Kathleen Wilsbach knows their personalities well.
Rowan is dignified and smart, Palmer's a little aloof, and Jasmine, well, truth be told, she's a bit of an opinionated prima donna.
Years spent in the company of her furry housemates has taught Wilsbach that rabbits aren't the docile cottontails many believe them to be, but creatures with personas as distinct as their feline and canine counterparts.
"People are starting to perceive them differently and realize they're animals with a lot of personality. They are very fascinating animals," says Wilsbach, a Baltimore member of the House Rabbit Society, a national organization whose numbers have skyrocketed from 300 when it formed in 1988 to more than 7,000 today.
Wilsbach manages the society's Maryland, Washington and Northern Virginia chapter, which has grown to some 500 members. She attributes the increased popularity of rabbits as house pets to the organization's efforts at public education and shifting lifestyles.
Bunnies can be litter-box trained, she points out, making them more suitable choices than dogs for apartment dwellers. And they don't require walks or obedience training, though that's not to say they're easygoing.
Wilsbach says her first rabbit would grunt a blue streak of cuss words at her. Her Charles Village menagerie these days is clearly ruled by Miss Jasmine, who's apt to growl her disapproval at anyone who crosses her.
"They train you -- isn't that right, Jasmine?" she says affectionately. "I do what she says and nobody gets hurt."
Doreen Acil, assistant office manager of the Maryland SPCA, is also a newly converted rabbit lover. Sarah, her brown and white dwarf bunny, shares space with a dog, cat, parakeet and hamster, and likes to race around Acil's bedroom and rub noses with her daughter.
"She's a doll," Acil says. "I love her."
Acil acquired Sarah a few years ago, after the unwanted bunny turned up at the SPCA where Acil works. She couldn't bear to see it destroyed and took it home. Wilsbach and other members of the volunteer-run House Rabbit Society rely on "fosterers" to take in unwanted rabbits until permanent homes are found. About 120 rabbits are placed in foster care annually in the Baltimore-D.C. area and foster homes are usually full.
Wilsbach says though rabbits are increasingly less likely to be given as gifts, unwitting recipients continue to receive unwanted bunnies, particularly around Easter. Parents are typically the culprits. When the cute little bunny starts growing and the novelty wears off, it's often given to a shelter or abandoned outdoors.
The House Rabbit Society works with animal shelters to find homes for the discarded pets. About 60 percent of rabbits taken in by the Humane Society of Baltimore County are adopted out, compared to about 55 percent of cats and 79 percent of dogs. However, the figure doesn't account for the unknown numbers of rabbits left outdoors to starve or fall victim to predators.
"The rabbits in the shelters, we're their last hope. I get about 20 calls a week from people who don't want their rabbits anymore, and that's just me," Wilsbach says. "It's very disheartening."
Wilsbach says contrary to popular belief, rabbits and small children aren't a good match. Rabbits are descendants of ground-dwelling animals and often don't like being picked up, preferring to remain close to the ground. Nor are they low maintenance. Rabbits like to chew, wreaking havoc on baseboards, furniture and carpeting. Their skeletons are fragile, making them vulnerable to injury.
The House Rabbit Society advocates spaying or neutering rabbits and reminds people they often live 10 to 12 years, requiring a substantial commitment on the part of owners.
Dedicated owners say the rewards are worth the effort. Diane Neumeyer, who adopted a neighborhood bunny when its previous owners tired of it a few months after Easter, says rabbits are more intelligent than they're given credit for.
LuckyBun, Neumeyer's pink-eyed albino bunny, likes to play with balloons or sit in front of the television watching "Judge Judy." Neumeyer, whose Parkville townhouse is filled with bunny pillows, planters, figurines and other memorabilia, wants to spread the message that the only rabbits suitable for Easter gifts are the inanimate variety.
"It's not like a little animal you can stick in a corner and forget about," she says.
State laws forbid the sale of bunnies younger than 8 weeks, but Wilsbach says demand for baby pets often results in the regulation being ignored. Under the Baltimore City Code it's illegal to dye chicks and ducklings (a practice sometimes used to boost the animals' Easter appeal) and both must be sold in quantities of at least 25 to discourage their being offered as pets. But no such rule applies to rabbits.
"Some people consider them livestock. We consider them pets and members of the family," she says.
Wilsbach says the growing ranks of bunny lovers include everyone from young suburban families to single women living in the city. Besides their choice of pet, she says, all have one thing in common.
"They don't eat rabbit, I can tell you that," she says.
More information on the House Rabbit Society, or on rabbit care in general, can be found by calling 410-889-4104 or visiting the society's Web site at www.rabbit.org.