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What about a rabbit in your garden?

Domestic rabbits make cuddly garden pets--and there's a bonus

PERHAPS IT'S A BEATRIX Potter revival, or maybe another grass roots back-to-the-earth movement, this time focusing on hare husbandry. Whatever the impetus, a growing number of Westerners are keeping a rabbit or two in their gardens.

Stan Andreasen, of Seattle, explains his affection for his long-eared garden pet this way: "I love everything about a domesticated rabbit in my garden. The hutch is garden art, Nibbles is a happy resident--sort of the spiritual keeper of the garden--and he's a loving, cuddly little manure factory."

If you'd like a domestic bunny in your garden, you'll find rabbits for sale in pet shops and through rabbit breeders. The selection is wide--from the diminutive Netherland dwarf to the floppy-eared, lovable lops to the Flemish giant, which can reach 25 pounds.

MAKING A HOME FOR A PET RABBIT

The simple shed-roofed hutch illustrated on page 76 is a good basic design. Modify it to suit the location, the number of rabbits you wish to house, and the amount of space you want to give your rabbit (also consider how much out-of-cage exercise it will get). Most pet rabbit owners agree the very minimum is 1 square foot of floor space per pound of body weight. Err on the side of generosity. A 10-pound rabbit needs a hutch that measures about 3 by 4 feet and is at least 14 inches tall.

A shed roof with overhanging eaves handles rain and shades the hutch, which should be enclosed on the better part of three sides to block the wind. Since rabbits gnaw on wood, use untreated 2-by-4s to frame the interior housing area; sheath the housing with 1-by-6s or with plywood.

For the floor and open areas, use 1/2-inch hardware cloth (normally available in 3-foot widths). The idea is to use cloth big enough to let droppings fall through but small enough that the rabbit's feet won't slip through. One area of the floor should be solid so the bunny can sit and stretch out in comfort. A pair of 1-by-6s across the floor (covering the depth of the cage at one end) works well.

Build the hutch to stand 3 feet aboveground (with legs made of pressure-treated 4-by-4s). This allows air circulation under the cage and room for droppings to fall well away from the pet. At this height, dogs are more likely to ignore the rabbit, and you'll find it easy to see your pet, feed and water it, and clean the cage.

Build in a door that allows you to lean completely into the cage to reach the far corners, and affix a strong, animal-proof latch.

Inside the hutch, place a wooden hiding box: a box 12 inches wide and high by 18 inches deep is a good size for most rabbits. It should be solid on all sides except for a foot-square opening at one end for the rabbit to get in and out of. Straw, hay, or excelsior pushed loosely into the box provides insulation and softens hard surfaces.

BUNNY FOOD

The staple of any pet rabbit's diet is the commercial food (usually called rabbit pellets) available at feed stores. Rabbits tend to get obese, especially in captivity, so don't overfeed.

Add to the basic diet a daily treat an apple or a carrot. You may want to get a mineral lick (also available at feed stores).

A constant supply of clean, fresh water is essential. Plastic bottles with feeding tubes that hang on the side of the cage are one good answer. Unbreakable dishes filled with water also work. Be vigilant; water evaporates quickly, and it could be fatal to deprive the animal of water.

THE DIVIDED FROM YOUR INVESTMENT IN FOOD

In addition to being cuddly, docile pets, rabbits are prodigious fertilizer producers. Two rabbits will build up a hefty pile--ample to give a thorough November manuring over planting beds and vegetable plot on a standard 60- by 120-foot city lot. The gentle manure breaks down during winter while plants are dormant; seasonal rains soak the nutrients into the ground. For plants, it's like downing a protein drink. You can broadcast 8 to 10 pounds of rabbit droppings per 100 square feet in late fall. Sandy soils will benefit most from the larger amount; for a finer-textured soil, use the smaller amount.

Gardeners often add the droppings to their compost piles. You may want to put a shovelful or two in a 15-gallon plastic bucket, fill it with water, let it stand for a week until it becomes the color of strong tea, then irrigate plants with the elixir.

Of course, you should prevent children from handling rabbit droppings or playing in fertilized beds.

PROBLEM RABBITS AND RABBIT PROBLEMS

Loose hare. To let your pet out for a regular romp, you need an enclosed space. A fence must go to the ground, and, even then, a rabbit can dig underneath and hop away. Watch your rabbit's habits. If it keeps returning to the same corner, check for signs of digging (though it may just be returning to a comfortable siesta spot). Don't let a rabbit loose where you've used slug bait or weed killers.

Gnawing problems. Rabbits nibble. They love to munch lawn. For most gardeners, that's no problem. Sweeps of ground cover, shrubs, and mature perennials are less attractive to rabbits. If they do nibble, it usually isn't enough to damage the plants.

But newly set out or emerging plants (annuals, perennials, and vegetable seedlings) are prime targets. As one rabbit owner sums up, "Vegetable seedlings and rabbits are an incompatible combination."

To protect seedlings, keep your rabbit in an enclosed pen, put protective fences around areas you want the rabbit to stay out of, or fashion a portable playpen of sorts from 1-by-1 garden stakes and a roll of chicken wire.

Heat and cold. Heat stroke is one of the primary rabbit killers. Rabbits can't stand direct sunlight in their cages. Be certain your rabbit has constant access to shade. Bunnies are happiest in 55|degrees~ to 65|degrees~ temperatures. (At 85|degrees~ they head underground in nature rabbits are not good pets for hot climates.) In hot weather, they must be in a shady place, preferably cool and breezy.

One California rabbit owner wraps a frozen plastic water bottle in a towel and places it in her rabbit's cage in hot weather to cool her pet. Another drapes wet towels over the cage.

Rabbits do well in most cold weather if they have a hiding box to snuggle up in. If you live in a normally mild-winter climate and the temperature suddenly plunges well below freezing, bring the rabbit indoors, or into a garage at least.

Myxomatosis. Well-kept rabbits are relatively disease-free, but in California (especially around coastal hills and Sierra foothills) and in coastal Oregon, domesticated rabbits can contract myxomatosis, which is nearly always fatal. The virus that causes the disease is carried by native pygmy cottontail rabbits and can be transmitted by mosquito. Philip Tillman, campus veterinarian for UC Davis, advises anyone living within 3 miles of a semiwild area with a population of native pygmy cotton-tails to forgo keeping a rabbit as an outdoor pet.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Lorton, Steven R.
Publication:Sunset
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:1203
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