends of Rabbits with a manual on rabbit care draped over her shoulder, Sophia made her way to the front door and called out to Deckert, the organization’s executive director, “Thank you!”
“You’re welcome,” Deckert answered. “Congratulations.”