In many cultures for many centuries, rabbits have symbolized spring and new life. Small, gentle and generally sweet-tempered, wild rabbits (including hares and cottontails) are popular prey, and domestic rabbits are kept as companions, much like cats.
Wild rabbits are, so to speak, a whole different animal than the furry domestic rabbit. Not only are they different in appearance, but they are different genetically and cannot breed with each other. Hares are found throughout the world in North America (jackrabbits), Eurasia and Africa. European wild rabbits are known as Cottontails and live in Europe and North America. Cottontail coats are usually a reddish brown color mixed with greys and blacks. Their colors and coats adjust slightly to the seasons for warmth and for camouflage.
Cottontails are smaller, usually around 3 pounds. Their legs are slender, and their faces are longer with a more pointed shape. Their ears are also longer and flatter than domestic rabbit ears. Though not aggressive, wild rabbits are not people-friendly. Far more timid than domestics, wild rabbits can literally be frightened to death by humans or predators after trying to defend themselves. This is an instinct that cannot be trained out.
Sarah Rauschenberg with three of her Mini Rex rabbits. She became interested in rabbits in 4-H and now breeds them for other 4-H members’ projects.
All 60 breeds of domestic rabbits have evolved from the European wild rabbit. These are the round-faced, warm and fuzzy bunnies with which most people identify. Specialization in breeding has developed various colors, color combinations, coat textures, physical characteristics and sizes. Weights can range from 2 or 3 pounds (Pygmy rabbits) to 17 pounds (Flemish Giants.)
Domestication has also made them more accepting of humans. They do need care in handling to get them used to humans and enable trust, but they are not by nature aggressive and rarely bite. Their first instinct, again, is to run and hide when they are frightened, and they are frightened easily by loud noises, sudden movements or strangers. If a rabbit is cornered and angry, it will charge and claw.
Sarah Rauschenberg of St. Clairsville became interested in rabbits when she joined a 4-H Club. Now, 10 years later, she breeds Mini Rex rabbits to sell to other 4-H members.
"They're small, easy to care for. They can be litter trained, and they're quiet," she says. The popular Mini Rex breed is known for its soft, plushy coat and is sometimes called a "velveteen rabbit."
This week, one mama rabbit had a litter of six which will stay in the nest for about two weeks. At that point, they will have grown a little hair and will open their eyes, according to Rauschenberg. Domestic rabbits are born hairless and blind. The mother lines her nest with fur she pulls from her own coat and is protective of her young. Rauschenberg says that even in cold weather the newborns are kept very warm as they adjust.
In the wild, rabbits are born with hair, and mothers leave the nest returning only for feedings twice a day to keep predators away from her babies. This is why humans should never touch or approach baby wild rabbits. The mother is usually in the area.
Rabbits need less attention than some pets, but they are little creatures who respond to positive human contact. Rauschenberg says they need fresh food, water and clean hay every day. Though they are tolerant of cold weather (more so than warm weather), they need a hutch or shelter out of the wind. They can be litter trained, but like puppies or kittens, may have accidents while learning.
Because they groom themselves, rabbits can get hairballs that will affect their eating habits and can become serious. They like to be held but are fragile, so children should be taught and supervised when handling rabbits. Be prepared for a long-term commitment when adopting a rabbit. They are known to live 10 years or more. Domestic rabbits cannot live in the wild if abandoned or turned loose. They lack the survival instincts of their wild cousins and most likely will become easy prey or starve to death.
The Easter Bunny as a seasonal symbol is hundreds of years old, in fact, pre-Christian. Briefly, the connection begins with the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic goddesses Ostara and Eostre, respectively. Each was a goddess of spring and rebirth and was depicted as a hare. Rabbit attendants were said to lay colored eggs that were given to children in celebration of new life and spring.
The Germans brought the Easter Bunny to America in the 18th century when they settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Traditionally children constructed "nests" using their caps and bonnets. On Easter morning, good children could expect to find colored eggs from the "Oschter Haws" (Easter Hare).
Here are a few more facts about rabbits:
For more information on adopting or caring for rabbits, contact the 4-H program at the Belmont County OSU Extension office, (740) 695-1455, or visit the website for the House Rabbit Society at www.rabbit.org.