Notes from Windward: #70


Bunny Business


     One of the unique things about Windward is that we are able to take the time to really focus on how we care for the animals we raise. A commitment to a deeper relationship with them tends to make it easier to celebrate the work that they perform for us and it reflects in the happiness of both the animals and the care-givers.

     It also allows for a much stronger appreciation for the animals' sacrifices therein. It's hard to take food for granted or think of it lightly when you helped to raise it. Throughout my time here, I have been able to take part in several things that will make it easier and more enjoyable to raise healthy rabbits at Windward in the future. I have also been able to watch and take part in the many changes that come with the different life stages of these critters.

a bunny eye view

The Creation of the Rabbit Play Pen

      Rabbits, in order to be happy and healthy, tend to require a little more space than the average hutches in commercial rabbit farming. The specific breed that we raise are on the larger end of the rabbit scale (our New Zealand/California cross breeds usually weigh around eight or nine pounds at adulthood) and thus enjoy even more space.

     Not long after I arrived at Windward, Mary Lou and I brainstormed some ways to give the rabbits a safe and spacious place to play. Eventually it was decided that there was enough space within the fenced rabbit enclosure to fence off a separate area specifically for playtime and exercise.

     In order to make it escape-proof it took many feet of chicken wire attached to the fencing and buried a few inches under the soil. Rabbits are notorious diggers and although this is usually intended for burrowing and finding roots to munch on, they can very easily tunnel under the fencing if they are not watched carefully.

the bunny crib pen

     After checking for large holes in the fencing and gate, we placed several month-old rabbits in the enclosure along with a few small boards and logs for them to climb on. After inspecting the area closely, they were soon running and "binkying" (when a rabbit jumps in midair and kicks its legs out to the side it is called a "binky" and is a sign that they are very happy and content), letting us know that they approved of their new playground. Since the play pen's creation we have continually rotated our rabbits through it, allowing the younger and older ones to all have a turn running and playing in it.

     The playpen was made for several reasons:

  1. Simply for exercise and stretching, as discussed previously. Rabbits are very active creatures and have a lot of energy to release when given the chance too. When raising rabbits for meat, it is extremely useful to give them an outlet to gain muscle. This is hard for them to do when sitting in a hutch every day.

  2. For the happiness of the rabbits (and us). Even as I type, a two-month-old bunny is running circles around me and performing binkies. (I find that the playpen makes a great office while typing up articles.) It takes a lot of stress off of me to know that the rabbits we raise are not uncomfortable or unhappy.

  3. Increased comfort around people. Building a relationship with the rabbits makes it much easier when trying to move them around, harvesting them, checking their health or when simply feeding them. The playpen has allowed us to be closer to the rabbits than we have been able to be before. It allows us to handle them at a young age and for long periods of time without having to worry about their escape. Simply sitting with them in the pen allows them to be used to, and comfortable with, our scents. The act of transferring them from their hutches to the play pen has also played a large role in this. They quickly learn that they are being taken to the playground and are much calmer when being picked up.

Emily playing with Paris' baby

The Crib Pen

     In June, Karen requested that a small group of younger bunnies be brought to the Sunnyside Swap Shop in Portland for the toddlers to play with. In order to keep them in Karen's backyard we needed a pen that was somewhat portable. Opalyn told us that there was a baby crib that had been stored above the garage and suggested that we use it as a pen.

     After Mary Lou took the legs off of it and stapled chicken wire around it, it was ready to be used. We began putting Paris' new litter in it every day for a few hours and eventually started keeping them in it for most of the day. The Crib Pen has been incredibly useful when weaning litters and getting them used to being handled. It will certainly play a role in the future whenever we transport rabbits or chicks.

outdoor play time for the bunnies

Trip to Portland

     Theresa and I took three rabbits from Paris' litter to Portland in early July for the children at the Swap Shop to play with. The bunnies were about four weeks old and had been handled quite a bit by people at Windward and by Karen's daughters in order to prepare them for the unsure hands of toddlers. We set up a ring of waffle blocks around the crib pen, a space for the kids to sit and handle the bunnies and watch them roam.

      The rabbits were impressively calm the entire time, some even falling asleep in the arms of the children who held them. But possibly more impressive was how careful the children were as they handled the fragile critters. Even the wildest of two-year olds were calmed in the presence of the baby bunnies. These three rabbits are still some of the friendliest ones we have at Windward, even jumping into my lap when I sit with them in the play pen. It's amazing what a day in the presence of children did for all involved.

a bunny makes a friend

Challenges in Breeding

     When raising anything, there are always those rough patches that we have to find a way around‒never a trivial task. We have run into a few of those this summer.

     Virgo, a year-old doe, was bred with Scorpio in early May. The breeding produced three babies but all of them were dead by their third day. The fur and hay in the nesting box was covered in Virgo's urine and feces; this could be due to the box being placed in the wrong corner of the hutch or simply a sign of Virgo's rejection of them.

     This was Virgo's second time breeding (the first one failed in February when the litter died at five days) and so she was given one more chance to produce a healthy litter, or she would be harvested. While this may seem cruel it is important that the rabbits that we keep from harvest are actually producing, otherwise food and energy are going to waste. Luckily, Virgo's third try led to a very healthy litter.

      Ursula, another doe, was bred with Orion in early May and never produced babies. Around the same time we noticed a lesion on her neck as well as significant loss of fur on a daily basis. Her neck was treated with an antibiotic ointment and although it eventually healed, her fur loss continued.

     We are unsure what was causing a stress on her system and if it was related to her skin lesion or her non-development of offspring. Ursula had been bred twice before this; neither breeding was successful. The decision was made to cull Ursula, a tough decision but one that was made in the interest of the current and future Windward rabbits.

rabbits lounging in the play pen

      Peaches, a pure New Zealand breed doe that we purchased in early May of this year, was bred with Scorpio in late May. During her pregnancy she was constantly hungry and grouchy which we sympathized with when she birthed twelve bunnies, a lot for her first litter. Since doe only have eight or ten nipples (Peaches has ten) we were worried that the two weakest of the litter would not get the amount of milk that they need.

     We discussed the possibility of grafting two into Nina's litter of seven (Nina's babies were only a day younger than Peaches') in order to ensure the health of the entire litter. This would have been done by rubbing a small amount of Vick's Vaporub under the nose of Nina and then transferring two of Peaches' into Nina's nesting box. By the time the Vaporub wears off, the grafted babies smell like the rest of the litter and are less likely to be rejected.

      Unfortunately we waited too long to attempt this, in retrospect it should have been done within the first couple of days. All twelve of the babies died before we could attempt the switch. It looked like Peaches had rejected the whole litter, possibly after one or two had already died.

Paris' babies

Successes in Breeding

      As mentioned before, Paris, a two-year old doe, had a very healthy litter of eight‒two males and six females. She was bred with Orion, who was seven months old at the time. Orion was purchased in April of this year in order to bring new genes and a new breed to Windward. He is a New Zealand/California/Satin cross and has had a great record of producing large, healthy bunnies since he's been at Windward.

      One of the males from this litter was much larger than the others and will most likely be kept for breeding purposes. Sarah, who is well known for her ability to name items and creatures around Windward, was asked to give him a name. She chose the name Biscuit, which is very fitting for the little dough-boy.

      Aside from Paris' offspring we have had several other new litters. Nina gave birth to a litter of seven in June, Roma produced four new bunnies in June, and Virgo produced seven in early July. Orion was the buck that they were all bred with which is quite obvious when observing how large the new babies are.

      I feel honored to have been a part of caring for these rabbits since I've been at Windward. It's amazing that I've seen all of these things take place in the eleven weeks that I've been here. Before coming here I would never have expected to work so closely with these animals, and now that I have I can't imagine not having done so. The rabbits quickly became a large part of my work here and the amount of knowledge I have obtained about them will surely be taken with me into the future.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 70