It was a Tuesday morning, and during an early morning bike ride at Cedar Creek Park in Seaford, I saw a beautiful spotted white rabbit relaxing in the grass. Long Island was in the middle of a heat wave this mid-July day, with temperatures well over 90 degrees for three days in a row
Spotted white rabbits are NOT wild rabbits. They are domestic, pet rabbits and when they are abandoned out in places like parks, especially in summer, they are in grave danger. It is only a matter of time before they die from heat stroke, parasites or predator attack.
I own two rabbits that were rescued from parks on Long Island. They had been abandoned, or “dumped,” as we volunteers at Long Island Rabbit Rescue (www.LongIslandRabbitRescue.org) also known as LIRRG, call it. So when I saw this one at Cedar Creek, I knew that if I couldn’t catch her, she would probably die a painful death.
Later in the day, I went back to the park with Josie, a good friend of mine to better assess the rabbit’s condition and we saw her contentedly laying in some shade under a small tree. She took some banana right out of Josie’s hand and she offered her head to be scratched. I later found out that some kind souls, Patrice, her husband Dennis, her daughter Dawn and Patrice’s brother Jimmy would go to the park every day since Dawn first discovered the rabbit in early May and they would leave fresh greens from their garden for her. They intuitively knew that this was a domestic rabbit, since unlike the wild brown rabbits found in the park she would run up to them when they brought food and treats. It is amazing that this rabbit survived up until this point. Patrice said the rabbit had to further adapt to living in the park when the ‘home’ she made for herself under low tree branches by the skating rink was demolished in June as a result of park maintenance. She relocated across the road to a more open area and that is when she became known to a lot of the people visiting Cedar Creek Park.
On Wednesday, I returned to the park to drop off some hay, water, pellets and banana, and saw the rabbit resting under a bush. She took a piece of the banana from me. When she was done with the banana and as she started to leave, she was holding up her right hind leg close to her belly and she hobbled rather than walked. I had to let her go as she quickly disappeared into the dense underbrush since LIRRG had no open foster spaces. There are far more rabbits being dumped than there are foster and adoptive homes to take these rabbits in.
Thoroughly worried for her now, I arranged to meet two fellow LIRRG volunteers at the park, Barbara and Michael, but we only saw the bunny for a brief moment. However, I felt emotionally connected to this rabbit now, so I decided that I would foster her myself, even though my small house was already crowded with my own two rabbits.
I borrowed a humane trap from LIRRG and set it up early the next day, baited with banana. I waited for hours, taking walks and coming back repeatedly to check the trap, but found it empty. At this point, I was trying to accept the fact that maybe she had died from the extreme heat, or from her injury. With heaviness in my heart, I went back a final time to collect the empty trap when I saw her! She was lounging in the shade, almost as if to say, “I’m still here!” My hopes were dashed, though, because when she saw me, she hobbled off into the bushes now dragging BOTH hind legs.
Now I knew there was no way she could survive much longer and she was probably suffering very much. Two other LIRRG volunteers; Kathie and Renee, returned to the park at dusk to help Josie and me attempt a rescue. For about an hour, we searched the area for the rabbit. Then, just as we were about to give up, we saw her lying on the lawn just ahead of us. We were elated! There was hope that we could save this poor bunny! Her movement was severely impaired; she was pulling herself along with only her front legs. It was so sad to see her struggle. However it made it easier for us to catch her. The four of us were able to corral her with pens and coax her into a pet carrier. We rushed her to the veterinarian who kindly agreed to assess her even though they were closed for the day. We had originally guessed that the rabbit was a boy and were calling him Petey. However, the vet told us Petey was a female and she then became known as Petra.
In addition to her leg paralysis, poor Petra was infested with ticks and fleas. These parasites are dangerous, causing anemia and infections and all sorts of other problems. The vet believed that Petra was anywhere from three to five years old and that the paralysis injury was probably very recent, since there was no urine scald on her legs. It amazed me that though she was so physically impaired, she was very alert and bright eyed.
Petra stayed a few days at the veterinary hospital. Even though her x-rays showed no fracture, the possibility still existed that there was a fracture. If it wasn’t a fracture, the vet felt that the medications she prescribed for Petra would help her mobility within a few days; however, it would be reasonable to wait up to two weeks to see if the medications helped her before discussing next steps. Petra needed to rest her back and stay more or less confined in a padded cage. I realized, then, that I may have to consider euthanasia for this sweet rabbit. If her condition wasn’t treatable, I had to consider her quality of life.
My husband Steve and I took Petra home and set her up in a small cage in our bedroom. She would spend hours laying there, just looking out the window. Since she couldn’t drag herself to her water and food bowls, I hand fed her and gave her water via an oral syringe. Petra loved her banana and blueberry treats and also loved nibbling on her straw chew toys. She ate happily when we fed her and would sort of purr when we petted her. Petra seemed to have a strong spirit, and was really trying to rally. I felt so happy to have saved her.
My happiness was short lived. The next morning I discovered that she was bleeding. We rushed her back to the vet. To make matters worse, her breathing was becoming labored. This is really bad for a rabbit. The vet said Petra quite possibly had a uterine growth (not uncommon in unsprayed female rabbits of a certain age) which may have metastasized to her lungs.
We had to make the dreaded decision. Petra had two strikes against her; the paralysis and probably uterine/lung cancer. Josie, Steve and I spent some time with Petra at the vet’s office, patting her and speaking soft words, which seemed to soothe her. Before we had a chance to tell the vet we were ready, Petra started to get frantic, like she was experiencing a death throe. The vet rushed in to administer the pre anesthetic and the euthanasia injection so that Petra would have no more pain. She then passed peacefully, with all of us surrounding her.
We agreed to a necropsy so that the veterinarians could learn from Petra’s death and hopefully help other rabbits. Surprisingly, the necropsy did not show cancer. There was internal hemorrhaging, probably from trauma, possibly trauma from a predator. It was concluded that Petra would never have hopped again and she would eventually have succumbed to her internal injuries.
My hope is that maybe Petra’s story will help save other rabbits from experiencing such horrible fates. Contrary to what many people think, domestic rabbits cannot survive on their own outdoors for very long. They suffer from the heat, fleas, ticks, maggots, parasites and predators.
As anyone who has ever had to euthanize a pet, we tried to console ourselves that we did the best thing for her. Petra had the last few days of her life surrounded by loving hands, fresh food and water, proper medical treatment and people who cared, maybe for the very first time in her life. I hope that Petra’s story will give people pause to think before they choose to ‘free’ a domestic rabbit into the outdoors, where there is a good chance he or she will suffer a cruel, painful death.