Katayune Ehsani and Troy and Lisa Denkinger sit cross-legged on the floor of the Chicago Community Humane Center, blocking off a corner of the room where a spotted, one-eared rabbit is cleaning his face with his front paws. "This is Vincent," says Troy, who with Lisa handles the shelter's rabbit adoptions. "He's a stray that was found in Morton Grove. We're not sure about the ear, but it could be a result of frostbite." Ehsani, who's there to adopt a rabbit, strokes Vincent's forehead. When he hops away and releases a few Raisinette-like droppings, everyone laughs.
Lisa puts Vincent away and returns with Raul, a huge white-and-tan male that grunts--unusual behavior for a rabbit. "He was found in a forest preserve in Wilmette," says Troy. "He was under a car, covered in yellow goo, and he's still a bit skittish." Next up is Delaney, a fat, "depressed" black rabbit whose owners bought a condo that didn't allow pets. A lop-eared one named Skyler has a big bump on his nose from a fight. Haley's owner never let her out of her cage. Britt, an albino, was found along with Sven in Andersonville. Rust-colored Caroline came from Chicago Animal Care and Control. "We went down to get a dog and ended up with three dogs, a rabbit, and a guinea pig," Troy says.
Most of the rabbits have seen better days; some are extremely large, some are severely underweight, others show up urine stained from sitting in dirty cages. Some have sore hocks from wire floors. Many are wounded. One arrived dyed green. Another came from a nearby pet store, which gave her away "when she got too big to be used as a snake food." Some neighborhood kids brought her to the shelter in a pillowcase.
"They're quiet animals, so if their owners leave them in a cage, they don't cry," says CCHC executive director Robin Dillow. "They don't bark. They don't scream to be let out."
Rabbits have been domesticated since the 18th century and make good pets--they're the third most popular pet mammal in the U.S.--but there are a lot of misconceptions about their care, say the Denkingers. It's recommended that they live indoors and be allowed to run free at least four hours a day. Like puppies, they tend to chew on things they shouldn't (though it's easy to bunnyproof a home). They require lots of hay and fresh vegetables, and can live up to a dozen years. They don't like to be handled and can be aggressive if they're not spayed or neutered, but they're easily potty trained and display intelligence and a wide range of emotions when given the chance.
"A lot of people think they're cage-dwelling lumps," says Troy. "But that's not true at all. They can be as active and demonstrative and as interesting as a dog or a cat. They're all different. That's why we never take people into the rabbit room and let them pick one out. We always have them look at them individually, so they can get an idea of what they're like."
Many of the neglected and abandoned rabbits that wind up in the shelters were purchased around Easter on impulse. "We've had people pick up a rabbit thrown out of a car window on Easter day," says Joan Irwin, comanager of the Chicago chapter of the House Rabbit Society, a national organization that places abandoned rabbits in foster care until they're adopted. "It was probably a gift from grandmother. Every year we get horror stories like that."
"We start getting them a few days after Easter," says Kevin Morrissey, a spokesman for the Anti-Cruelty Society, which takes rabbits but is not equipped to do rabbit adoptions. "It seems like a good idea and they're cute and they're cuddly, but the amount of care and the problems that can arise in the house become apparent pretty quickly."
Last year the Anti-Cruelty Society took in 81 rabbits. Only a third were adopted, most through the CCHC and the House Rabbit Society. Fifty-one were euthanized, and a few were DOA. "People do strange and unaccountable things when it comes to animals, especially ones that are viewed as a novelty and not a longtime companion," says Morrissey.
The city's department of animal care and control will accept any animal that comes in, including rabbits, ducks, and chicks purchased as Easter gifts. Owners have seven days to claim them. After that, some are put up for adoption and some end up at the CCHC or the HRS. But many end up euthanized.
The CCHC is one of only five multispecies no-kill shelters in the country that accepts rabbits and neuters them prior to placing them up for adoption. At CCHC, each animal is also litter box trained, tagged, and "socialized" before leaving the shelter.
The privately funded nonprofit was started in 1998 by a handful of people from social service and animal welfare backgrounds who one day found themselves discussing their vision of a perfect shelter. "I guess animal sheltering was in our blood," says Dillow, who had previously volunteered and served as interim director of Tree House Animal Foundation, a cageless no-kill cat shelter in Uptown. Their plan was to create a full-service organization that catered to animals in crisis--those that are sick, injured, or abused, have "temperament issues," or have been turned away from other shelters--and their owners. "Because whenever an animal is in crisis, there's often a human in crisis as well," she says.
In 1999 CCHC purchased some property in Rogers Park, at 7444 N. Clark, where they planned to build a state-of-the-art shelter. Early last year they also opened a storefront office at Lunt and Western, which focuses on community outreach and education--services include a pet food pantry for low-income pet owners, a counseling service for people with pet care problems, and a youth volunteer program.
The group's flexibility was tested a few weeks after they opened, when someone called trying to place a group of 16 cats. They couldn't say no, Dillow says, and the staff went to the woman's apartment and trudged through piles of waste to get them. "There are some studies that suggest that animal hoarding is a type of mental illness," says Dillow. "Rather than just taking these animals and moving on, one of our staff members made a real connection with her, and put her in touch with a social service provider.
"We continue to have cases where people are suffering from some type of illness or they're losing their housing. We work on helping them find an interim solution for the pet. Sometimes it's temporary foster care. Sometimes it might be better if they surrender their animals. But if they decide to keep them we encourage them to participate in our CAFE [pet food pantry] program."
Later they returned to the same woman's apartment for 16 more cats. Then came the dogs. And the rabbits. In no time, the makeshift storefront shelter was filled to capacity with ten rabbits, 50-odd cats, and two small dogs. Confronted with the day-to-day needs of all these animals, the plans for 7444 N. Clark went onto the back burner, where they remain today. Since CCHC opened, the organization has found homes for 15 rabbits, ten dogs, one mouse, and 214 cats. "I think [the response] demonstrated that there really was and is a great need in the area," says Dillow.
The youth volunteer program also developed spontaneously. "A little girl from the neighborhood came and asked if she could visit with some cats," says Dillow. "She came in with one of her little friends, and others followed. It just sort of happened naturally."
These days CCHC has 75 volunteers (including 27 children) and ten staffers, most of whom are part-time. The Denkingers joined as board members last March. They'd done rabbit adoptions for the local chapter of the House Rabbit Society in the early 90s and had just returned to Chicago after a stint in California. They say the CCHC's rigorous screening process (which is modeled after the HRS's and can take a few weeks) turns off a lot of would-be adopters. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Some people don't like it that they can't just walk in and adopt a rabbit," says Troy. "We usually talk to them and if they don't have any experience we send them some literature about what rabbits are like as companion animals. Then we call them back and see if they're still interested.
"We turn off about half the people with that literature. It's not scary literature--it just goes into the difficulties. Rabbits need a special vet. They chew and they dig. A lot of people think they're getting an animal that will sit there quietly and not get into trouble. But a rabbit is like having a puppy in a lot of ways."
Another ten percent are talked out of adopting--usually those with a bad track record with animals, or who want one for their child. Once, Lisa turned away a cockfighter. "She had asked him if he had any other animals," says Troy. "He said he had a pet rooster--that he was too nice to fight, so he made him into a pet."
Others--like Ehsani, whose family kept a rabbit when she was growing up--breeze through the screening process. Back at the shelter, after visiting with about ten rabbits, she asks to see Vincent again. Lisa shows her how to cradle him on his back--he immediately goes limp--and they discuss what she should expect over the first few weeks. Ehsani signs the adoption papers, writes a check, and is given a care package that includes the House Rabbit Handbook, an untreated wicker wreath (for chewing), and a list of vets. She and Vincent pose for two Polaroids--one for the shelter's already-crowded bulletin board and one to keep.
A month later, Vincent has free run of Ehsani's house. "At first he was a little hesitant," she says. "If he heard a dog bark outside, he would crouch down. And he wasn't really affectionate."
These days, she says, "he'll lie down when I pet him. He's warming up." Now that they're settled, she's thinking about getting him a companion. To do that she'd have to bring Vincent back to the shelter for "bunny bonding"--to see how he gets along with the other rabbits. "Maybe they'll have one with the other ear missing," she says.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.