Spring bunnies keep area rabbitry hopping

Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2001

Easter evokes images of the Resurrection, spring, eggs, white lilies and, of course, bunnies.

People no longer see rabbits just as food. Increasingly families keep them as pets, both indoors and out.

But anyone smitten by adorable baby bunnies this time of year needs to be aware that keeping rabbits, like any pets, involves major responsibility and should only be undertaken after careful consideration.

No one knows that better than Pat Lytle, who has a serious rabbit habit. She and her daughter, 12-year-old Kay, run Roughy Road Rabbitry at their Kasilof home.

"Yup, I'm the bunny lady," Pat said.

Lytles belong to 4-H, the American Rabbit Breeders Association and the Alaska Rabbit Breeders Club. They now have 33 adult rabbits plus about three dozen little ones from several litters in various stages of growth. The rabbits share the country estate with a horse, two sheep, two dogs, four barn cats, a dozen chickens and one pet mouse.

"Fish don't count," she said of the family aquarium.

Pat did not grow up with rabbits, but her family had so many other animals when she was growing up in southern California that they had to rent a barn out of town to accommodate the critters.

"We didn't start raising rabbit until we moved to this house 11 years ago. I'd always wanted a little farm of my own," she said.

She got her first pair even before they moved in.

"They were almost given to me," she recalled. "They were brand-x rabbits."

Soon she talked her husband, Terry, into letting her buy a purebred, registered French lop, a breed of big rabbit with floppy ears. Ostensibly, she was going to use the animal to start producing meat rabbits. But the Anchorage seller convinced the Lytles to tag along to a rabbit show.

They came away from the show with a different attitude.

"Both of us were hooked," Pat said.

They began raising purebred rabbits for showing and pets, although some are still used for food. They switched from the big meat rabbits, which weigh about 16 pounds, to mini breeds, which weigh four or five pounds. For a while, they tried them all.

"I kind of went crazy with them," she said.

In the early 1990s, they had more than 250 of a dozen breeds, she estimated.

"And then there were babies."

But the many hours doing chores, especially during harsh winter weather, chilled her enthusiasm.

"It got to be where it wasn't fun anymore. So I got everything cut down to where it was a hobby again."

Now the Lytles have two types: mini lops -- cuties with snub noses and droopy ears -- and mini rexes -- sleek little rabbits with ultra soft fur.

"There used to be people raising meat rabbits in the area," Pat said. "I don't think there are now. The price of feed has gone so high.

"The breeds I have do very well as house pets."

Rabbits have several advantages indoors, she said.

"You can housebreak them. They do very well with a litter box if you catch them young," she said.

They are curious and gregarious. They will climb on people's laps and play with each other and with some other pets.

Some people allergic to dogs and cats have no problems with rabbits.

They also are fairly inexpensive. Although the Lytles have had pedigreed rabbits costing hundreds of dollars, prices for mixed breed bunnies range from about $5 for newly weaned babies to about $15 for adults.

"It costs about 8 cents a day to feed a rabbit," Pat said. "They need no shots. They don't get rabies."

Rabbits kept outside have another advantage in Alaska. Kept dry and out of the wind, they stand up to the climate.

"They can handle bitter cold weather," she said.

But rabbits also have definite disadvantages.

They are not suitable for handling by young or rough children. Sometimes they are fragile and high-strung, and their backs break fairly easily.

They also defend themselves by scratching with their powerful back feet. To be on the safe side, clip the claws on pet ones.

Their sex lives are another challenge. House rabbits can be neutered. Otherwise they may "spray" and mark territory. In mixed company they breed with proverbial rapidity. And some females make lousy mothers, abandoning babies or even killing them.

One trait causing problems for almost anyone with rabbits in the house is their fondness for chewing on wires and cords. Some take on woodwork and furniture as well. After theirs disconnected the computer mouse, the Lytles banished them to outdoor hutches, except for closely supervised visits.

Another challenge is a parasitic disease common here called coccidiosis. It leaves adult rabbits looking ragged, bony and bloated, and it can kill babies overnight. But it is easy to treat with proper medication, Pat said.

More problematic is the relationship between rabbits and the carnivores common in human households. Although young rabbits and kittens often become happy playmates, unfamiliar adults of the two species fight.

"Lots of times, the rabbit will win," she said.

Dogs pose the biggest problem.

"People need to be very careful bringing in a house rabbit if they have a dog, regardless of its size," she said.

Dogs will defend their territory against the upstart, which also happens to be a delectable prey animal.

Packs of roving dogs can decimate outdoor rabbits. Many rabbit raisers have horror stories, including the Lytles. Dogs reach up under raised hutches and grab the rabbits' toes, pull their feet through the mesh and gnaw their legs off, leaving them to bleed to death gruesomely. The dogs go into a frenzy and are strong enough to rip through heavy wire mesh.

Pat Lytle sells rabbits with perfect conformation as breeding stock, complete with pedigrees. Those that are healthy but don't match the rigorous show ring criteria she calls "pet grade." But rabbits that bite she won't sell.

Disposition is mostly inherited and cannot be improved by handling. Aggressive animals, rabbits or any species, should never be bred, she said.

She is frank about the destiny diverse rabbits are born to.

"Some of them are meant to be pets, and some of them are meant to be dinner," she said.

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