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Image: Rabbit
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP
A rescued rabbit feeds July 26 at The Bunny Bunch, a rabbit shelter in Montclair, Calif. The number of rabbits in shelters across the country goes up every summer as Easter bunnies grow up and the novelty wears off.
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updated 8/6/2010 9:46:12 AM ET 2010-08-06T13:46:12

Easter bunnies grow up and the novelty wears off. Come summer, people often just dump the bunnies.

That's why the number of rabbits in animal shelters across the country swells every summer.

"We are in crisis" said Caroline Charland, founder of The Bunny Bunch, which has 350 rabbits who need homes.

Two hundred of the rabbits are in foster care and 150 are at The Burrow, the adoption center her 20-year-old rescue operates in Montclair, about 35 miles east of Los Angeles.

Charland tries to keep the group's rabbit count around 300, but that isn't always possible, especially in the summer. Kill shelters throughout Southern California will call her and say: "We are euthanizing today. Can you take any rabbits?"

Domestic rabbits who make it to shelters and to people like Charland are the lucky ones, said Betsy Saul, co-founder of Petfinder.com, an online pet adoption database.

"People take rabbits out and figure they will survive on their own," and that's usually a deadly decision for the animals, Saul said.

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"Rabbits can die of heart attacks from the very approach of a predator," said Mary E. Cotter in New York. She is with the House Rabbit Society, an international nonprofit organization that rescues rabbits from animal shelters.

The Associated Press, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Pet Products Association estimate rabbits are the pets of choice in about 2 percent of American households — the same as horses. But in shelters, the animals come in third behind dogs and cats, said Ana Bustilloz, a spokeswoman for spcaLA in Los Angeles.

At the Pasadena Humane Society, there are about 15 rabbits now and normally they would have fewer than 10, spokeswoman Hillary Gatlin said.

As a rule, it costs $30 to adopt a spayed or neutered and microchipped rabbit from Pasadena, but while there are so many, the shelter is running a 2-for-1 special. You get two rabbits, both fixed and microchipped, for $30. "That's a steal," Gatlin said.

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Rabbits make good pets because they can easily be trained to use a litter box, come when you call them and will play tag, Cotter said. They are inquisitive, intelligent, sociable and affectionate.

But, she warned, rabbits aren't for everyone.

They live seven to 10 or more years, generally they are not good around small children, they must live indoors and require daily feeding, grooming, exercise, together time and cleanup.

Rabbits have long been used in research. "Think about what's necessary from a research animal. They are loving, kind, trusting, incredibly domesticatable, trainable. The very things that damn them to be such good subjects make them great pets," Saul said in a telephone interview.

The ASPCA estimates it costs $730 a year to care for a rabbit. The first year, it will be about $1,055 because of $325 in capital costs (cage, litter box, spay and neutering).

A new owner will have to do some rabbit-proofing in areas where the animals will roam, Saul said. Rabbits need to chew their entire life — it's not a phase they will outgrow, so cable guards and furniture leg guards will have to be installed.

Rabbits seem to flourish in mature adult homes, Saul said, because they prefer quiet, bookish pursuits to rambunctious play in rowdy homes.

At The Burrow, the rabbits seem to know it's safe and often greet visitors. One of the friendliest is Nutmeg, a cinnamon-colored red Rex with velvet-feeling fur who will stick her nose through the cage to be petted.

She was found alongside a road with a broken leg.

Education is a big part of what The Bunny Bunch does. "We talk as many people out of getting a rabbit as we adopt to," Charland said.

People who get rabbits as gifts or from a store will keep the rabbits outside, where they can quickly die in heat, or in a small cage, where they can become aggressive in a confined space, developing what is called "cage rage" as they protect their small area, she said.

Shelters, rescues and animal experts all have one major piece of advice when it comes to rabbits: Give as many Easter bunnies for gifts as you want next year — but make them all chocolate.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Animal Tracks: July 25 - Aug. 1

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