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04-19-03: 'Hare today ... but what about tomorrow?
The Daily Standard
    They're cute, cuddly and the thought of your son or daughter snuggling up with a pink-eyed bunny warms your heart. But before you take the plunge, you better do your homework.
    "Some people say they'd just like to see one hopping around their yard. That's not a good reason to get a rabbit," said Kim Robbins of rural Celina, whose family has raised rabbits for about six years. "They do grow up you know, and after Easter's over you have a bunny who needs daily care."
    Robbins' daughter, Elizabeth, 15, talked her parents into adding a mini-lop rabbit to the family for a 4-H project a few years ago. Mini-lops are typically smaller rabbits whose ears eventually flop downward as they age.
    "The best thing about raising rabbits is working with them all year long then standing in front of people at the fair to show them off," Elizabeth said.
    The worst thing? She and her brother, Craig, both agree on that one. Cleaning the cages and the barn where they currently house 11 rabbits and six baby bunnies.
    "It really stinks sometimes," said 12-year-old Craig.
    Rabbits require daily feedings and frequent grooming like clipping their nails.
    "They're vulnerable to colds, diarrhea and ear problems. Their top teeth sometimes don't grow over their bottom ones like they should. You have to watch for that," Kim Robbins warned.
    The interior walls of the Robbins' small barn are lined with metal cages made by Kim Robbins' husband, Dave. The cages hang at eye level so "droppings" can fall to the straw on the ground for easier cleaning.
    "Cleaning out the barn and washing down the cages is an all-day job," Kim Robbins explained. "And it's got to be done regularly or the rabbits can get sick."
    The rabbits can't stand drafts or high temperatures so the climate in the  barn is monitored by the family.
    Bucks make better pets than does, who get irritable and tend to scratch their handlers when they reach breeding age, Kim Robbins said. Most domesticated rabbits have a lifespan of 10 years.
    The family does sell their rabbits periodically and that's been hard on the kids, especially Elizabeth.
    "It's hard for me to part with them," Elizabeth said with a sigh, as she eyed the rabbits in all sizes and colors.
    "That's why we still have 'Nike' and 'George,' " her mother said with a laugh as the children pointed to the oldest rabbits in the barn.
    The Robbins and other area families turn to Treva Muhlenkamp, affectionately known as The Rabbit Lady, when they have hare raising questions. Muhlenkamp has been the adult superintendent of the 4-H rabbit barn for about 15 years.
    "I got involved with rabbits when my own daughter got one for a 4-H project 15 years ago," Muhlenkamp said. "I thought it would be an easy project."
    Together, she and her daughter learned the ins and outs of raising hares. At one time the family had 60 or 70 of them, she said.
    Muhlenkamp said she read countless books on the subject and, just like the Robbins family, took advice from the American Rabbit Breeders Association.
    Rabbits can be kept in the house and some owners even housebreak their animals just like cats, Muhlenkamp added.
    "I know people that say rabbits are easier to housebreak than dogs and cats. They'll always go in the same spot," she said.
    The Robbins have had few problems with their rabbits, except for the mysterious bunny escapade.
    "Elizabeth would come flying in the house with a puzzled look on her face and say, 'Mom, they got out again,' " Kim Robbins said with a grin. "We'd go out in the barn and find the little bunnies huddled together in a corner on the floor."
    The family couldn't figure out how the bunnies escaped until one day they realized the metal feeders weren't tight against the cage. The little "Houdini" bunnies were mischievously pushing the feeder aside and dropping to the floor, miraculously without injury.
    "Then we got smart and wired the feeders to the cage," Elizabeth said smiling.
    The Robbins love their soft, furry friends but realize not everybody is cut out to be rabbit owners.
    "Consider why you want one and make sure you can devote the time, space and money to keep them," said Kim Robbins. "Like the Rabbit Breeders Association says, they're a real, live, 10-year commitment."


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