A New Beginning for Retired Laboratory Rabbits

Healthy laboratory animals who are no longer needed in research deserve the chance to be rehomed. The practice of rehoming retired laboratory animals is more common with dogs, but other species are also deserving of this opportunity. A few months ago, 10 female New Zealand white rabbits were granted a new beginning thanks to a collaboration between an animal rescue organization and the research institution where they had been living for approximately three years. 

The Small Animal Rescue Society of British Columbia—a volunteer-run organization specializing in the rescue and rehoming of small animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, and hedgehogs—offered them a new home at its private shelter. Prior to the rabbits’ release from the laboratory, veterinarians and staff at the originating research institution offered to spay and vaccinate the animals, which would have cost the rescue organization more than $3,000. The research institution also shared the animals’ full medical records with the Small Animal Rescue Society.

The 10 rabbits, who had been living in pairs or trios at the research institution, now all live together in a pen measuring 10 feet by 8 feet. As anyone experienced with rabbits will know, unfamiliar rabbits must be carefully introduced to each other to avoid aggression. Taking newly acquainted rabbits for a car ride together is a proven method of bonding them, so the rescue organization took advantage of this method during the drive between the research institution and the rabbits’ new home: Although individual carriers were brought for each rabbit (just in case), the animals were placed in the van together so they could huddle and seek comfort from each other during the ride (see photo bottom left). 

Upon their arrival at the shelter, the rabbits’ pen was outfitted with an abundance of hiding boxes to ensure that each animal had her own space to retreat to. The rabbits were getting along well, so after a few hours, many of the boxes were removed to further encourage them to interact as a group. Lisa Hutcheon, co-founder and executive director of the Small Animal Rescue Society, said that the rabbits have been getting on well from the beginning. She noted that former laboratory pen mates tended to rest with each other at first, but that now the whole group mingles together. Only one former pair—who were friendly in the laboratory—now actively avoid each other; perhaps with more friends to choose from, they realized they were not so fond of each other after all! With 15 years’ experience running the rescue and shelter, Hutcheon has found that it is much easier to bond larger groups of rabbits (10+ individuals) compared to pairs or trios. 

Hutcheon describes this group of girls as “busy, busy, busy.” Compared to other domestic rabbits residing at the shelter—most of whom were found abandoned or surrendered by caretakers no longer willing or able to keep them—these former laboratory animals are unusually curious and active. They love to chew on any objects placed inside their pen, especially their cardboard hiding boxes, which need to be replaced every three days. These youthful rabbits are always on the move, nudging noses, hopping around, and showing interest in everything that happens at the shelter.

Hutcheon was surprised at how quickly the rabbits settled into their new life. Within one week, they had fully adapted to their new routine; for example, just like the other rabbits residing at the shelter, they circle in excited anticipation of the daily delivery of fresh vegetables and dried cranberry treats. 

Despite the rabbits’ relatively recent arrival, shelter volunteers can already recognize individuals by their unique personalities. One doe has a habit of grooming her companions around the eyes, and another, nicknamed Big Mamma due to her size, can always be seen sitting on top of a box. One rabbit always pokes her nose through the pen gate to socialize with the neighboring bunnies, while another is incredibly curious about people. 

Before taking in these rabbits, Hutcheon was unsure how well they would adjust; she was open to the possibility that they would need to continue to live together at the shelter with other rabbits who may not do well in a private home. However, these girls have surpassed all expectations: They are friendly, outgoing, and will do well with a human family of their own. The rabbits will be up for adoption once the staff get to know each rabbit properly and can be certain of the type of home best suited to each one—for example, whether they will do well with another type of animal or young children in the home. What is certain, however, is that they will capture the heart of any person fortunate enough to take them in. 

For tips on bonding groups of rabbits, Hutcheon encourages readers to contact the Small Animal Rescue Society of British Columbia at smallanimalrescue@gmail.com. Donations to support the care of these rabbits are also welcome. 

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