Hop past bunnies when choosing Easter gifts

Too many adults underestimate needs, hazards of rabbits, chicks

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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WOODLAND -- Fluffy bunny rabbits and chirping chicks are common symbols of Easter.

But when it comes to giving them as gifts, better stick to marshmallow Peeps and chocolate bunnies.

Animal advocates and health officials warn against putting live bunnies and chicks in Easter baskets. Chicks, as cute as they are, may carry salmonella and those soft bunnies come with a lot of responsibility.

Theresa Brennan and her husband, Frank Hoetker, have rescued abandoned and abused rabbits for the last 10 years. Year after year, they see the number of abandoned bunnies jump in the months following Easter.

Parents think rabbits would make good pets for kids, but don’t realize the level of care and attention they require, Brennan said.

“They’re not made to be out in a wire hutch in a backyard away from social activity,” she said.

Brennan and Hoetker have eight rabbits of their own and are currently fostering six more bunnies for the nonprofit Rabbit Advocates in Portland. All of the animals have indoor pens with blankets, litter boxes, hay, food, water and cardboard houses. The bunnies get plenty of outdoor play time in a fenced quarter-acre of the couple’s Woodland property.

The rabbits are also spayed or neutered to prevent unexpected litters. All bunnies adopted through Rabbit Advocates, http://www.adoptarabbit.org, are spayed or neutered as well, Brennan said.

Two of the couple’s bunnies, Charlie and Abby, roam the home just like cats would and coexist with a 70-pound Labrador. They lie together under the kitchen table and hop through the house looking for spots to snack on their fresh kale. They sit on laps, and Abby even gives her human friends kisses.

Brennan rescued her first rabbit 10 years ago when she and Hoetker were living in central California. Brennan was parking her car near a running trail when a big sport utility vehicle sped out of the parking lot. Brennan found a white domestic rabbit sitting in its parking spot.

From then on, Brennan and Hoetker took in abandoned and mistreated bunnies they found, were surrendered at shelters or captured by animal control. Rabbits are the third most surrendered animals, behind cats and dogs, Brennan said. This fact is especially evident in the 30 to 90 days after Easter, she said.

Birds carry salmonella

When it comes to chicks and ducklings, Clark County Health Officer Alan Melnick advises against giving the live birds to little ones.

“The bottom line is chicks and ducklings don’t make great Easter gifts,” Melnick said.

The young birds are more likely to carry the salmonella bacteria. When they’re given to kids as Easter gifts, parents are exposing their children to potential illness, he said.

Children younger than 5 are at increased risk because their immune systems are still developing. Young kids also have a tendency to hug and kiss the little birds, making salmonella transmission possible, Melnick said. Illness can also be spread by not washing hands after touching the birds or coming into contact with chick or duckling feces, he said.

Salmonella can cause diarrhea, fever, stomach pain, nausea and vomiting. Symptoms can last for several days. In some cases, salmonella can becomes invasive and lead to infections of the bloodstream and other serious illnesses, Melnick said.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” Melnick said, “but their holiday will be ruined if their little child becomes sick with salmonella.”

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.