Before You Start …
Over the decade or so that CottonTails® rabbit and guinea pig rescue has been running, I have been approached on several occasions by people wanting advice on how to start up their own rabbit rescue.
Before I give any practical advice, I always ask five basic questions:
- Why do you want to do this type of work?
- What do you hope to achieve?
- How much time and effort are you prepared and able to give to the project?
- How are you going to fund the work?
- Do you already a breed or intend to breed rabbits?
Bearing in mind that most small animal rescue centres give up within the first two years, it is vital to plan ahead and think things through thoroughly. This gives you a much greater chance of succeeding and “staying the course”, and perhaps you may even enjoy yourself in the process! Let’s take each point in turn.
The five important questions
Why do you want to do this type of work?
It is very common to be swayed emotionally to “do something” when you hear of cases of neglect or cruelty, but you can easily end up doing more harm than good if you start up for the wrong reasons. Many people do charitable or voluntary work to fulfil a need in themselves, and this is not a problem in itself so long as the inner motivation is strong enough to keep you going even when things get tough, as they inevitably do in this line of work. By the very nature of animal rescue work, many of the rabbits taken in will either have health or behavioural problems or both, so you must have a level of competence, knowledge and experience beyond that of basic husbandry.
What do you hope to achieve?
You need to decide whether you want to take in a few rabbits and keep them for the rest of their lives (a sanctuary), or whether you will be re-homing on a regular basis. The two approaches are completely different, one involving yourself and those immediately around you, the latter resulting in you having to deal with the public – a very difficult, time-consuming and at times frustrating task! Either way, decide on the maximum number that you can take and stick to it, no matter how people try to pressurise you to take more. The use of a waiting list is essential, together with a list of other rescues that you can refer people to when necessary.
How much time and effort are you prepared to put in?
Do not underestimate how much animal rescue work will influence and affect your life. There is a tremendous amount of hard work involved, both physical and mental, and most people give up because they are not properly prepared or have not realised how much time has to be devoted for it to be run efficiently and competently. Many marriages have crumbled due to the stresses associated with rescue work! If you have a full-time job, it will probably not be realistic to try running a re-homing centre, although having a few “unwanted” bunnies may be a good practical alternative. Bear in mind, however, that rabbits should be cleaned out several times a week to avoid unpleasant smells. Furthermore, you may have to apply for planning permission as your local authority may look on the project as beyond the range of a hobby. Neighbours can create a great deal of trouble in this respect even although the premises may be kept clean and tidy, and they may even involve the Environmental Health Department. These are all important issues that you should be aware of before you start.
How are you going to fund the work?
Rabbit rescue is not cheap. A good rescue centre will neuter and vaccinate all the rabbits prior to adoption, and this can be very expensive unless you can make a special arrangement with your vet. Neutering is important not only from the non-breeding aspect but also is vital to prevent uterine cancer in females, as well as sorting out many behavioural problems in both sexes. Neutering also allows you to match-up the large majority of rabbits into compatible pairs. Another important issue is that of Public Liability insurance – this is primarily for your own protection if you are going to have members of the public visiting on a regular basis. If you have any volunteers helping you, you will also need Employers Liability Insurance, as volunteers now have the same rights as paid employees. Insurance is very expensive, so you must bear this in mind when working out your setting-up expenses. Our current annual Public/Employers Liability Insurance bill is almost £500 (2012 figures).
Are you already a breeder or intend to breed rabbits?
As far as I am concerned this issue is black and white, no grey areas. If you are a rabbit rescue you never ever breed from the rabbits, not even your own. If you are a breeder, then that is what you are first and foremost, and you happen to take in some unwanted rabbits as well, out of the goodness of your heart, but that does not make you a rabbit rescue! It would be like the RSPCA deciding to produce puppies and kittens – it just isn’t done.
Guidelines for starting up your own rabbit rescue
Before you start taking in unwanted rabbits, you will need to equip yourself with good quality hutches of appropriate size for the needs of the individuals to be accommodated. Hutches should be a minimum size of 4’x2’x2’ for single rabbits and 6’ x 2’ x 2’ for pairs. Larger hutches are needed for bigger breeds. It is important to provide somewhere for the rabbits to have exercise such as a run or enclosure, preferably on concrete or similar surface to allow for regular cleaning and disinfection of the area. Better still, the runs should be attached permanently to the front of the hutches allowing access 24 hours a day. Take into account possible fox problems and ensure the accommodation is safe at all times. If a communal run is used where rabbits take turns, disinfection between inmates is absolutely vital to stop the spread of E. cuniculi, snuffles, cocciciosis, and external parasites, the whole area needing to be thoroughly sprayed between each rabbit using it. This is where concrete or paving is essential as soil or grass cannot be disinfected at all and you run the risk of spreading disease very quickly. It is all well and good saying rabbits should be allowed access on grass to graze, but in a rabbit rescue situation this is simply not practical if you want to stop the spread of diseases and parasites.
If the rabbits are to be housed inside, it is important to ensure good ventilation to minimise the spread of respiratory infections such as pasteurella (snuffles). Remember that visitors take note of how well the rabbits are kept and it pays to set a good example – if standards are poor there is no incentive for new owners to do any different.
Smaller items of equipment will also have to be bought, such as water bottles, food bowls, pet carriers, and cleaning utensils.
Permission from your Local Authority/Neighbours
Before you even think about starting a rabbit rescue, you must speak seriously to your neighbours, as not everyone is happy about the practicalities of living near such an establishment. If run properly there will be no bad smells, but even so there can be a “grassy” sort of odour from the hay and bedding. Furthermore, although rabbits are virtually silent, they can make a huge amount of noise by thumping, chewing and moving their furniture around, which is especially annoying at 3 in the morning! It is best to involve your local council too, as if they are informed from the start and you have their blessing, this will help later on if they get any complaints from neighbours. If the rescue is kept very small, the impact on the immediate area will be minimal, but there will still be people coming and going, more so than before the rescue started and this can also cause annoyance even from the car parking point of view. If the rescue becomes a busy centre, you may have to decide to either register as a business or alternatively a registered charity if you draw too much attention to yourself. The former will involve business rates for council tax (expensive) and employing an accountant, the latter will exempt you from that but registering is another complicated task that you may wish to avoid. More on that later. These are all points that need to be thought through, and can even limit fund raising capabilities if you want to keep a low profile.
Find a reliable, cost effective and preferably local supplier of food, hay and wood shavings. You may find it helpful to check if they will deliver to your door, as these are bulky items and sufficient quantities cannot be easily transported in an ordinary car. You will also need to consider what storage facilities are available.
Decide how you are going to safely dispose of the inevitable bags of manure/soiled bedding. Many local authority recycling centres will not accept animal waste, and most refuse collectors will not take the quantity that you will generate. Local allotment holders may be interested but do not assume that will be the case – make sure you have a legal and practical method of waste disposal worked out before you start.
Regular (annual) inspection by your local vet at your own invitation is an excellent idea, and there is usually no charge if you explain that you are taking in rescued animals. This is primarily for your own benefit as you can display the subsequent letter in a prominent position for visitors to see. The letter should contain the following points:
- How long you have been regularly attending that particular practice.
- How much experience you have with rabbits, and any relevant previous employment details.
- That the premises is clean, tidy, with no overcrowding, that all the pens/hutches are of adequate size for the animals housed, that there is provision of food and water, that bedding is clean, with free access to good quality hay. That all food is stored in rodent-proof containers.
- That no breeding of the animals is taking place. If you are rescuing rabbits then you should not be adding to the problem by producing yet more.
- A maximum number of animals should be stated appropriate for the premises concerned to avoid the temptation to overcrowd.
- There is evidence of good basic book-keeping, including details of the animals kept, the dates that they were brought in and re-homing dates, details of new owners, and any miscellaneous details such as veterinary treatment, vaccination and neutering dates, age, and any other relevant information.
It is very important that all rabbits are neutered prior to adoption and also prior to bonding if the individuals concerned are not already living together. Likewise it is important that single male guinea pigs are neutered to allow them to live with females once they are infertile (usually after a calender month). It goes without saying that this is extremely expensive, so without funding the neutering is going to be almost impossible, with currently prices being around £110 for female spays and £80 for male castration (2013 figures, but vets can vary in price). Not only is it expensive, but you also need to be prepared for the organisation required if the neutering is to be done in batches. The photo below shows the line of carriers set out ready on a typical neutering run morning.
Records should be kept of money received as donations and money paid out in expenses. Bear in mind that if a new owner can’t afford an appropriate donation to purchase the rabbits then there must be some doubt as to their ability or willingness to pay for their pet’s upkeep, veterinary bills etc. It is quite acceptable to charge a minimum adoption fee, as neutering and vaccinating is not cheap and even registered charities can’t run on thin air! Remember if you are a registered charity you can use Gift Aid to boost the value of the donation.
A waiting list is essential as there will be times when you are full up but don’t want to just turn people away. Overcrowding must be avoided at all costs due to the high risk of spreading disease as well as other welfare issues. A fair priority system should be operated so that rabbits in danger of cruelty or neglect come higher on the list than those who need to come in because their owner is bored with them, but remember that a rabbit that is unwanted may well be at risk of neglect too. “Pretty” rabbits should not have a higher priority over “standard” looking ones, and likewise rabbits with a mild deformity should not be penalised. Rabbits should be accepted all year round, space permitting, as rescue work does not stop just because it is winter! In fact, it is often the busiest time of year due to people dumping their rabbits because of their reluctance to look after them in the cold weather.
Veterinary advice recommends that all rabbits be vaccinated against VHD (Viral Haemorrhagic Disease, or RHD) and Myxomatosis, and with the new combined vaccine now available, it means that each rabbit is fully covered against both diseases for a year. It goes without saying that a rabbit rescue is more at risk of a major disease outbreak if the stock is not vaccinated shortly after arrival.
If there is any doubt that the rabbit is not going to a good home, then follow your instincts and refuse to let it go. If it is possible to carry out home checks then this is very helpful in making this decision, but this is not always possible in small rescue centres where time and manpower are both in short supply. However, always make sure that you get details of the accommodation in the form of photographs, as well as the new owner’s name, address and telephone number prior to the rabbits going out so that you can keep in touch. A follow-up visit could be arranged if you felt it necessary and if this were possible. It is useful to ask the new owners to sign a declaration, an example of which is below.
I the undersigned promise:
- To keep the animal in good healthy condition and provide veterinary treatment where necessary.
- To allow a representative of (name of rescue) to see the animal and its living accommodation at any reasonable time.
- Not to part with the animal except with the permission of (name of rescue), but to return the animal to (name of rescue) if no longer able to look after it.
- Not to allow the animal to breed (this point is not relevant in good rescues where all rabbits are neutered prior to adoption anyway).
- N.B. (name of rescue) reserves the right to remove any animal considered to be unsuitably placed
Care sheets/websites/telephone advice
Either an information sheet, website link or telephone number should accompany every rabbit that is place in a new home, and the new owners encouraged to contact you for advice should any problems arise. The RWAF produce a wonderful booklet all about rabbit care, and these can be purchased at minimum cost by contacting them direct.
It has to be up to individuals to decide on their policy for euthanasia in cases such as severe behavioural problems or chronic long-term health issues such as malocclusion/dental disease. However, you must consider that for every individual rabbit that you keep on a permanent basis this is one less place you then have available to take a rabbit that you could do something for and successfully re-home. Sadly, if you adopt a non-euthanasia policy you would quickly fill up with problem bunnies with no room to take in any more. This is often the case with sanctuaries whereby a new rabbit is only taken when an inmate finally passes away, but this policy rarely works in a re-homing centre unless extensive foster caring facilities are on offer.
It is often useful to notify your local RSPCA and any other animal welfare organisations and inform them of the type of rescue work that you offer, and you will likely find it helpful to work in conjunction with such organisations, rather than in competition with them.
It is certainly not easy to become a registered charity, and to be honest it will make very little difference to your rescue centre apart from perhaps helping a bit when you apply for grants from grant-awarding bodies. You can achieve just as high a profile whether you are registered or not, and the success of your organisation is dependent on the enthusiasm and knowledge of the volunteers concerned, not whether you are registered. You will need to go through a solicitor, otherwise your chances are not so good at being accepted by the Charity Commission. Choose a solicitor that specialises in charity law. It will not be cheap, and you may feel that the funds would be better spent on the animals rather than on the solicitors fees, but at least you can make enquiries. You will also find that the red tape involved will tie your hands in several issues and suddenly you are not in control anymore. However, if you think you may end up having large donations or grants, it is certainly important to become a registered charity in order to protect everyone’s interests, including that of the trustees and the animals.
Cover when ill or away
It is easy to get carried away at the beginning, especially if you are relatively young and in good health, and to think that you can run a rabbit rescue single handedly. Take my word for it – you can’t! You must set up a back-up plan even if you think you won’t need it, so if you are suddenly taken ill or something happens that you are called away, there is at least two people who are reliable and know the ropes so that the animals are properly cared for until normal routines can be established. Ignore this warning at your peril!