Almost everything in my pet zoo freeranges. Chickens, ducks, guinea fowl, cats… There are a few animals that are too small to safely run free, like quail and guinea pigs – they would run a big risk of being airlifted by the crows (serious predators, that are always waiting around!). Quail and guinea pigs seem happy in their large cages though; even if the doors are open, they rarely poke their noses outside.
The only animals that are dying to live outside but can’t, are the rabbits. Whenever I walk past the cages, they run to the wire and wait by the door, hoping I will let them out. When someone opens the door, they try to slip out past their legs (and frequently succeed). Every morning, I open one of the cages for a while so the rabbits can run, jump and dig to their hearts’ content. They live for these morning outings! The others are sitting by the wire, looking on wistfully, hoping it will be their turn next.
I have often thought caged rabbits lead fairly boring lives. They get shelter, food and protection, but it comes at a price – there isn’t much for them to do. Rabbits in the wild would be constantly moving; munching on grass, digging burrows, running to escape from predators…
For the rabbits that live in the pet zoo, sadly this kind of freedom is not possible. They would dig out of the enclosure and escape. This is not such a problem in itself, as they usually return to their home base after they’ve had a look around, but the risk to them is too high. Rabbits are prey animals, everything out there would try to catch them and they aren’t used to this. Once, a young bunny managed to slip through the fence and was killed immediately by a dog. Now, I don’t let them out until they are fully grown.
Actually, once I have tried the freerange rabbit thing – sort of by accident. A few years back, before I started the pet zoo, my middle son’s daycare facility got a pair of bunnies, but didn’t have a suitable place for them to live. I made my husband come to the rescue and he built them a fabulous, spacious cage in the playground, complete with buried PVC pipes and plastic containers as fake burrows. We put wood on the floor so they wouldn’t dig out. The bunnies were happy and soon started multiplying, reminding us that rabbits really do breed like rabbits.
As we were trying to determine what to do, who the males and females were and how to separate them, the bunnies figured out how to chew through the wood and dig out. Soon, they were all over the playground and out into the kibbutz gardens. At first we were alarmed, but then we saw how happy they were. During the heat of the day, they rested in the shade of their cage, drank water and ate pellets and veggies. In the early mornings and late afternoons, they went out to eat grass, run around and enjoy the cool air. What would be better than that?
So we decided to leave them to it. Soon, we lost count of how many rabbits there were and who was who. They came and went as they pleased, had babies and full lives that had nothing to do with us. They basically turned feral, even though their home base still was the cage in the playground. We couldn’t pet them anymore, but there was some charm in it – freerange rabbits!
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. There are many dogs in our kibbutz and they all run free. On top of that, there are foxes, jackals, mongooses, birds of prey… and everything eats rabbits. After a year or so, the entire rabbit population was wiped out. Sadly, none of them survived and the cage stood empty until we took it down. So whenever I am tempted to just fling open all the doors to all the cages and let the rabbits go where they please, I remember the fate of the playground rabbits. That stops me in my tracks.
Also, quite apart from wanting to keep my rabbits alive, I prefer them to be approachable and pettable. Freerange outside rabbits will turn wild very quickly. And lastly, I want to be able to keep track of births and litters and try to control the breeding. Reproduction is a vital part of nature and I want the children that visit to see the nests and look on while the bunnies grow. Many people have no idea what baby bunnies look like or even that they nurse like all mammals do, so it is wonderful to be able to show them.
So… my bunnies will have to keep being cage rabbits, but with as much outside time and cage enrichment as possible. More on enrichment in another post!