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This Easter, stick with chocolate bunnies

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Every year around this time, pet shops' display windows start filling up with cute "Easter" bunnies. Who can resist those wriggly noses and fluffy cotton tails? My advice: You're better off with the bunnies found in toy stores or candy stores--not pet stores.

The trouble is, a few months from now, many of those adorable Easter bunnies will have worn out their welcome, and what will become of them then?

I found out the answer when a neighbor discovered two domesticated rabbits hopping around in her yard one morning. We rigged a trap to nab the skittish bunnies, and I "temporarily" took them in. We later learned that the rabbits, now named Eddie and Lewie, had escaped from dilapidated hutches and that their owner didn't particularly care if they never came back.

With Eddie and Lewie now permanent members of my family, I know that despite their meek appearance, bunnies are high-maintenance animals. They need to be groomed regularly and fed a high-fiber diet to prevent potentially fatal hairballs (rabbits can't vomit like cats do). They are prone to a variety of health conditions, including upper respiratory and ear infections, tooth infections and misalignment, bladder stones and cancer of the thymus.

Rabbits are safest and happiest living indoors--those who are forced to live in cages outside can suffer and die from heat exhaustion in the summer and exposure in the winter. They are also at the mercy of prowling predators--even if a raccoon or dog isn't able to get into the cage, rabbits can literally die of fright by being trapped with no means of escape.

Unless they've been spayed or neutered, rabbits may mark their territory with urine. They love to chew on anything and everything--they must chew to prevent their teeth from growing too long. Perhaps worst of all, at least as far as kids are concerned, rabbits are easily startled and often don't like to be held--a terrified leap out of a child's arms can be accompanied by kicks and scratches, and the fall can break a rabbit's back.

So it's no surprise, really, that when those cute little Easter bunnies start chewing on lamp cords and spraying urine on the couch, many people either relegate them to a life of loneliness in a cramped cage or, perhaps worse, simply turn them loose. Unlike wild rabbits, domesticated rabbits cannot fend for themselves. A large white rabbit like Lewie might as well have a bull's-eye painted on his back--Lewie wouldn't have escaped the notice of the local hawks and foxes for long.

Impulse buyers who are a bit more conscientious turn their unwanted rabbits over to an animal shelter or rescue group, where at least they will be well cared for. One local rescue group almost always has several dozen rabbits in its care, most of whom are discarded Easter pets. Ironically, the group's shelter is located nearly within view of the shopping mall where many of those rabbits were purchased.

Buying a rabbit from a pet store contributes to the rabbit overpopulation crisis in two ways--it takes a home away from a rabbit waiting in a shelter, and it adds to the number of unwanted rabbits when the purchased rabbit is discarded months later. It also supports horrendous breeding facilities. A PETA investigator at a facility that supplies PetSmart, PETCO and other stores documented filthy conditions and severe crowding that led to cannibalization. The investigator also revealed that workers crushed or hurled small animals to the ground in an attempt to kill them and threw live animals in the trash. Rabbits were subjected to crude neuter surgeries at the hands of a staffer with no formal veterinary training. Hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes were used to "disinfect" the bloody wounds.

This Easter, take a tip from Eddie and Lewie--don't adopt a bunny without knowing what you're getting into. If you are just looking for something to put in your kids' Easter baskets, stick with chocolate bunnies.

Bobbie Mullins lives in Norfolk, Va., with rescued rabbits Eddie and Lewie and four former stray cats. She wrote this for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

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