If I had a dollar for every person who's said they found an abandoned baby rabbit in their yard, I'd be a wealthy man.
It happens every year. People mow the lawn and find a nest of baby rabbits. Kids find them and bring them home, begging mom and dad to let them keep the little fur balls. Your dog lunges at something, you restrain him, and see that his intended victim was a baby rabbit.
People post pictures all over social media showing adorable baby bunnies they "rescued," often with text that reads something like, "I don't know what to do with it. I think the mother abandoned it. Maybe I should try to raise it myself."
As a matter of fact, that last bunny and dog example mentioned above is exactly what happened to me a couple years ago. And yes, I did post pictures of the little cottontail on Facebook (as well as a short video...I am hanging my head in embarrassment right now).
But as much as I wanted to keep the tiny cotton ball--and I really did have a hard time letting it go--I knew it wouldn't be the smart move. Here's my advice for anyone who has thought about "rescuing" and raising a baby cottontail rabbit: don't.
Don't do it. For the sake of the rabbit, just throw that idea in the trash bin straight away. Wild rabbits are very difficult to raise to adulthood. It can also be a bad idea for your own sake. Chances are that your efforts will be for naught and the baby rabbit will die while in your care. That's heartbreaking.
Young wild rabbits are hard to raise and quick to die when removed from their natural environment.
The babies (called kits) expire for any number of reasons. They are extremely sensitive to stress. They often have not built up sufficient reserves of the natural antibodies or necessary intestinal bacteria they get from their mother's milk. As such, they aren't equipped to cope with stressful environmental conditions, and anything outside of their natural outdoor environment is stressful.
Wild animals generally need to grow up in the conditions they were intended to live in as adults. It's rare for a wild animal raised in captivity to survive when released.
The good news is that a great many of the baby rabbits that people find are already big enough to get along without your help.
The picture of the whiskery fellow holding the baby bunny above is me. I'm holding the rabbit kit that my dog lunged at (yes, I saved its life!). A kit that size is probably between two and three weeks old. At that age they are, in fact, able to survive and grow to adulthood all by themselves, barring the usual accidents or dangers that all rabbits face.
Their internal protections and reserves will be stressed and weakened by being in an alien environment (like a shoebox in your house). They will be able to strengthen their immunities and natural defenses on their own in the wild.
There's more good news to reassure you that leaving the bunny outside is usually the best course: Chances are it's not an orphan at all. It's quite rare to find a mother rabbit with her nest of babies during the day.
Mother rabbits typically visit the nest intermittently during the night or in the early morning, and only for a few minutes at a time to quickly nurse the kits. If you don't see a mother rabbit near the nest, don't assume that the kits are abandoned.
When I was a kid we were told that once a human touches a baby animal its mother won't have anything to do with it. The theory was that once handled, the baby has acquired human scent and the mother will automatically abandon it.
That's not necessarily true. It is the sight and physical presence of humans that concerns animals. After all, rabbits, squirrels, deer and other wild animals live in and move through our world constantly. If they're making nests in our yards and stealing from our gardens, it's a good bet that human scent isn't going to scare them from their mothering duties.
So what should you do with that baby rabbit you found or that your children brought home? After explaining to your children that it's probably best for the rabbit to be returned to the wild, you should do just that. Put the kit back where you or they found it, cover it with some grass and walk away.
If you returned the baby to a spot in your yard and you have a dog or cat, keep them away from the area until the rabbits are gone. We leashed our dog and took him to another area of the yard to do his business. It only took a day or two before the little rabbits had moved out.
We saw one of them running along the fence the next day. Remember, at the age most young rabbits are found they are able to get by on their own and have probably already been exploring and checking out the area before you found them.
If the nest has been destroyed by a lawn mower or perhaps by a dog digging it out, you can relocate the rabbit to a field or area with long grass. It should be able to adapt to the new location.
Finally, it's worth bearing in mind that not all rabbits are meant to survive. It is natural and healthy for the rabbit population that a good many kits do not survive. Rabbits also perform their duty as food for other animals. It's a necessary circle of life scenario.
End note: If you do decide to try to raise a found baby rabbit, you should read as much as you can on how to properly care for the kit. There are a great many variables to consider that can determine your success or failure in the project. Temperature, cleanliness, handling, what to feed, what not to feed, when to feed, how much to feed, watering, dealing with illness, when to release, how to release, where to release, and a host of other considerations need to be addressed.
You can find a number of good online wildlife rescue sources that detail how to care for baby rabbits. But remember, attempting to raise a wild rabbit requires a significant commitment.
And don't think you'll be able to make the rabbit a pet. Besides being illegal, it won't work out. If you want a pet rabbit then purchase a domestic rabbit bred to be a pet. You and the rabbit will be happier.
This post was originally published on February 12, 2019.